Thursday, July 22, 2004

Step Into Dogshit

Surfline called me a "slightly disenchanted" surfer.

I think that's a fairly good description. As a matter of fact, let's run with it today.

Been in SF again this week, so haven't been back in the water since Monday afternoon. Which, by the way, was quite fun. That south swell wasn't exactly pumping, but there were lots of waves to be had.

Anyhow, the Norcal crew and I saw Riding Giants Tuesday night in THE CITY. Quick FYI - don't call it San Fran or, even worse, Frisco. Everyone just calls it THE CITY, which is rather big of them since, um, there are other cities. But whatever. People in San Francisco have always been convinced that the world revolves around them and that they're cooler than, in most cases, they actually are.

So, we saw Stacy Peralta's lastest and it was pretty good. Didn't quite have the flair or the "warts and all" dirt of Dogtown and Z-Boys, but it still delved a bit deeper into real surf culture than, say, that piece of shit fluff piece by Bruce Brown's copycat kid. Speaking of which, why do we put up with that shit? Did anyone watch that surf industry promo film and not feel their $8 trough of Coke bubbling back up their throat?

I could practically hear the pitter patter of little feet as tens of thousands of surf-stoked moviegoers made tracks to their nearest surf shop. You hear it? You hear the sound of free bars of wax getting dropped into little paper bags as Al Merrick logs yet another six hundy for a board shaped by a Oaxacan day laborer turned surfboard line cook?

And look, before you get any ideas, please understand that none of this has anything to do with some kind of anti-commerical stance. I'm not driving around with that quack from Santa Cruz who parks at every contest and spouts about the death of soul or the commercialization of a pure, spiritual interaction with Mother Nature.

It ain't that. As a matter of fact, I'm in advertising, and I'm all for the surf industry. I'm all for contests and I'm all for surf movies.

It's BULLSHIT that I don't like. And the entire surf industry is almost pure bullshit.

To illustrate this is kind of complicated, but I think we can pull it off. To start, tell me, which parts of Step Into Liquid did you relate to? The friendly, wacky "Strapped Crew" and their chummy trips with the "Santa Cruz Crew" to some remote island where they waxed philosophical about fuck all? Or maybe the Malloy brothers uniting Northern Ireland with their free brethren to the south, all thanks to a grom sesh in freezing slop? Oh man, that was "heavy". Isn't it great the way we as a people can all be united by surfing, brah? Mahalo.

Fuck me, are you kidding?

Surfing might be the most non-uniting sport on Earth. Every time you paddle out, you are essentially walking into a bar crowded with dudes, and attempting to cock block each and every one of them in order to hook up with the one or two hot chicks that showed up that night. Unless you find yourself in that rare situation of paddling out at a spot with more waves than people, surfing is the antithesis of a sport that unites people.

Too many people, not enough waves. That's it. That's the single most critical feature of our favorite pastime. It's what drives and shapes our entire surfing culture. Be it localism, or surf movies, or travel, it all stems from our NEED to get MORE of what there ISN'T ENOUGH OF.

And yet in order for the industry to continue to move forward, to sell more boards, to entice more beginners, we have to perpetuate this myth that surfing is a come one, come all, party on the beach.

Let me ask you a question. What do you know about Andy Irons? You probably know that he's from Hawaii. You probably know that he has a brother named Bruce. And, undoubtedly you know that he's won two world titles and that he freakin' RIPS.

But that's it. Did you know that he's an asshole and a bit of a thug? Did you know that he's an idiot and can barely read? Did you know that he has seven felony convictions for molesting Collies?

Okay, that's only partially true. The point is that if it was true, you wouldn't know it. This is the TWO TIME WORLD CHAMPION and you don't know anything about him. What do you know about Kelly Slater? I've been following Kelly Slater's career for almost 20 years and I don't know shit about him. How is that possible? I know everything about Barry Bonds...his upbringing, his father, his family, his skeletons, you name it.

You see, the surf industry is structured completely different from other sports because it's the makers of the equipment we use, that completely drive the entire industry. You don't know shit about the top pro surfers because it is absolutely CRITICAL to driving business that you know only what their sponsors want you to know about them.

If little Timmy in Riverside discovers that most of his surfing heroes would probably scream at him to "fuckin' SPLIT" if he paddled out at their home break, he might decide to just ask for tickets to the Lakers game and not ask Mom and Dad for that new Ultimate Elasto for Christmas.

We can illustrate this nicely by comparing surfing to other sports. The key difference is that most other sports are spectator-driven. Fans watch baseball...they don't actually play it. So in turn, they don't give a shit what type of bat Barry Bonds uses to whack ball after ball into McCovey cove.

At the same time, professional baseball also pays really really well. Bonds makes close to $20 million a year. Even a semi-competent relief pitcher will pull in a couple of million a year, just sitting in the bullpen and facing maybe 2-4 batters a game.

So Barry Bonds doesn't care about selling bats. He makes tons of cash just doing what he does, and even if he did decide to sell bats, we probably wouldn't care anyway, because we don't need a new baseball bat. His only focus, his only goal, is to hit the shit out of the ball and win games. And as long as the Giants win games, we the fans are happy and we'll pay to go to the ballpark and drink $8 beers.

