Professional surfing is big business. Since the "sport of kings" (an allusion to its Hawai'ian roots pushed by American tourism boards in order to encourage visitors to visit the newly annexed territory in the mid 20th century) exploded onto America's pop cultural radar with the Gidget movies, and later biopics like The Endless Summer, surfing's economic clout has grown commensurately. Today, it is estimated that the global surfing industry moves around $7.2 billion a year -- much of it in surf related merchandise like board shorts and hooded sweat shirts -- to young people living both on the world's coasts and in landlocked areas.
This rapid culturo-industrial growth has created an interesting conundrum for the self-styled beach bums at clothing companies like Quiksilver, Billabong and Rip Curl who currently make good money by selling surfing. Do they want to portray their sport as a dream lifestyle that can only be enjoyed to its maximum in tropical paradises, or do they want to sell it as the quintessential global beach activity by promoting it on every patch of sand from Santa Monica to Bondi? For most of this century, the former paradigm ruled. However, the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), which runs a Formula 1-style tour of surfing competitions for the best surfers in the world, is being increasingly used as a marketing tool for the latter.
Essentially, the companies that sponsor the events on the tour believe that by holding surf competitions near large metropolitan centers, they will be able to attract more fans, and therefore sell more merchandise. The symbolic culmination of this paradigm will take place in September with the Quiksilver Pro surfing competition on Long Beach, New York -- a beach with fair to middling waves, but a close proximity to New York City. They will also be offering the largest prize purse in the history of the sport -- one million dollars.
I lived in Brooklyn for two years and have surfed the waves of Long Island more times than most of the people involved with the Quiksilver Pro combined. I also love surfing Long Island -- an emotion that many of them will also probably never feel toward that particular strip of sand. I love the autumn nor'easters and the anticipation of a coming hurricane. I love catching waves right beside the jetties and finding sandbars that are perfect for an hour before disappearing forever. I love the other surfers, I love the shapers, the surf shops, the passion, and the entire crazy community that is loosely affiliated with the waves. I love the A train that ferries city surfers all the way out to Far Rockaway. I love that Rockaway is the only surf spot with a hip hop dance named after it.
But I don't want to watch an ASP World Tour contest in New York. Surfing, at its highest level, can achieve transcendental greatness, its raw elements of beauty, power, finesse, and courage combining to create moments equal to or better than any sporting achievement you care to compare them with. Mountain climbing, big game hunting, fly fishing, skiing/snowboarding, none of these canonized outdoor pursuits can legitimately claim aesthetic or athletic superiority to riding a 50 foot wall of water or catching the wave of the day in Hawai'i. But this greatness, this absolute purity of form and function cannot, by my estimation, be achieved in fair to middling waves like those of Long Island. It will be like holding an Olympic downhill skiing competition on a bunny slope.
Of course, the wave quality is not the reason Quiksilver has put a competition there. And insofar as it is looked at as a business decision, I agree with it 100 percent. But we must separate the business of surfing from the act of surfing. Otherwise this once indelible piece of coastal American culture risks becoming nothing more than an all-encompassing marketing campaign in which the beauty, bravery and overpowering awe that define it become secondary to the market shares of the small cadre of people getting rich off selling your kids $150.00 board shorts.
I'm not interested in pro surfing because of the business of it. I'm interested in watching these incredible athletes harnessing the untold power of nature's most beautiful and brutal creations to streak across the very fabric of time and space. Certainly that is worth more than $1 million.
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