Opinion: Want to Sell Surfing? Go Big

| posted on April 30, 2010

Grant "Twiggy" Baker

If surfing really wants to gain mainstream traction, it needs to continue cultivating and repackaging big-wave surfing. Grant "Twiggy" Baker's XXL Ride of the Year.

By Zach Weisberg

A lot of attention has been given lately to the retooling of the “ASP World Title Race” and the doubtful emergence of a prospective Rebel Tour. I suppose those are important things for professional surfing to consider, but such alterations are relatively inconsequential when it comes to the inspiration for most of these changes: drawing mass appeal. If surfing really wants to gain mainstream traction (which, no doubt, many surfers have no interest in accomplishing), it needs to continue cultivating and repackaging a phenomenon that dedicated watermen and landlocked civilians find eternally fascinating — big-wave surfing — something that Gary Linden has known for twelve years and Billabong’s XXL initiative has only recently begun to fully realize.

In the winter of 2009, renowned San Diego shaper and accomplished big-wave surfer, Gary Linden, launched the first incarnation of the Big Wave World Tour. Just last week he crowned the Tour’s first World Champion, Carlos Burle, at a private ceremony held at San Clemente’s Surfing Heritage Foundation.

It’s not just about attracting attention to big-wave surfing – but surfing, per-se,” says Linden, 61. “I think that’s a conduit; you can understand it. It’s life or death. There’s no intricacies. There’s no nuances. What is a stale-fish air or whatever? You can’t understand it. Once we get involved and are captivated by surfing then we’ll start to understand the intricacies…like golf. Golf is boring to watch unless you play golf, but there are so many people playing golf that it has a big audience. We need to get to the same place in surfing.”

Agree with his intentions or not, Linden has a point. There’s little room for misinterpretation when watching a human being scale a 70-foot wave face. Despite the apparent risks involved (read: mortality), the image provided by such a superhuman endeavor is startling. “A grandma in Michigan can understand: Little human. Giant wave,” Laird Hamilton told me during an interview last year. “That would cover the conversation pretty quickly.”

That’s why Linden’s Big Wave World Tour, which links together pre-existing events located in Chile, Peru, Mavericks, Todos Santos, and at Nelscott Reef in Oregon fills such an important void in the world of professional surfing. While tailoring the contests’ packaging for mainstream consumption remains nebulous (live webcasts and post-event television edits currently lead the pack), The Big Wave World Tour presents an organized opportunity for surfing to showcase itself at its most extreme. The X-Games certainly couldn’t do that, which is probably in part why surfing got cut from ESPN’s annual tribute to action sports in 2008. A well-timed hack in shoulder high sandbars doesn’t exactly offer the same compelling treachery as a late drop beneath a two-ton curtain at Mavericks.

And Linden isn’t alone in his efforts. The Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards, now in its tenth year, pioneered recognition for big-wave surfers’ value and courage. Billabong most recently awarded Grant “Twiggy” Baker $50,000 for his “Ride of the Year” at Mavericks this winter, and while Billabong may be the surf industry’s champion for big-wave surfing, clairvoyance couldn’t come quickly enough.

Consider the career of the world’s most respected contemporary big-wave surfer, Greg Long. An Eddie Champion and multiple-time winner at the XXL Awards, Greg Long was just another surfer without a major sponsor, literally living out of his vehicle two years ago. It wasn’t until he had the financial backing of Billabong that he could afford to pursue his passion to the extent he deserved – and we deserved. His brother, Rusty, fought a similar battle, finally acquiring sponsorship with Quiksilver this year, which makes it apparent that so many of the surf industry’s resources have been directed at serving the nuances of the ASP World Tour, that we’ve neglected to cultivate surfing’s most marketable (or at least gripping) subculture: the giant-slayers.

But right now, in late April of 2010, big-wave surfing looks to turn the corner. Just a few months ago, the world watched Greg Long win the 2009 Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau. (The New York Times even ran a story last winter surprised that the Eddie didn’t run on its expected day of the waiting period…since when is the Eddie not running news?) Carlos Burle just claimed the first-ever Big Wave World Tour Championship, and The Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards dished out over $100,000 to the world’s bravest hell men. Right now, it’s safe to say that momentum is in big-wave surfing’s favor.

