Webcast Evolution

How technology is changing the way we watch heats, for better or worse

| posted on June 14, 2011

All the microphones and GPS trackers in the world can't distract fans from Joel Parkinson's frontside carves. Photo: Joli

For years the argument went like this: competitive surfing will never become a mainstream sport because it can’t be effectively broadcast live. And until the emergence of webcasts, no one challenged these assertions. Then, less than a decade ago, the first primitive surfing webcasts—slow-loading, grainy, and reserved for the most die-hard fans—only bolstered the belief that any sport subject to the whims of the ocean will bore audiences to sleep. It’s difficult to contend, however, that World Tour surfing is more lethargic than PGA golf, for example, which gets aired on basic cable all the time.

Recently, contest webcasts have begun to offer the same trappings as mainstream sports coverage. Expert commentary, prompt scoring, and instant replay are standard. Secondary features draw viewers closer to the sport’s icons: cameras attached to jet-skis give the feel of what it’s like to be in the lineup, and post-heat interviews develop surfing’s personas. Watch Kelly graciously answer even the most inane question at length, while Dane mumbles a thought or two as he stares off into space. The unpredictability of live coverage is what makes it exciting. We get the feeling that we might hear something we’re not supposed to, and thus, are getting a more unfiltered look at our surfing heroes (See the Round 1 interview with Fred Patacchia from the 2010 Rip Curl Pro Bell’s Beach).

Other webcast gadgetry seeks to legitimize surfing as a sport by making it more quantifiable. At the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, VX Sports provided GPS tracking devices to measure each surfer’s top speed. However, this led to the anti-climatic conclusion that Gabe Kling is the fastest surfer on Tour (top speed of 41.5 kph or 25.7 mph)—a less than earth shattering reminder of the fact that surfing is judged aesthetically and not scientifically. In other words, there’s a reason why other World Tour cohorts, such as Mick Fanning, have risen to earn monikers like “White Lightning,” while Gabe Kling has garnered the nickname “Piggy.”

To its credit, however, the GPS tracking device emphasizes a valuable lesson: making improvements to the coverage of live surfing requires a bit of trial and error. Meaning for every good idea there will be at least a dozen pointless and uninteresting ones.

A graph showing speed and distance traveled by competitors was incorporated into the Quik Pro at Snapper.

Another addition to live coverage, split-screen replay, which allows fans to simultaneously watch two surfers split a peak— right and left—is a perfect example of webcast technology in need of refinement. It seems the problem is a basic and uncorrectable limitation of human sight: eyes can’t track in opposite directions at the same time. As a viewer, attempting to analyze two waves at once had a sort of dizzying effect, leaving my 20/20 vision feeling altogether inadequate.

In any case, enhancing webcast technology can be a lengthy process—just ask Rob Moscato and Chris Cloutier of Fstop Aerial Media. Their vision began taking shape three years ago in the form of a remote-controlled helicopter with a Go-Pro attached. As Rob explains: “We started flying it at Salt Creek and people were really stoked on it, so we kept putting money into it, getting some much better equipment, and now the helicopter we have is worth about $20,000 and is very stable.”

Cameras on the beach and in the air. Every angle is the name of the game in 2011.

The heli-camera is a customized, remote-controlled helicopter with a Canon 7D onboard. Rob navigates it with a remote while Chris focuses on controlling the camera to keep surfers in-frame. Their hard work was debuted at this year’s Lowers Pro, where they captured a bird’s-eye-view of the contest.

But if some new technological developments have the effect of holding the viewer’s attention, others only highlight the fact that watching a webcast is hardly the best use of one’s time. Consider the microphone attached to surfers. By mating a microphone to surfers’ contest singlets, this ingenuous piece of technology enables listeners to hear the inflections of every last top-turn and tail-huck. Unfortunately, no one paused to ask the more basic question: why would anyone want to hear that? The result is what sounds like a fish trapped in a pillowcase—hardly what comes to mind when thinking of cutting edge technology.

Tim Denmark, a surfer from Encinitas and the founder of H2audio, is the brain behind the surf microphone project. After years of providing sports audio for football, NASCAR, and baseball, he recognized a void in surfing, asking himself, “Why is it that my sport is the only sport without an ambient soundtrack?” In his view, an “ambient soundtrack” is an essential feature that all live sports coverage must provide. And if Denmark’s work signifies nothing else, it represents a shift in thinking. Competitive surfing is now viewed, by some, as a viable source of live entertainment for mainstream consumption.

Compared with other competitive sports, the live broadcast of surfing is still in its infancy. But in the last three years, several World Tour events have gained footing on FUEL TV and local television in Hawaii and Australia. Who knows, maybe filling the lulls with new technologies will allow live surfing to reach the next level of mainstream attention. The next question is, are we sure that’s what we want?

