The Stadium by the Sea
Sean Doherty reports from the new, new birthplace of the ASP
I check over my shoulder then point at myself, eyebrows raised. “Me?”
“Yeah, Mick! Just want to say congrats on the world title and wish you good luck in the contest.”
Flummoxed, I slowly make sense of the scene unfolding outside Coolangatta airport this morning; this chick thinks I’m Mick Fanning. It’s an easy mistake to make. His hairline advancing, mine gone. Him at fighting weight, me fighting to see my shoes. As alike as Schwarzenegger and De Vito, we are. I have occasionally signed an autograph as Kelly Slater, but being mistaken for Mick Fanning is new and fertile territory for me. I run with it. “Yeah, thanks. The connest should be fun, aaayyyyy…. I can’t wait to kick Kelly’s arse!” She leaves high on her chance meeting with the world champ, I leave shaking my head with a wry smile. Just a half-mile down the road there is a hundred-foot high Mick Fanning billboard out the front of the local surf shop that bears little resemblance to me, and in about two minutes she’s going to drive past it and realize. Meanwhile, I text Mick the bad news that someone has somehow just mistaken me for him, ergo his head, like mine, must look like a dropped meat pie.
From the airport I drive straight to Snapper knowing full well what I’m going to see. I’d already seen it a half hour earlier from a thousand feet above, directly below me on the flight path from Sydney. The Quiksilver Pro contest site at Snapper is hard to miss. Major Tom just flew over it and reported to Ground Control that the planet earth was indeed blue, but also reported a surf contest so big that it was visible from outer space. The thing is huge, like a horizontal block of apartments sitting on the beach at Snapper, literally four times the size of the old contest site. “It makes the old contest site look like a club contest,” whined Occy, whose view of the surf from his Rainbow Bay unit was now blocked by the Yankee Stadium by the Sea. It’s fair to say the new guys are here to make a statement.
READ: ZoSea’s New ASP
In case you’ve come late to the party on this, pro surfing has new owners. ZoSea Media Holdings Incorporated acquired the beleaguered ASP in late 2012 for a song from its previous owners, the surf brands and the surfers themselves. Under the old regime, the ASP conservatively had two years at best before it dried up and blew away in the wind, so depending on how you look at it the ZoSea deal was either opportunistic, a savior, or both. Their vision for pro surfing was big, but the cone of silence came down almost immediately on how they were planning to do it. Kelly was involved but stayed at arms length, there was a mysterious billionaire backer, announcements only announced future announcements–and pro surfing fans had no idea what the new incarnation of pro surfing might look like.
Well, three days out from the first wave of the new era being ridden, ZoSea’s vision of pro surfing is suddenly very real. The new guys are here and they are going all in. Every morning your phone lights up with news of a new contest, a new sponsor, a new tour and their strategy all along now becomes clear–hold fire until you see the whites of their eyes. Sitting in the sacred watering hole of the Rainbow Bay Surf Club, watching this horizontal skyscraper come together with a million sticks of scaffolding, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer grandiosity of it. They’ve spent a shitload of money and will continue to do so this year, but strategically there are a few moves they’ve made that demonstrate they have a fundamental understanding of what makes pro surfing great. They’ve brought the big-wave guys into the tent, they split the qualifying and championship tours and ended the procession of recycling journeymen, and they not only boosted the women’s tour, they completely reinvented it. And to their credit they haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater and have brought across experienced guys like Rod Brooks and Graham Stapleberg from a previous Golden Age of pro surfing to transition this thing seamlessly.
The only real fail so far is the junking of Lewis Samuels’ power rankings on their website, which was a noble idea—better him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in—but the delicate flower that is the pro surfer ego is not quite ready to have that kinda scrutiny sanctioned by the state. They’ve got a battle also on their hands with freelance surf photographers and filmers, who’ve supported pro surfing in exchange for abject poverty for decades and are now being made to sign away the rights to any photo taken during any event to the ASP. As I write this, the Surf Photographer’s Union is meeting (in a phone booth at Greenmount) and on opening day may be storming the Bastille (or at least the VIP tent) in protest, conducting a murderous head-lopping rampage stopping only to sample the smoked salmon canapés on the buffet table.
Dane Reynolds toasted the pro surfing revolution with a beer just the other night. He’s not quite sure what the revolution is all about—he famously had no idea who ZoSea was when asked at a press conference here at Snapper last year—but what the heck? It seems like it’ll be fun. As of this moment, Dane Reynolds is the only surfer to have put an entry form in for every six-star qualifying event for this season. He surfed a heat at Manly two weeks back and actually built house. Dane. Built. House. Surfed heats like he wanted to win them. If pro surfing has been reinvigorated, re-energized to the point where even Dane wants in, then surely it’s doing something right. And while at certain junctures last season it felt like the old tour was tired and running out the clock, the last days of the old empire, this is a new era with a new purpose. The change in mood is palpable.
The acid test for the new tour, however, will start on the weekend. Just like the real Mick Fanning and his bald and flabby impostor can quickly be told apart out in the surf, the test of whether this new tour is the real deal or not will come in the water when the Big Show starts. Speaking with ASP CEO Paul Speaker the other day, he admitted there was only one contingency ZoSea couldn’t find cash-splash a solution for: “We ran out of money to pay the guy who controls the surf.” The thing is, at Snapper that guy actually exists, but on that front it looks like they’re gonna get lucky anyway.
WATCH: The Gold Standard
“The bank is as good as I have ever seen it.” Stop me if you’ve heard this one before used to describe Snapper, but coming from Joel Parkinson, who feels it’s his professional duty to downplay the Snapper bank even at it’s finest, this is some big talk. He’s right. On first sight today the bank is literally razor-edged and grain-perfect. Whereas in the past few years you’ve been able to set your watch by some Old Testament storm sweeping through the week before the contest and reducing the bank to rubble, this year it’s been left unmolested and it looks a lot like it did during the Superbank’s salad days of the early millennium. In concert with steady trades in the Coral Sea and a cyclone perched over Fiji, the swell forecast is as good as it has looked for this event in a long time. In fact, the forecast has a real feel of 2002, the first ever Quiksilver Pro, when Cyclone Des produced day after day of groomed four-foot lines. It should be Snapper for days, and the biggest decisions will be the days not to run.
The revolution starts on Saturday, more likely Sunday. If it works it will take surfing to places it never dared to dream. And if it fails… well, we’ll party on the Titanic as we plunge to the bottom of the frigid Atlantic. I’ll be playing the violin. Either way, there will be some good sport on show over the next week. We certainly live in interesting times, and as I sat on a rock under a pandanus tree down at Snapper pondering the universal pinhead of all this late this afternoon, I heard a voice yelling at me, “Hey Mick!”
I look over and it’s Mick, the real Mick.
“Geez, mate,” he offers to me, “you’ve never looked better.”
Sounds like the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast will kick off towards the beginning of the waiting period. Be sure to set your Fantasy Surfer team before the first heat hits the water.