Unfortunately, that's not how surfing is set up. If Andy Irons won every fucking contest he entered, he'd probably pull in a couple hundred thousand in prize money. A nice chunk of change, but that's complete dogshit for a professional athlete who's the best of the best. Plus, he's not going to win every contest he enters. He'll be incredibly lucky if he wins half.

Which brings us back to sponsorship. In other sports, sponsorship is a luxury. It's something you can do in addition to playing your sport once you've made a name for yourself. It's an add-on...a bonus. And while Buick obviously cares about Tiger Woods' image and ensuring that consumers continue to like him, Buick doesn't drive the golf industry, nor does it drive Tigers' career.

If Tiger shoots his mouth off and says something incredibly stupid, the sports media is going to print it. Buick might threaten ESPN to back off a damaging story about their golden boy, but ESPN isn't going to listen. There are literally hundreds of thousands of potential advertisers to replace them if Buick cancels their spots. And even if it means potential short term revenue loss, the loss of journalistic credibility would be far worse.

Surfer magazine doesn't have that luxury. It's a small, incestuous industry dominated by a handful of companies who sell us the gear we surf with. If TransWorld Surf wants to run an article about how Sunny Garcia is a lowlife who yells at people and picks fights, they'd be in deep shit. A half dozen companies would pull their ads. That's massive. And what's TWS going to do? Suddenly do a focus group that says surfers are really picky about their teeth and go out and court Crest and Colgate to start running ads targeting surfers?

Forget it. Penetrating a new market takes shitloads of time and money. And even then you'll probably only land ONE new advertiser. I mean, it's not like Tide and Biz are going to start running competing ads in a single magazine.

You can also flip this around, which brings us back to surf gear and clothing manufacturers and the whole Bro/Brah network. Surfing brands appeal to only one and a half demographics - surfers and people who like the idea of surfing (the wannabes, to use a now semi-defunct term). They need the surf magazines because it's a niche market (you can't advertise removable fin systems in Entertainment Weekly), thus they're an easy ad sell.

Thus what you have is a nicely packaged, tight little industry, supported by a handful of trade magazines and related media. The magazines and movies are virtually inextricable from the industry. "Surf journalism" is therefore a virtual oxymoron, and nearly impossible to find. Everything the surf media does needs to promote the idea of a mostly idyllic subculture. Otherwise the sport won't grow, the companies won't increase revenue, they'll go under, and there will be no one left to fund contests and magazines and movies.

In other words, it's all bullshit. And because it's fluff, it's dogshit, too. Step Into Liquid is a perfect example. "Surfing is wonderful. Surfing is about sharing and loving nature. Surfing is freedom and Aloha and we're all one big tribe united by surfing. Tell your friends. Tell them to buy an Al Merrick and join the tribe."

If you think I'm just being cynical, then when you paddle out in HB this weekend...or Steamer Lane...or Ala Moana...or Bell's Beach...or Uluwatu...or wherever, think about it when that guy drops into the wave of the day and then eats it, and you curse him and yourself under your breath - him for fucking it up and you for not burning him while you had the chance. Or even when you first check the surf and you mumble under your breath about how there's "already fucking 30 guys on it".

And you know what? That's a good thing. As a matter of fact, it's a great thing. Recognize that surfing isn't what the media portrays it as. Admit it out loud. Admit it to your friends. Celebrate that surfing is a hard, frustrating, crowded sport.

Then, when you pick up the next issue of Surfing, you can say to yourself, "Wow, what a bunch of bullshit this is." Better yet, tell the editor. Tell the editor that you're sick of fluff. Tell Dana Brown that his movie is a glossy real estate brochure for Bullshitsurfville. Tell Evan Slater to grow some balls and do an expose on the North Shore and how it's infested with drugs, alcoholism, and asshole locals that resemble gang members. Tell Jack McCoy that his last movie was just "okay" and that the world needs a REAL documentary on the realities of the pro tour.

More Alan Weisbecker. More Daniel Duane. Less interviews with "Wardo" about how he thinks he's ready to make a serious move on the WCT and, oh, "I had a kid when I was 19 but let's not talk about that, it's all goood, bro."

Let's do this and bring some reality into our lives. We don't need this fluff. Surfing is a wonderful sport - we wouldn't suffer through the many negative aspects if it wasn't. We're in denial. And once we start acknowledging all the fucked up aspects of our sport, we can start doing two great things.

1. We can start really appreciating the parts that are genuinely great. You need the juxtaposition of good and bad to recognize and celebrate the good. 2 hours of watching Shane Dorian do impossible things in perfect waves in perfect weather is only going to make your next session in Oceanside slop feel even worse. Shitty waves in shitty conditions can be really fun if you don't have Step Into Liquid playing over and over in your head.

2. We can start FIXING the parts of our sport that are fucked up. Localism, journalism, sexism....whatever. If we all pretend that we're a big happy tribe, bro-ing out with Flea and Laird, brah, then we'll never fix the fact that virtually every popular surf spot is rife with bad vibes and even worse manners.

Step into reality, bro. Your next great wave will be that much better. Promise.

The Colonel says, "At ease."