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The Heart of the Matter

13:35 10th October 2008 by
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By Neil Stebbins

Recently, I picked up a copy of a surf magazine.

Purely by accident, it fell open to a page with a quote about contest surfing by Billabong’s VP of Marketing. In a moment of remarkable candor the guy says, “If all we’re creating is a bunch of little competitive robots then we’ve all failed.”

Since I’ve always regarded “competitive surfing” as an oxymoron, the quote got me to thinking. What if your home break is Lower Trestles, J-Bay, Thurso, Pipe – or any good surf spot with enough real estate to host a contest?

Now, let’s say a swell starts to show, you’ve got some free time and you plan to surf on Saturday. Then you find out there’s a contest scheduled. All day Saturday. At your break. On what may be the best day of the year!

Ask yourself, “What right do they have to be there at all?”

Here’s what the organizers, the competitors and all the corporate sponsors are saying to you:

“Yeah, OK, it’s a public beach, but we own it this weekend. We’re bringing trucks and tents and amplifiers and we’re going give some loudmouth a microphone and let him shout non-stop for eight hours. Oh, did we mention? We’re not going to let you surf at all!”

This is a little like a cult of fanatics arriving at your door and telling you they’re going to move into your house for the weekend. If this was about your home – not your home break – you’d call the police.

Maybe it’s time to take a look at what it means to be a surfer in 2008 – now that every lineup is a competition and every kid with a contract thinks he deserves more waves than you.

“Contests are good for the sport,” they tell us. “What’s a day or two out of a whole year?”
Well, you could argue competition is NOT good for the sport. It’s good for people making money off the sport.

“Contest surfing teaches young men and women valuable lessons about discipline and values and life.”
Like what? Dependence on the Great Commercial Tit for a paycheck and self-esteem? Competition teaches you lessons about business, not life. Or, at least, not about those uniquely valuable parts of life that pure surfing addresses better than just about anything.

“Contests raise the level of the sport.”
Talented surfers won’t stop pushing their limits whether contests exist or not. Besides, since when was great surfing about conforming to rules?

“Contests support the manufacturers who support the sport.”
The major clothing sponsors would do just fine if every real surfer stopped buying surfing-related products. The market is non-surfers. That’s where the money is.

“Competition promotes Aloha spirit.”
True Aloha doesn’t have anything to do with profits and exposure. Where’s the Aloha in creating winners and losers?

“Hey! Lighten up! Contests are just entertainment.”
When a generation of surfers thinks the goal of surfing is sponsorship or that surfing is about proving yourself to businessmen, it’s not “just entertainment”.

Surfing was shaped by renegades – imaginative individuals who would laugh at the contest mentality today. As if to prove this, the enlightened Billabong Veep went on to say, “Surfing has always thrived on characters, but true characters are getting harder and harder to find.”

The great surfers of the past would likely ask, “What does letting others decide your worth have to do with surfing and a healthy respect for the ocean?” Or, “Whatever happened to Expression Sessions – where the best came together not as rivals but as friends?”

Maybe “for the good of the sport” we should stop rewarding obedient behavior. Stop glorifying all the little competitive robots, throw out the rulebooks and fire all the judges.
You want to do something positive and instructive? How about once a year we identify the five men and women who have contributed the most to surfing the previous year.
Then, without fanfare or scorecards, give them a whole day to surf at Malibu or Rincon or Ala Moana without anyone else in the water.

I’d support an event like that. I’d even go there to help keep the wannabe punks and broadcast pimps away.

But don’t get me wrong. I don’t have anything against contests.

In fact, I lay awake at night wondering how non-surfers will judge us and whether surfing will ever be as profitable as team sports. I mean, why bother if we can’t attract influential sponsors, media coverage and a strong demographic fan base.

Without those, there’s no sustainable long-term revenue potential at all.

Without those, surfing is just…pointless.


A surfer for ‘about 100 years’, Neil Stebbins was Hawaiian field editor for Surfer magazine and Editor and Creative Director of the ski magazine, Powder. His stories and photos have appeared in more that 40 magazine titles worldwide.

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