Now, it’s up to the surf industry to keep it rolling.

  • Malibu Bill

    How fun would it be to see one of the CT events on tour go big wave? With the format next year moving to a smaller group of CT surfers that only requires a three day window to complete the event, it’s doable with some adjustments to the heat structure (say, 6 man one hour heats for the big wave event).

    Would love to see how the CT guys would fair at a venue like Mavs, Todos or Dungeons.

  • Grey

    Bill is totally right. Take the world’s most popular surfers (Top 32), names that the general population recognizes, and run a big wave event as part of the tour giving wildcards to top 5 from Big Wave Tour. Although the quality of surfing at the Brazil event was amazing, the wave quality was piss poor for a CT. Couldn’t even watch a whole heat without losing interest….

  • Justin

    Oh god yes, put those guys in some macking surf……..and see if they are worth their salaries. I know some guys would kill it, and I also know some guys wouldn’t even paddle out. Nothing like a 20-25 foot set to separate the pack!

  • Bert

    At least Zach asks the question: Want to sell surfing? The answer is NO! There are enough crowds already. If you’ve done any travelling in the past ten years then you know surfing is already too popular. Why do we want mainstream acceptance? So pros can make more money? So the already crowded spots can get more crowded? I’m not an anti-contest hippie, I admire both the WCT and Big Wave Chargers alike, but surfing has already lost too much of it’s soul. Go to places like Kuta, Puerto, even Punta Flores in El Sal, you can see the negative impacts that surf exploitation has brought.

  • Grey

    I agree with Bert too. I don’t think Pro’s should make any more money than they do now, I mean a $50K check for surfing 2 foot slop in Brazil? That’s more than 90% of the world makes for a year of actual work. I think some major changes should be made to the overall degree of difficulty for the season, these guys are already making ridiculous amounts from their sponsors (trust me I’ve seen a few paychecks sitting around.)

  • Jan

    I have to disagree. Sure Big Wave Surfing is really cool to watch and its amazing what these mans are doing.
    But i think, what really attract people to start with surfing (and with this grow the market) are the “small” waves.
    Why i think so, because the people have the feeling that they can do the same and they will try. They will buy a board, Neopren etc. watch the Films, Live Braodcastings etc.
    Big Wave Surfing is amazing to watch but i think less people will start surfing because of it.
    I think what really will bring a bigger crowd are airs.
    For example the crowd in Brazil they dont need 70ft waves to love this sport.
    And i think most of the people dont go every weekend to the beach, in the hope that there will be a 70ft wave.
    ok i think i made my pinot clear ;).

    Greetz from Brazil (Sry for my horrible english)

  • Malibu Bill

    Why is everyone so anxious to grow the sport of surfing? I mean who REALLY benefits from this growth? It’s a small handful of pro surfers and the surf clothing manufacturers. And what do we get in return for this growth? Clogged line-ups that are so crowded that things like SUPing have to be invented. Surfing is a limited resource sport. Big growth will make the sport a MISERABLE experience in places like southern California and Hawaii. Surfing is also a fringe coastal sport that will NEVER support the salaries of popular ball sports, and this current fad of chasing that dream is going to ruin the sport. Jordy Smith is NEVER going to make Michael Jordan money, but he WILL ruin the sport for all of us while he “grows” his business.

  • Dewey

    Big waves and/or super hollow waves are easier for the non-surfing public to understand. It is easier to understand the risk/reward possibilities. When I first started surfing (1962, I am old.) big waves were what made a surfers reputation along with being able to ride the nose in smaller stuff. That started changing as boards got shorter. Small wave performance became the standard for your reputation. Things seem to have come full circle.

