The times they are a-changing. Usually on the eve of the Quiksilver Pro at Snapper Rocks, Australia, the traditional first event of the ASP World Tour season, the surf media chatter is filled with surf-centric concerns like the state of the Superbank, the swell forecast, which rookies are likely to come out of the gates firing and whether this will be Kelly Slater's final year on tour. This year the talk is over business topics like tour naming rights, events happening with or without title sponsorships, content ownership and distribution.
The sea change, so to speak, is due to the ownership of the ASP Tour being transferred to a group called ZoSea. ZoSea is headed by Paul Speaker, a former executive at Time Warner, the NFL and a Quiksilver board member, along with Terry Hardy, who is the manager of Slater and John John Florence. Dirk Ziff, the son of a publishing magnate, backs ZoSea financially but hasn't had a public role in the development of the new organization. ZoSea moved the ASP offices from Coolangatta, Australia, to Santa Monica, Calif., and has signed content deals with ESPN, Facebook and YouTube. It also recently announced that Samsung Galaxy came aboard as the tour's first umbrella sponsor since Foster's beer in the mid-2000s. GoPro is also in on the action. No financial terms from any of these deals have been made available.
What this means for both the athletes and fans of professional surfing remains to be seen. The Drug Aware Pro in Margaret River, Australia, is an addition to the men's tour, while the Oakley Pro Bali has dropped off in exchange for Jeffreys Bay reappearing on the schedule (much to the delight of nearly every regular-footer on tour). Both J-Bay and the Fiji Pro are without title sponsors. Whether the ASP will have to go out of pocket to stage them is unclear.
The women's circuit, which for the past few years has struggled to put together enough events for a complete season, has undergone a bigger transformation. Events are being added at Margaret River, Fiji, Trestles and Maui. Only three of the women's events have title sponsors (the Roxy Pro Gold Coast, Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, and the Vans US Open of surfing), which again puts the financial situation of the women's tour into question. In the past, events that lacked sponsorship were canceled (some mid-season, and some in the off-season), but that does not appear to be the case this year.
In the former ASP, the major surf brands that hosted the contests owned the event's media rights as they exercised near full control of pro surfing. ZoSea is looking to change that. Speaker said on a conference call with ESPN and other media outlets that the new ASP is "Finding a way that they [the surf brands] can take a position more as sponsors than as event owners."
Translated, this means surf brands will pay less money this year to stage their title-sponsored events. But with that, they reportedly will no longer have full rights to the content generated from them. The ASP will own it. Quiksilver CEO Andy Mooney took issue with the new approach in a discussion with reporter Tiffany Montgomery of Shop-Eat-Surf.com. Mooney said, "If you are going to contribute to the ASP, you have to figure out what you are getting for it. ... If you are not getting access to the content, not getting exposure for your brand and athletes, it's not clear to me why we should be involved."
Speaker hopes make the ASP a mainstream-friendly group. In the conversation with ESPN, he talked about ushering in a "true fan-centric philosophy" and finding ways to bring new fans and brands to the sport. For example, singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett now sits on the ASP board of directors, which is quite a change from a group that in the past was mostly composed of representatives from Quiksilver, Billabong, Rip Curl and Hurley.
The ASP's new website puts a brighter spotlight on storytelling, and the new recently announced global commentary team, which includes former world champion Martin Potter, big-wave hero Peter Mel and former Fuel TV host Pat Parnell, likely will take a more cohesive, professional approach than has been seen in the past. And thanks to ASP's agreement with GoPro, look for the action in the water at places like Fiji, Tahiti and Pipeline to be even more riveting. There's nothing like a heavy wipeout to get the casual surf fan excited.
Modern surfing contests have always been a tough sell. Waiting periods, all-day events, long lulls in the action, subjective judging and arcane rules generally make for an activity that is a lot more fun to do than it is to watch. But if card games or undiscovered singing talents can generate an audience of millions watching on prime time television, something like Mick Fanning and Kelly Slater battling for a world title in epic waves at Pipeline is certainly worthy of attracting new eyeballs. Or at least that's the line of thinking. One way or another, swell is on its way to the Gold Coast as we speak, and the new tour likely will be right where the old one left off -- in great waves.