opinion

Requiem for a Dream Tour

Rabbit Bartholomew on the parallels between the Tour's past and present

| posted on October 20, 2011

The former World Champion sees some similarities between the the Tour now and when he was at the helm. Photo: Joli

Rabbit Bartholomew is the only man I’ve ever seen cry while describing a wave he’d once surfed. Fair to say surfing means a bit to him. So when the former World Champion took the reins of the ASP in 1998 and found it moribund, and a poor reflection of what surfing was all about, he set about transforming it into what would become known as “The Dream Tour.” Espousing the mantra of “best surfers, best waves” and with a trademark slick of the hair and a thump of the chest, he became a talisman for a golden age of pro surfing. Since leaving the ASP in 2009, he’s watched from the sidelines with interest as the Tour has both evolved, devolved, and faced a fresh set of challenges, many of them with strong parallels to those Bugs faced a decade ago. There is no one better placed to provide historical context to the current predicament the pro tour finds itself in.

DREAMLESS

“It was a revolving door at the ASP in 1998, because as I walked in Kelly Slater was walking out in disgust. There was a lot of unrest and here was the six-time World Champion and the most decorated surfer ever, saying, ‘I’m over it.’ There was a lot of unrest amongst surfers because the thinking of the Tour at the time was still very much ‘the endless summer,’ bums on bleachers, and surf quality was not an issue. And at the time there was all this other really exciting stuff happening in surfing: tow surfing was taking off, Laird was surfing Teahupoo, and here was the World Tour just scrambling along. It was stale, it was hit and miss, there’d been no prize money increase in eight years, and the judging criteria was archaic. In that respect, what was going on in contemporary surfing wasn’t being recognized. When I came in it was like a hospital pass; the ASP was a dirty word. The other thing was that I stepped into the very real threat of a rebel tour led by Derek Hynd. I thought it was a fantasy, but Derek was over in Scotland and he’d drummed up money to make it happen. But there was such negativity toward the ASP World Tour at that stage that Andy Irons, a young up-and-coming guy just breaking in and already touted as a future world champion, had already signed with Derek’s tour. Kelly Slater had left the building and Andy Irons had abandoned ship as well. The guys were seeing the grass greener on the other side and going, “Get us out of this hell hole!”

BLOODBATH

“The thing had to be turned on its ear, and every inch of the way it was like pulling teeth. They were hard yards, and you’re making political enemies every step of the way with the brands, starting in the first board meeting using my casting vote to double the prize money. That was not a popular thing. You know that while 50 percent of the board supports you, the other 50 percent of the board wants you sacked. But to go from 125 grand to 250 grand at the stroke of a pen was a show of faith that I believed the surfers deserved, and that was required. I do remember having to go into the plumbing of the ASP, undoing everything and starting from scratch, starting with the rulebook that was completely obsolete. Drafting event licenses and getting the brands to sign them were next, and it was really, really difficult. We laid down the law that this was about to happen and we heard they’d formed a hui and they were calling for our heads. We made a deadline of 5 p.m., Queensland time, on September 17 for the event licenses to be signed and on my desk or we’re going to give your events away to a vast array of sponsors we had waiting to take them. We had none of course; it was a massive bluff. I remember that afternoon at 4 p.m. I’m sitting there thinking this is so gnarly because we didn’t have one single event license in. Well, I’ll never forget the sound of the fax machine whirring that afternoon. It was like music and it was the moment the sport changed.

So we had this security and this huge go forward, but you still had this one element to deal with, and that was that the industry were still control freaks. That was the battle and the battle was in the boardroom. We used to have bloodbaths. You have to keep a distinction between the sport and the industry. They don’t have the same objectives, and it continues to this day and the line gets blurred from time to time. The ASP World Tour cannot be the marketing wing of the industry. The sport has different objectives, and while the industry has a genuine interest in the development of the sport, it also has the objective of selling boardshorts. But there are times when there must be clear distinction between the two, and I always felt those lines kept getting blurred and the ASP got less and less leverage, as did the surfers. But I knew that people were watching and taking note of the fact that we were retooling the whole thing. We were sanding it down, we were fixing the dings, we were actually taking the whole thing down into a new Bugs model ready to surf again.”