  • MIk

    This is like saying NASCAR is better than Formula 1. What point is there in saying big wave surfers are better than the WCT, or vice versa? Ridiculous. Lame commentary. The guys on the WCT go out at any place, 2 ft to 15 ft, and it doesn’t even look like the same spot, the surfing is so much more radical. Put some big wave names amongst that crowd and they might not be very impressive. Period. Then flip the scenario. Some tour guys aren’t stand outs in big waves. But Kelly was a standout at the Eddie. He full on charged… Andy’s backside version of Bruce’s Waimea 12 ft shore-pound pull-in was richter. Bruce charges there.Shane-o charges on all levels; look at his segment in Filthy Habits 2 and it is the most vertical backhand ever. The current tour is the highest performance surfing in history. If people don’t get it, good. Let them watch Fox News like the rest of the tools. Keep them away from surfing. The tour is awesome. The big wave tour will be awesome too. Don’t compare them. They are two different worlds and they both rock hard. The rest of professional sports, especially golf, just bores me anymore. It’s too disconnected from my life. Surfing is my life. Seeing it done at the highest level is beyond insane. Many thanx to the sponsors.

  • j.s.

    completely agree with bert. the “sport” of surfing does not need to be sold any more than it already is. does anyone really want to see it go more mainstream? the pros will benefit, as well as the “industry”. and that’s it.

  • whamo

    IIt’s so much more difficult to do the high-performance moves in bigger surf. It would make a spectacular television show. It’s more dramatic, the stakes are raised, when the surf gets big. It’s also a better test of a surfer’s abilities than two-foot sandbar surf. It would be Mark Foo’s dream come true, to have a worldwide tour, to have a tour focused on following the big swells. It seems the big-name free surfers are already on the program. Contest surfing would just be catching up to the free-surfing movement. It could draw a much bigger audience and bigger sponsors.
    The popular small wave locals and surfers would benefit because the best surfers would be on the big waves, and leave the high-quality small waves to the public. It’s not a bad thing for the non-professional surfer.

  • Steve

    why is it that I need Greg Long to have a sponsor? The should all get real jobs.

  • InTheKnow

    SURFING IS IN THE MAINSTREAM!!! Surfing IS in the mainstream. Last time I looked I could purchase stock in most of all major surfing related companies. The only reason to claim surfing isn’t in the mainstream is to perpetuate the exploitation of surfers through ridiculously low financial compensation.

  • The new Foam Pit

    Surfing has run its course by going backwards & repackaging the same concept over & over again. With the mainstreams interest two things can happen, it gets a little more attention or it bottoms out. After the last XXL 2010 & it being 10 years old it’s old. Same wave just bigger or a little more crowded with some new names. Surfings got way more potential & appeal on the air tech side. Why? Cause most boarders catch air & know how hard it is to pull a air on a board. Second is the new generation & the guys who are in their late 20’s to 30’s bust more air now then before in the sport. If you have ever been to a contest surfing has a lot going against it in the summer. Now lets back track a couple years & hit the now button!
    Right now Jaime Obrien has a new flick coming out. In it he has winching. Winching is the next biggest thing for surfing on that it creates a repetitive moment called speed in small to medium waves thus creating a elevating level of performance Like Shawn Whites foam pit for snow boarding but now the winch is the new meduim creating a training sensation enabling viewers to be intrigued again. Cause all of em respect it that these guys charge but at the end of the day its something they can not grasp. Yet, with the winch it cross’s over to areas & boardsports & even motor sports giving surfing a whole new angle & (LIFE)! If J.O.B is backing it, I am sure these new breeded CT surfers would flip knowing they have a WINCH to train for air surfing.

  • Pingback: Billabong Odyssey & XXL Awards « Water, Water Everywhere And Not A Drop To Drink

  • Christian Enns

    There is reason why the top guys don’t surf really big waves very often, it’s not a priority. Something more pure is involved with big wave surfing, I hope greed and paychecks don’t spoil all that, if they top guys wanted a macker they would wait their turn and make it a priority. Some top guys are golfing pebble beach, mavs is pumping, the top guys don’t get paid to risk their neck and so they don’t. Let the big wave purist enjoy the experience, the money will drive egos to the next level and purity will be tainted. Also, most big wave surfers are not that well rounded so it’s kind of weird to see them try to surf the other 350 days a year.