  • sdfg

    not much of a question, i don’t think that is what anyone wants except the people making money from it?

  • whamo

    I love watching the contests, but only if they’re held in decent surf. If the surf isn’t there it’s easy to nod off. And even if the swell is up, if it’s closed out or bad beach break it isn’t worth watching.

  • Chongo

    Take the heli-cam to Teahupoo, fly that sucker right in the barrel! And… make a submarine cam to follow just below the surfer (athlete) getting barreled! And… those little HD cams mounted on the boards. Oh yeah!

  • Normal Guy

    Who cares if surfing is a mainstream sport? Who besides Kelly himself and his immediate barnacles cares if he makes millions every year? Who cares if more people surf and buy surf things? Why do you want surfing to be mainstream, isn’t it popular enough, do you need to feel accepted? Do you like surfing in crowds? Surfing is already mainstream, it is already corporatized, it is already too popular. The industry and corporate suits need growth in order to survive. Some parasites kill their hosts, however.

    • Daniels

      Who wants to see every WT event giving out $ 1 M for the winner ?
      I do. For sure. Bring on the new tech !

  • Jeff

    Audio in Heats = Worst idea ever!!! How do you compare footage from 7ft. giants talking shit in the trenches and smashing the shit out of each other to off the lip lady grunts??? Surfers with audio sound like women tennis players. Heli Cams are insane though, that’s the future for sure…

  • Yeins Villalobos

    Soy de Perú y el surf esta creciendo cada día más, grandes marcas están apoyando este deporte, mi pregunta es ¿ como podemos evitar las malas palabras en los deportistas? por ejemplo en el futbol o en este caso en el surf ya que son deportes de adrenalina pura, como poder controlar esto ya que muchas veces son niños los fanáticos de este deporte tan bueno, y como poder controlar los sonidos ya que me imagino que se necesitaría de una gran consola.
    I’m from Peru and the surf is growing every day,
    brands are supporting this sport, my question
    is how can we avoid bad words in
    athletes? for example in soccer or in this case
    the surf as they are pure adrenaline sports such as
    to control this because the children are often
    sports fans as well, and as power
    control the sounds as I imagine
    need of a big console

  • JOHN D

    Love the webcast! Its always exciting to watch the worlds best battle it out in every kind of conditions. The Scoring is also very interesting. Especially now a-days with the progressive maneuvers the surfers are going for!

  • Mike

    Would love to see more heli-cam live footage! Audio would be cool if Sunny Garcia was still on tour. Open hand slaps > Cutbacks

  • average surfer

    I agree with normal guy…. since when is surfing unpopular and not mainstream? All I want is to be able to watch the pipe contest at my local bar and get toasted.

  • Dewey

    Expert commentary. Really? More like friends and former team riders of the contest sponsor. Professional level commentary would be very welcome. The video replays have put the judges in the spotlight. I feel this is good. The judging is behind the ability of the surfers and is not consistent through out the entire *, prime and wct. Professional level judging only results from professional level training This is not something done currently by the ASP

  • Maharichie

    With more web broadcasts there’s bound to be an increase in crappy commentators, which often makes me want to mute the sound. Need watch out for this. Peter Mel does the best job I’ve heard. Hire him more.

  • David

    I thought the audio was cool when the competitors talked between waves to each other or themselves – that was worth it to me. I wonder if De Souza hoots for himself too?

  • mike

    I also think Shea Lopez is a great commentator.

    He brings a ton of knowledge to the table.

  • Mike

    Love the webcast. Only opportunity to watch the action, babes on the beach, nice scenery, etc when you live on an island in Alaska. Heli-cam is cool!

  • Kimo

    I’ve started to notice the cameramen zooming in on the surfers during rides. This is a bad idea. As surfers, we want to see the wave and what the surfers are doing relative to the wave. If you track the surfers in a close shot then you lose all sense of speed as well. I think the cameramen get enamored with their ability to do close ups of the athletes and forget that it actually ruins the perception of the surfing.

  • dan

    The “Bro-casts” will continue to hinder pro surfing’s quests for legitimacy in mainstream sports. You need seasoned pros to anchor the commenrtary who have more to say than “whoa that was sick dude” and “I surfed out there too” and “surfer in red is going off”. You need the names and background on the competitors. specs on their equipment, related anecdotes. The ABSOLUTE WORST webcast commentary I’ve ever heard was the recent 2012 Vans Pier Classic. Ugh. That was abysmal, and Shea Lopez is just teriible. He spent more time talking about himself than the comp and he’s always tongue tied and uninformed. Terrible Terrible Terrible. can’t believe he’s getting paid for that verbal diarhea.