Current World No. 6 Jordy Smith was in the runnning for his first World Title until a rib injury pulled him out of contention. Photo: Ellis

PENDULUM

“All those things came into place and Kelly came out and said, ‘I really like what’s happening. I want back in.’ I said, ‘Whoa, call a press conference immediately down at Haleiwa!’ It was December 2001, half the Tour had been cancelled and it was a very hard year that we barely survived. And that announcement of Kelly coming back was massive, coinciding with Andy coming into his own. The Dream Tour was set, ready to go. And then came along that beautiful Kelly and Andy rivalry. I truly believe that when surfers come into their own they create their own gravitational pull. How many times have you been at events when Kelly has needed a wave and a wave comes? It’s just magic, and that’s what I believe happened with the Dream Tour. We’d wanted this new tour to happen so badly that the planets had aligned and the universe smiled upon us. Collectively we’d willed it into existence so much it couldn’t fail. It was on a bigger scale, but it was exactly what had happened in those early years in the ’70s with Mark Richards, PT, Shaun Thomson, myself, and others. We’d willed the Tour into existence the first time around, and I believe the Dream Tour—with a bit of wisdom and a bit of luck— couldn’t fail. And it didn’t. We had five years of jackpots. Five years of incredible surf.

But it’s a swinging pendulum, and I can totally see that under my administration maybe I swung that pendulum too far out [from the Tour’s commercial backers]. Perhaps in recent years the pendulum has swung too far back the other way. But I just felt at the time we needed to build this Dream Tour. And after seeing how fragile the whole thing was and how ASP bashing had become a sport in America, after two years, SURFER Magazine was suddenly a fan. SIMA was a fan. They were my barometers. Everything had turned around.”

WWW

“One of our big challenges with the Dream Tour was the brands asking, ‘Why would you move from Huntington Beach to Cloudbreak?’ I remember having this conversation in front of the board at SIMA and them saying, ‘Well, we had 100,000 people on the beach at Huntington and you’ve got a handful of Fijian crew in boats.’ I was like, ‘But you can watch it on your computer and in your loungeroom! We go to the best waves with the best surfers and we webcast worldwide.’ Surfing was one of the first sports to embrace it, and pro surfing positioned itself well with the World Wide Web. That was a big part of the vision…and the vision would have failed without it. We took something that looked really primitive to SIMA and it totally sparkled and won them over. Kelly Slater’s gripe with me was that Tony Hawk was a household name, so why aren’t surfers? And I was like, ‘Kelly, the web will give you your global audience. That’s where you’ll get it.’ I measured our success a few years later when Bruce Raymond told me the Quiksilver Pro on the Gold Coast was now a $2.5 million webcast. There you go. Their whole contest budget was now being justified by a webcast, but to keep all that happening you have to keep delivering the magic. The thing is, when you have guys out there in shitty, sideshore two-foot surf the webcast just doesn’t sparkle, and that’s what the Tour has suffered from over the past couple of years. There’s been some sort of bad feng shui and the Tour has just missed waves, just missed Teahupoo, just missed J-Bay. And it only takes two or three back-to-back ordinary events and you’ve got the tide of public opinion turning on you and they’re banging on the door going, ‘This is bullshit!’”

HUNTINGTON

“The surfers used to despise Huntington Beach. Even though it was the king of the beachbreaks, it was still a beachbreak. I always thought it should be a major six-star event, and because of its importance and its energy, the Top 10 would all go anyway. And there you go. You’ve got your grandstand event. But how’s the evolution of Huntington? The surfing at Huntington 10 or 15 years ago did look pretty terrible—the one backhand whack. It really was a one-maneuver wonder. But look at it now, to the guys today; it’s just this ramp. It’s this ramp and it allows the best surfing in the world to happen, surfing of the kind you can’t see at Teahupoo, so it has its place.

But I think the success of the US Open in recent years has had an influence. The big guys have come in with a $6 million budget and done it properly and it’s worked. This year, on the Saturday, I saw 175,000 people there, and 150,000 of them were 15-year-old girls and boys. Seriously. So if you were aiming at that demographic you’d have to say, ‘Well, that was a good commercial move to have those accessible grandstand events and actually sell stuff instead of spending.’ For one, you justify the expense, and two, you have that demographic immediately within reach without relying on the media to do it. You don’t have to roll the dice on the webcast, that in the last four years has delivered more failures than successes. And post-GFC things are still super tight. The surf industry was hit hard. Layers and layers of staff had to be shed, and people were losing their jobs to keep all these contests running. But the big cry now is that the pendulum has swung too far back the other way.