  • Bert

    Here’s two more cents…Why the need to make it more mainstream? As an earlier poster stated, it is ALREADY mainstream. Britney Spears and Paris Hilton are mainstream. Is that a good thing? Is Kelly’s 6 million a year not enough for him? Is it good for 16 year old groms to get paid $350k a year while reading at a 4th grade level? Is it a good feeling to travel to remote parts of the world and surf lineups more crowded than your home break? In surfing terms, does it feel better to win a contest in 2 foot slop than get barreled in 6 foot waves with only your friends out? I know it’s too late to go back, but surfing does not need to get more popular. What will our lineups be like when a small portion of the 300 million middle class in India or China catch on?

  • j.s.

    surfing as mainstream may seem a fait accompli by everyone who surfs, but i’m sorry there is not one surfer, not even kelly, who is a household name across the world like tiger woods, michel jordon, or david beckham. why? because there is not the seriously big money backing it. yet.

    i simply cannot understand the mentality of someone like whamo above, who seems solely insterested in making a “spectacular television show”. why does anyone care how much pros get paid? does it make any difference whatsover to your own experience in the water? i’m not against pro surfers per se, but i don’t see why i should care one bit about their salaries, who their sponsors are, how many people tune into contests, or buy into the brand-molded lifestyle b.s. all you need in surfing is a board, some waves, time, and the right attitude. the rest is totally irrelevant. and if you need more than that, find another hobby.

  • whamo

    Has anyone else heard the oil spill is a hole into hell that could destroy all ocean life? That sounds over-the-top to me. It must be pretty bad, though, for the environmentalists to freak out this much.

  • whamo

    J.s., You don’t understand my attitude. Well, if you’re going to sell surfing, you need to go big. And I have a lot more respect for a surfer than can pull a big roundhouse cutback at Jaws than at Lowers. Not that I was a big wave rider. The biggest I ever rode was 12 foot Sunset, 10 foot Cotten’s, 10 foot Swami’s, in my day, which is probably considered medium size to a real big wave rider. I get the anti-growth of the sport vibe, but people are greedy, and they’re going to sell surfing if they can make a buck. I totally wish it was the 1950’s, only with today’s equipment, and only a dozen surfers were consistently riding the California coast. Now that health problems have benched me, so to speak, I enjoy watching surfing on the net and television because I still love the sport. Everyday I relive my life’s best rides while looking over my quiver. Most of the surfers I knew who made a living out of surfing lived like poets in the gutter. They didn’t get rich doing it. You can’t stop the world from turning and changing and even the best ride winds up ending. As far as I’m concerned the invention of the wetsuit and the cord were the catalysts. Kuks didn’t have to pay for losing their boards. And everyone was comfortable, year around, in the water, so surfing evolved from a summer only activity to a year round sport. Before cords, people hesitated to take off on waves, especially kuks. Before wetsuits, people only went out from July to September. There weren’t too many really stoked surfers until the 70’s, and then it started to take-off, as wetsuits got better, and the cord changed everything. I’m just glad I got a lot of waves, ironically, by switching back to longboards and hybrids as I reached my mid 30’s. For a time, nobody surfed longboards when the shortboard first came along. And those of us who jumped back on them got a lot of waves. I got into hybrids because, although I loved the Phil Edwards model Rick Griffin sold me for $50, I found them a bit limiting. Now, things are changing again. Laniakea, in Hawaii, my favorite spot, has been over run by stand up guys. On windy days, the sail surfing guys are out. I hope you understand where I’m coming from, now, and hope you get some good waves this summer.

  • Oldster

    No contests, no surf schools, no nothing ever. Nada. Otherwise it’s Malibu/Sebastian/Lowers, etc. crowds everywhere. Let’s keep it for ourselves. Never, ever give it away for money. That being said, it’s already too late. The sport is messed up. Stick a fork in it. Glad I had it when it was good.

