Sitting in traffic behind a white Chevy truck with a bale of hay in its bed on a dusty road in Central California, I could already see Adriano de Souza on the jumbotron inside the Surf Ranch. Nothing felt more jarring to my internal construct of surfing than seeing the passionate Brazilian claim an artificial wave on a big screen, surrounded by plots of farmland 100 miles from the ocean, as crowds of surf fans walked by us toting fold-out chairs, sunscreen and binoculars.
Today, as I’m sure you’re aware, marked a “historical” day in surfing–according to the World Surf League. No matter your stance on whether wave pools belong in competitive surfing, you’ve got to give the WSL marketing team props. We–if you tuned in–just watched the first day of a competitive event at the world’s best artificial wave that had an unprecedented amount of hype surrounding it. But perhaps more impressive is how they convinced a large number of surfers to pay money to give up surfing for a weekend to sit around a pool and watch a gigantic contraption churn out waves they wouldn’t be allowed to surf. That was the real historical event.
Inside the Surf Ranch, surfers and non-surfers alike lined the 700-yard wave-making machine, cheering and yewing each time their favorite athlete blew by them on the artificial freight train. Those who couldn’t find space among the beach chairs and blankets moved to the metal grandstand at the far end of the pool and watched the event through binoculars or the jumbotrons. In the “Festival Village” at the west end of the facility, food trucks served visitors and a stage was set for halftime show entertainment. Aside from the perfect waves, the non-riotous crowd and its inland location, the scene didn’t feel too different than the U.S. Open.
Today also marked one of the easiest days of Keirren Perrow’s career as a commissioner. Although this wasn’t an official ‘CT event, Perrow didn’t have to stare out at a moody, unpredictable ocean this morning and figure out if the waves were good enough to run a surf contest in–an obstacle that tends to make competitive surfing a hard sell to advertisers and mainstream broadcasters. Today was in the hands of the pool’s engineers and operators, and as such, those advertisers and mainstream broadcasters were here in droves. I could be wrong, but the wave’s predictability could be the reason why CBS chose to televise this contest over any other ocean-based surf event.
Yesterday during the opening-day press conference, WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt sat alongside Steph Gilmore, Jordy Smith, Johanne Defay, Adriano de Souza and Kelly Slater in front of a bunch of mic-slinging reporters. They (along with yours truly), sat in a VIP area festooned in West-Elm-meets-Urban-Outfitters décor, busily scratching notes on pen and paper. One reporter raised his hand and asked Goldschmidt if she and the rest of the WSL suits view this event as a step towards more profitability.
“Stadium surfing–who would’ve thought?” said Goldschmidt. “We’ve never had live network coverage for events like this. Audience growth is even more of an importance to us. I know friends of mine who want to watch us or tune in that when we’re in the ocean, when we have to say, ‘Well, the event is going on for 12 days and the event it’s to run at some point for 4 days, but I can’t tell you if it’ll run until the morning of.’ We hope this encourages a broader audience to get into surfing and then we move them up the funnel.”
Another subject that naturally came up throughout the conference was the 2020 Olympics and whether or not the surfing event will run in a wave pool on par with the Surf Ranch. Rumor has it that running the event in a wave pool is still an option and that Kelly Slater Wave Co. is already working on plans to build one in Tokyo. I could be making assumptions, but it feels like this whole ordeal, even down to the regional, team-structured format of the event–countries pitted against countries–seems like an eager sales pitch to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Committee.
As for the surfing itself, the event’s formatting today felt more like an all-star game or an NBA dunk contest than a serious competition. Each of the five teams entered the pool with their own teammates. Without the back-and-forth, offense-defense tactics between surfers in man-on-man heats, each athlete was able to chuck strategy and just focus on putting on a show. Jordy Smith’s alley-oop, despite concerns of his tall stature being conducive to the wave, and Felipe Toledo’s barrel-to-air combo were some of the show’s highlights.
Speaking of highlights, I’d be remiss not to mention the performance of all the women today. The judges didn’t seem to be scaling the scores based on gender–and not that they needed to. This wave, in a weird way, seems to equalize the playing field between men and women. And if you go back and watch Steph, Tyler, or Carissa’s waves, you’ll see that the women consistently scored as high (if not higher) than some of their male teammates.
As many times as I scraped my dropped jaw off the cement today, I found myself starting to crave some of the drama that naturally transpires in man-on-man heats that are held in an environment that is wildly temperamental and unpredictable. I began wondering if perhaps the inherent flawlessness of the wave pool might eventually become, well, boring to watch. How long will it take for the novelty of it to wear off? As viewers, will fans eventually tire of engineered perfection? Maybe it was just coincidence, but just as I started to contemplate these things the event was put on pause for about 45 minutes for some “routine maintenance” halfway through the Australian team’s heat.
About midday, I parked myself along the side of the pool to watch the day’s action and started talking to the guy sitting next to me–a surfer from Santa Cruz named Ryan. Holding a beer in his hand, Ryan was wearing a Pipe Master’s tank top and hanging out with a group of guys donning cowboy hats. I asked him why he wanted to leave the ocean for a few days to watch this event.
“It’s a dream come true seeing this in person,” he told me. “This is what we drew in our notebooks back in elementary school. It’s not like at other events where you show up and you’re waiting around and maybe the waves will show up. Here you’re up and close to the action. I’m hoping I can surf it in the near future. It’d be nice to eventually drive two hours to surf perfect waves in Lemoore instead of driving 9 hours to Mexico.”
One of his friends sporting a cowboy hat butted in. “Honestly, I think with this type of thing, now we can have the Olympics–or an event–that’s not embarrassing, like when Rio gets small and bad or when they cancel an event like Margaret’s because of the sharks. This will give us a good event without fail every 4 years that isn’t embarrassing to the world. When the waves are perfect and breaking properly–that’s when I’m watching the event every day.”
Before we went our separate ways, I asked him the same question I asked myself: part of what’s so great about this wave is its impeccable predictability. But will we all eventually grow immune to the wave’s perfection-especially when, up until this point, the general public can’t actually surf it?
“Are you kidding me?” he replied. “Not at all. I’m mind-surfing every wave. I can’t wait to come back tomorrow.”
Welcome to “stadium surfing,” everyone.