The signing up of Fiji again was very timely. If Brodie Carr ever needed a boost, that was it, and the timing of it was nice. You’ve got to remember, the San Francisco event is a one-off, and it just happens to be at a time when you have these other beachbreak events on the schedule. The thing is, people have already judged them, and it’s prejudged on the fact that we’ve had a few dud years on Tour and they’re saying it’s being compounded now by going to dud locations. It’s just that perception, and it could all turn around with a couple of great events. Everyone wants to see waves at Teahupoo. It’d be a nice circuit breaker. It’d be unreal, and all would be forgiven.”

With new faces on Tour like John Florence, spectators will be enthralled by the fresh talent regardless of ASP politics. Photo: Childs

OPTIMISM

“I’m optimistic for a few reasons. The Tour has been on Kelly watch for so long, and everyone is speculating, ‘Will he go again? And if he doesn’t, will the whole Tour just collapse?’ But Dane and Jordy have moved in and taken a little while to get going, but Jordy is challenging for a world title and Dane is the best surfer in the world to never win events, and then you go to Huntington and you see Julian and John John and Kolohe. Great surfers make the future of the Tour, and in that respect I have great faith in it and the destiny of it. I know ASP are trying hard I’m always going to support the ASP and I’m not going to throw stones because I know how hard it is. I know what a difficult environment it is. It’s by design in many ways that the ASP just balances the books every year and there is nothing ever left over for a rainy day or a fighting fund to grow the sport, and that being the case, they always have to go back to the industry to bail them out or support them through a rough time. And to me, what that does it that your leverage just evaporates. You never, never have any leverage, and in that respect it filters down to the surfers as well. When the surfers actually voted to hand back the media rights to the events I felt the surfers would never win another argument because they had no more leverage. The only other leverage they had was themselves and we’ve seen that used a couple of times. The surfers should be—and are—aligned more with the ASP, whereas the industry has its own agenda. But what’s happened is that they’ll [the industry] never give them [the media rights] back now because they’ve got them and they’re control freaks. I’ve always said the webcast rights should sit with the licensees—the competition between them will get the best out of them—but the central body is the best place for the wider media rights to sit, allowing them the best chance of landing the big whale, the big global television deal.

And this is what I say to the surfers: Look at your strengths. You’ve got this one undisputed World Champion and you’ve got this ranking system. A rebel tour would be like dropping a chandelier from the 10th floor; you will never put it back together again. If you want the mish mash alphabet soup of boxing, then drop the chandelier. Because I tell you what, when I was a kid it was the WBC heavyweight champion, but you tell me now who that is? All the major brands could have their own world champion and vertical operators coming in saying we’ve got one too. You could never put it back together again. And these kids want to be World Champion and they know that as a measuring stick, being undisputed world number one is very powerful and very real.

I see Brodie Carr in a very difficult situation. He’s being judged, but they haven’t thrown the keys to the car on the table and said, ‘Drive this Ferrari.’ It’s just how it is now and it’s just so over-scrutinized. You can see where that unrest is fomenting. In a way I’d like to see him being told, ‘Go and get that big whale, the $50 million sponsor,’ and really be given the tools to get it. And I’d like to see that line of delineation between the brands and the ASP made clearer. There are the obvious overlaps but they are two very different beasts. The Tour has been through points like this before, and the whole thing is recognizing this and not repeating the same mistakes. But you know what? I’m not a doom and gloom prophet at all. Sometimes I might be guilty of having the rose-colored monocle in, but the other eye sees pretty clearly.”

Check out what your favorite surfers have to say about the Tour in our latest issue, on newsstands now.

  • Jed

    Nice perspective, but when was this written? Teahupoo WAS great this year, as were NY and Portugal (and even France at moments), yet people still hate more vehemently than ever on the ASP. Beyond the beach break events it’s the mid-year cut (which traded CJ & Melling for Medina, JJ & Pupo) and the One World ranking system that people (Bobby, JOB, etc.) bitch about. They say things like ‘Sunny should be on tour over THAT guy’ but how do they propose that should possibly be justified? Some Hawaiian-calibrated shredometer? The ASP can’t control the weather and there will always be someone who disagrees with the judging (though in general it’s improving). Otherwise though doesn’t the tour seem better than ever in terms of talent, wave quality and audience access? As Rabbit makes clear, the real question is: When will we see the Red Bull Pro on ESPN or NBC?