  • Scott

    You all spend too much time thinking about this crap. Big ups to those of you who manage to let the WCT sneak by each year without having a clue who won what. I could care less about pro surfers, surf companies and latest technologies. Just let me go surfing and then carry on with the rest of my life. What I love about surfing is how easy it is to do it. All I have to do is go through a simple mental checklist and I am there – board, leash, towel, suncreen, suit, sweet. I read about 3 lines from this article before I wrote it off as rubbish. I check the sites to see if any mysto waves managed to fire in the last week and if you all have documented it. Shit, can I borrow some wax?

  • dyerdyer

    Promote the big stuff all you want. Those monsters hurt and it won’t bother me a bit if those days are crowded. If people want to be king of the mountain there should be a pile of money to be had for them.

  • awsome-o

    why would we want to make the lineups even more crowded with new “surfers” that that will wipeout and run into you…

  • richard rowland

    seems like everything that goes mainstream gets so diluted;read :nullified. but i cant deny the benefits($)for the guys with the balls to ride monster surf. who wants to be a 9 to 5’er ? so, Linden, learn some freekin grammar.

  • Charles Huard

    I would rather see guys going down the face of big waves, than youngsters doing skateboard tricks on 2 to 3 foot crap

  • Charles Huard

    Hey Whamo, I live ocean front at maalaea and its SUP heaven until it gets head high then they thin out a bit

  • Propwinder42

    Hey all of you guys, I have surfed since 1963 in the Ventura County area. I have surfed Uppers, Lowers, Old Mans, Rincon (when only 5 guys were out) Mexico, El Salvador (punta roca and punta flores) and Panama. Crowded for sure this sport has gotten. I quit surfing about two years ago not just because of the crowds, but also because of the ATTITUDE! You need to focus on what surfing is supposed to be, fun, peaceful and refreshing! If you get out of the water more frustrated than when you went in, somethings got to change. I train horses now and ride 4-5 days a week. No crowds, no ATTITUDE and great folks to be with. One less guy to crowd your waves.

  • johnny sauce

    all the kooks watching these events all winter need to relize they cant surf waves half that size and dont go out to the spots that have waves that big and get in the way. you will kill yourself or someone else

  • Mrverde

    All great comments guys, but the point was hit in the middle of one of whamo’s posts. It’s about the money! Sure when the ASP was created way back when the intention was to recognize and determine who was the best surfer. Over time surf companies realized the potential market and have exploited surfing for their financial gain. That’s what every other sport has done and will continue to do regardless of it’s stoke factor, individuality or level of difficulty. Guys like Slater, Shane-O, Greg Long and others are freaks in the water. Mortals like the rest of will continue to paddle out when it’s big (10-15ft) and sure there will be guys in the water who don’t belong but after a beating or two they’re gone, or they just bob up and down and wonder how they’re going to get in. Remember all you soul guys, Greg Long had no problem with his way of life. He has sponsors, just not major ones and is perfectly happy surfing the biggest waves on the planet on somebody else’s dime. Soul is derived from within, you can’t protect it, sell it or breed it. Lighten up, paddle out and stay stoked. The sport has been changing since I learned to surf in the 70’s and it will continue to evolve and be exploited.

  • Cazart

    Basically, I’m with the Grumpy Old Walruses who don’t want surfing sold any more at all.


    When you see a JaMarcus Russell making millions for doing nothing, it kinda hurts to see a Twiggy or a Greg Long making so much less.

  • cockroach

    I surf BIG waves. I am not famous. I don’t care. I do it for the fun and the rush. I think commercializing it is a good thing. It’s not for me. I don’t care about fame. It would be nice to get paid though.

  • Says Just

    Don’t cap on Linden, he’s cool! Innovator from the beginning, innovating again, for surfers. He definitely deserves something to go his way ,too….

  • tony carson big island

    “You can”t sell soul”, like someone said, but plenty of people have sold their soul, and surfing, for the for the sake of gain,(money) by trying to exploit surfing to the masses, just to make a profit for themselves.