The day after Kelly won his ninth world title I picked up my Saturday morning Los Angeles Times—a paper that might be considered a barometer of how the media in the most populous surf city in the world views surfing—and there in the sports section, buried on Page D6 was a quarter-page story by Pete Thomas with a small picture. “Kelly Slater Wins Ninth Surfing Championship.” The Times devotes as much space to a bass fisherman winning a local angling event.
Why this abject lack of interest from the media for the best athlete of our time? Kelly Slater has transcended “greats” such as Muhammad Ali, Borg, Federer, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Lance Armstrong, Michael Jordan, and Pele by virtue of the fact that none of the aforementioned has come close to such an absolute dominance of their sport for such an extended period of time. Kelly won for the first time in 1992 at 20, and now, 16 years later, he is still not just winning, but crushing the opposition.
There should be mainstream interest, and there would be if the content of professional surfing was improved and fine-tuned. The good news is that it’s a relatively simple fix.
The mainstream media need to be handed pro surfing and its athletes on a platter. Surf companies do a tremendous job of marketing their brands, but a poor job of marketing their athletes outside of the surf zone.
Instead of hiring a “bro” they need to hire a pro.
I firmly believe the ASP should take on an initiative with a fund created by the brands that currently sponsor the tour—brands that stand to benefit from revenue from the U.S. market—and use that money to hire a professional PR firm. Call the top PR agency in L.A. or New York with a brief to put pro surfing and its athletes on the map.
With a substantial budget you would see some serious exposure everywhere, which would be great for business for all the brands. The problem, however, is that the brands are all locked in a battle for surf turf, and that sort of cooperation is unlikely, albeit necessary, if we want exposure outside the surf scene.
Then, there is pro surfing itself. Even though the popularity of WCT webcasts has increased greatly, there is still significant room for improvement and the opportunity to attract even more viewers. One way—without delving into changing the actual event format—would be to improve the quality of the webcast. Make it more professional with a uniform production team that travels to all the events. Every surf brand has its own crew and the coverage totters between good and god-awful. Instead, they should hire pros who know the athletes, understand surfing, and can communicate its subtleties. It seems many commentators are hired because they are employees of the sponsor and can wear the branded T-shirt while on air. Like the PR business: Hire pros not bros. I don’t want to hear that “Someone is in the tube, dude.” I can see he is in the tube; I want to know how difficult it is. I want insight. I want to know what boards the pros are riding, and their stats, and some personal history—present the information professionally, and the audience will grow because the surfing and the waves are already amazing.
All the elements are in place: talented athletes, amazing performances, perfect waves, and exotic locations. All we need to do now is hire some pros to spread the word so 10 world titles are not won in deafening silence.