  • Steve

    Yeah great article from a genuine authority on surfing. From a punters perspective I have to agree with Jed. The tour this year has been off-the-hook firstly, and probably luckily, because obviously the waves have been awesome pretty much everywhere. Credit where its due though, it feels like the ASP machine has been organised to be ready for these good waves. Great looking events in terms of crowds and the surfers area’s, quality tv and webcasts (the qs france pro web view thingy was so easy and good to use), surfer interviews and of course the judging criteria that is ushering in this new talent that is super exciting to watch. Thankfully Kelly, Travis and Bede have kept these rookies almost in-check in the last few events. There is such a diversity out there at the moment and as a viewer/surfer I am loving it!

  • http://www.magicandvoodoo.com Andrew

    Great article. Personally, I’m loving the tour and thankfully the events being covered by webcasts allows people like myself who would never be able to go to an event the opurtunity to be involved. keep it going….

  • Bushy

    Loving the tour again is the new black!
    By the way, are there any stats on how many people watch the events online?

  • ace

    The lineups are to crowded already. Its only going to get worse. Surfing is not like tennis or football or skateboarding where it doesnt matter if your local spot has people waiting, you just wait and you will get your chance to play.. there are only so many waves at your local break and by promoting surfing to the mainstream and trying to make it mainstream its going to suck for everyone except the fuckers who are making money off of it. Its all fucked up. I enjoy watching the webcasts and seeing the pros rip but the crowds are getting terrible and I live in fucking Oregon. Sorry for the rant

  • http://www.korduroy.tv Cyrus

    Thanks for sharing Rabbit. We surfers are lucky to have you.

  • Carlos Costa

    I think ASP is going a great job, they are working to clean and make surfing more challenging as the older folks have to bring it on to continue. Humans are hard to adapt to changes so there are a lot of complains. I believe ASP has to sharp the judges as we see many polemic scores and if they want to pleasure people they have to clean as much as they can polemics for a subjective sport. Kelly has to retire as ASP acts as they own him for bringing back. ASP grew wings and has to fly without him… Kelly felt a line to continue and ASP has the tools to draw it.

    Webcast is great… nothing to say, ASP innovated and probably the biggest sport being broadcast via web proportionally.

    Surf is in its epic moments, you can hear people talking on offices halls about events… This is priceless…

  • http://prayforworldpeaceandstoppingthemaddness tomahawk waveshredder

    yeah, i grew up idolizing the likes of gerry lopez@pipe, MR, shaun tomson, PT and Rabbit was always my favorite, because of his attitude and look, cool. yeah, jed your right about da cut-off@mid-season, but the young guns that replaced, maybe alittle letting up in competiveness, cj, melling, etc. these brahs are blowin up and are da ones dat are going to take the tour to da next level. i’m not big on da brazialians-spell check-kinda got da better than thou tudes, but u got to admit, medina, pupo and jj are surfin their balls off. along with dane, jordy, simpo, wilko and kelly already doing what he’s done, yeah brah, being a florida surfer brah, the tour is headed for network tv. the big airs, flashy wetsuits, awesome surfin and the crowds showing up are what it’s all about. then da sponsors can get their exsposer and sell their stuff at a bigger level, in stores like target, kolhs, etc, not just surf shops. so, keep it going, work da kinks out, screw da bobby”foul mouth”martinez’s and keep hittin those big airs, fins out and da exciting surfing that’s being shown. espn, fuel tv and da likes will take notice, because unfortuneately, it does come down to making money. if they can’t make money, then how can da networks justify putting on surfing. da venues have got to be right, north shore bombs, trestles when it’s firing for big airs, teahupoo blowin spit and asp’s got da sh*t it needs to make it happen. dat’s da down side for surfing, we surfer’s have to depend on mother nature. maybe if it happens, a network will invest in building a artifical reef or wave pool, where there are consisent waves. surfing is a sport and can no longer be considered just for hippies, surf bums, etc. now they train, have trainers, most don’t drink, do drugs, probably more than they can say about da NFL, NBA, major baseball, especially da NBA, smoke a blunt, go to da club, yo-lol-not. go surf, speak up surfers, especially you, kelly slater, you da brah to make this happen. cheers mates, shaka brahs and hang loose, it’s coming to a network near you, hell yeah! peace toma!

