In 1978 Brad Gerlach sat on a bus headed to Catalina Island via Long Beach. Gerr wore a straw hat with shoulder length, stringy, toehead blonde hair draping out the sides, scallop legged Quiksilvers and an oversized Lightning Bolt tank top. A sticker, the classic red and white Town & Country Coca-Cola swoosh, straight off of Bertlemen’s twin-fin, was emblazoned across Gerr’s hat. Thumbing through the latest surf magazine, he matter-of-factly told any one that would listen that he was going to be a pro surfer. I, for one, believed him. After all, he sure looked the part. Bear in mind, this was during a time when the sub culture of surfing in California was mired in geographic secularism. A surf contest, to most North San Diego County surfers, meant keg beer, rock-‘n-roll and Stone Steps. Brad was 12-years old–and way ahead of the times. Simply put, Gerr had a deep seeded passion in his heart: Pro surfing was it.
Close to 25-years later, Gerlach has an astounding pro surfing career to reflect on, and he would, except he’s too busy keeping it going. Making the transition from highly successful world tour competitor to vanguard big wave tow-in surfer, Brad has recreated his surfing persona. You’d think he might want to rest on his laurels.
But his next highly ambitious feat of surfing passion, the much-anticipated National Surf League, debuts this Friday morning at Cardiff Reef as part of the Rob Machado Surf Classic. Gerlach’s NSL reinvents competitive surfing, and it’s about time someone thought outside the box.
The NSL pits two regional teams in a format (known as The Game) which promises more intrigue and fan involvement than the typical 3-to-the-beach surf contest. The idea is to promote a competitive environment that allows the spectators and the teams to remain fired up. Individualism isn’t suppressed; rather it sparkles under the mirror of teamwork and regional pride. Kobe and Shaq shine brightest when working within a team format–and against the Sacramento Kings. So, too, according to Gerlach, can Slater and Hobgood when surfing against San Diego’s Machado and Knox.
In some ways The Game (TG) is a similar to contemporary team sports such as basketball. The games last between two to three hours. There are coaches, a referee, bleachers, halftime, regional rivalries and timeouts. The only things missing are scantily clad cheerleaders. And who knows, those are probably in the works too.
TG requires two teams, with each team consisting of regional surfers. For example, the match up at the upcoming NSL battle at Cardiff Reef is San Diego vs. Orange County. Surfing on the San Diego team will be Rob Machado, Taylor Knox, Che Stang, Gerlach and some other well-known names. Their coach is Carlsbad’s own David Barr, a successful top 16 pro surfer in the 80’s and now a respected shaper.
Their counterparts from Orange County will include Pat O’Connell, Mike Todd, Mike Losness, and Chris Drummy among others. The OC coach is another former pro from the 80’s, Salt Creek’s Mike Cruikshank.
As it stands now, competitive surfing, at least from a spectator’s point of view, lulls most to boredom. Unless the waves are huge or very consistent, the average fan loses interest, even before they’ve actually gained an interest. “I get inspired by the best surfers of today and I want to watch them,” explains Gerlach. “And surfers like Kelly Slater deserve to be recognized as freak talent the same way that Michael Jordan is recognized. The standard format loses everybody. It loses the competitor, and it loses the fans. I want to be a fan again. I want people to really see who is good, and who is great.”
The contemporary format needs not only a re-tooling, but a complete overhaul, for it has, according to Gerlach and many others, lost it’s luster. “The current formula doesn’t allow for good fan participation. You need to see the competitors, in this case the teams, right down in front of you,” says Gerlach. “The spectators can watch the team, and the team’s response. Like at a Laker game or a Charger game. The team doesn’t just disappear into some scaffolding. You need a social setting, like a stadium atmosphere. It’s a must.” And atmosphere is exactly what Gerlach’s NSL aims to achieve.
“Rivalries, legitimate coaching, an atmosphere for exchanging ideas on everything from equipment to technique, this is what the NSL is about,” explains Gerlach. “For the longest time people weren’t into contests. They still aren’t. I want people to be excited again, you know. Everyone complains about contests. I want people to go nuts. You can go nuts. I want surfing’s colors to come out again.” Excitement, drama, suspense, cheering fans at the beach: Gerlach has high expectations for pro surfing. And just as he did a quarter century ago, he plans on being right in the middle of it.
Talk about Gerlach’s The Game.