Requiem for a Dream Tour
Rabbit Bartholomew on the parallels between the Tour's past and present
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.
“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!”
“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.”
“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.”
“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!’”
“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.”
“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.”