  • tomahawk waveshredder

    yeah, howz it, to long of a comment? dat’s one of da problems, no freedom of speech. i’ll make it shorter, jed’s got a point about da half way cut-off. but cj, melling weren’t surfin their best and medina, pupo and jj are blowin up. this is da kinda of surfin networks take notice of. venues and mother nature play a big factor. north shore when it’s bombin, trestles when it’s firin for da big airs and teahupoo when it’s spittin. then maybe a network, fuel tv should step up and invest in a wave pool dat generates a consistent wave, with size, power and tubes. howz dat surfer mag, work for you. go surf, kelly be da spokesbrah and do it. shaka brahs, cheers mates, peace toma!

  • Whamo

    I’m with Cyrus, surfing can thank Rabbit for the maturation of professional surfing from a dream to a reality. Most people would have quit the professional surfing dream after the beat down the Hawaiians gave him. The man has spunk.

  • dgcova

    Is Huntington the king of beachbreaks?????Really?!!!!No way Dude!!!
    Supertubos (it’s means SuperBarrels) is now the king of beachbreaks!!!!!
    After the last event, i cant imagine if there is another better!!!!

  • Neversaidnever

    @Bushy: Average of around 3million viewers per WCT event.

  • indo

    Will there be an ASP Wrold Tour Event in Indonesia in 2012? Let’s hope so – http://balibelly.tv/news/210

  • Dirt

    Does everybody now see how much the ASP cares about money and audience numbers. No wonder Kelly always gets pushed through heats. An undisputed world champ, what a load of crap.

  • Jaze

    What’s the advantage of having a WCT event in say Rio than at Keramas?

    Clearly you don’t have to buy tickets to watch and surely you can’t expect to make a huge gain off t-shirt sales..

    So why would a surf company pick a shorey like wave over a quality barrel and high performance end section?

  • jeffery

    I wish this would have been what it is today back in the beginning around 1968-74 when I surfed with the real stars of surfing at Sebastian Inlet Florida.

  • Riverdog

    It is a very interesting fact that the level of surfing on tour has benifited from the removal of the Perry Hatchet as head judge it is a shame it took so long for this to come around and i bet rabbit kicks himself for not having done this when he was running the gig if he had i think the ASP Tour would be streets ahead of where it is today and half the top 16 for the last 10 years would not have even made it through the WCT , when you have kids doing stuff the pros can only dream off and the judges coring down on the new moves to maintain status quo you really have a sport in termoil , the ASP is a thing off the past set surfing free

  • Riverdog

    Look Rabbit hit it on the head but did nothing about it , the ASP is behind the foam ball due to the previous poor performace of the long term head judge Perry Hatchett , for this the blame can only be placed at the feet of the people involved the ASP and the surfers themselves.

    What relevance is pro surfing when kids are doing moves the pros could only dream off and half pull off every 1 in 10 attempts and the head judge is forcing the scoring down so as to keep the established old school surfers [ heavily sponserd] in the events and keep the hot rats on the beaches ..

    Really the pro tour is only the” new black ” for the longer term fashion victims
    I am sure bugs big regret is he did not have the forethought to bring Kanga in to bang a few heads and kick out the head judge way back in 98

    PS but then again neither would most likely have been welcomed back to Hawaii again which was never a problem for the good old head judge ?

  • Jeremy Boe

    There is no spokesman with the credibility like Rabbit (how many can speak as surfer, businessman and CEO?) but don’t let the polish of the speaker detract from the validity of the message. The Tour today has more followers- on the web, at the events, buying softtops, whatever- than it has ever had before. Bobby objects to the tennis-like destinations? I loved seeing the NY event in person, and won’t miss him.. Can’t remember the last time he was either competitive in heats (not that he seems to care) or compelling to watch from a freesurf perspective. As to the mid-season cut, Bobby seems to object to competition itself: not a principle most sponsors, spectators, or competitors would endorse.

    I can’t help but think that Brodie Carr is the victim of a confluence of bad arguments. On the miscalculation issue: How many other responsible executives turned in their wings over missteps conducted under their watch? I seem to recall a hanging chads episode in a higher-stakes context and hey, at least Brodie Carr finally named the right contestant the winner.

  • http://Www.marketerscv.com/contacto/ Heidi

    At this time I am going away to do my breakfast, later than having my breakfast coming over again to read
    further news.

  • http://webmarketinggoogle.com/ Google

    Inspiring story there. What occurred after? Thanks!