Will the UK ever see a world surf champion
By Marc Anton Smith – Exclusive interviews from the worlds of business, politics, sport and photography by London-based journalist | editor | photographer
Surfing is riding the crest of a wave.
On Wednesday, the sport’s governing body, the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), announced that it will be staging the sixth stop of its 2011 World Tour at Long Beach, New York, less than 30 miles from Manhattan.
The event, to be held in September, will offer a $1 million prize purse to competitors – the biggest in professional surfing history.
Sponsors Quiksilver are salivating at the prospect of getting prime exposure to moneyed Manhattanites: “We are beyond excited,” said Quicksilver CEO Bob McKnight in a statement.
But while surfers and fans in the US gear up for an event that will add glitz, glamour and could finally propel surfing onto the front pages of the mainstream press, the situation in the UK looks depressingly downbeat.
The British Surfing Association, the sport’s governing body since 1966, was declared insolvent last December amid accusations of financial malpractice, a complete lack of faith in its leadership and Sport England ready to pull the plug on the sport altogether.
“The BSA’s liquidation was a major blow to the sport,” Dave Reed, CEO of the UK Pro Surf Association, an independent organization that runs British surfing’s only professional tour, told me in a telephone interview.
“Surfing has been through quite a bit of turmoil in this country recently. We have been left behind on the international stage and now we need to catch up.”
It didn’t always used to be this way.
In 1989 we were celebrating our first, but to date only, world champion in Martin Potter – a man born in Northumberland but who learnt to surf in South Africa.
Surfline.com’s biography describes his fluid, powerful and radical style as an “unheard of combination”, recounting how it inspired 10-time world champion Kelly Slater.
The UK also had one of the best and most admired surf school systems in the world, but there has been no Brit on the World Tour since Russell Winter in 2002. Winter remains our number one surfer.
According to Reed, we’re no longer top dogs in our own back yard either.
“We were the dominant force in Europe 10 years ago but now we’re down to 4th or 5th,” he said, pointing out that the continent’s power base has moved to south west France.
So how did it all go so badly wrong?
Chris Thomson is the 29 year-old chairman of Surfing GB, the brand new governing body that is rising Phoenix-like from the ashes of the BSA.
“There are dozens of reasons why the BSA failed, but ultimately it was trading as an insolvent entity for at least a year under different executive committees,” he told me in a telephone interview.
“It also failed at an emotional level as a lot of people became disinterested and lost a lot of faith in it. It had badly lost its way.”
His appointment is something of a gamble. Surely the youngest chairman of a sporting body in the country, he has a lot on his plate to try and resurrect a sport that in many respects should be selling itself.
As Reed quite rightly points out, surfing has a number of key advantages that potential competitors, fans and sponsors alike look for – a lifestyle straight out of a travel brochure, young beautiful people, a healthy way of life, plus it is inexpensive to watch and participate in.
Thomson’s age may not be, therefore, such a barrier; a fresh young face is exactly what the sport needs as it attempts to regain some sort of credibility.
He has already founded his own surf travel company, Errant Surf, so clearly knows his way around a business, its inherent politics and is passionate about the sport.
Indeed, Sport England has already agreed to continue funding surfing while key sponsors such as Billabong and Quiksilver are back on board with five-year contracts alongside soft drinks manufacturer Calypso.
The money is there, according to Thomson, the challenge now is not to waste it like the previous regimes appear to have done.
For Reed, some of the major problems are image related.
“The perception of the sport in this country has to change,” he said. “Surfing has to change by marketing itself a lot better than it has done in the past.”
Surfing GB has established some clear goals, but is more focused on getting the fundamentals right.
“First, I want to reengage with regional associations and establish representatives around the UK to move it away from being the ‘Newquay surf club’ as it was known,” said Thomson.
“Second, I want to rebuild the coaching staff by getting people who have the skills we need more involved.
“Third, I want to focus on the surf schools’ set-up and get them producing people capable of competing on the world stage.”
This last point is British surfing’s biggest challenge.
The surfing world has moved on since Winter was beating Slater at the end of the 1990s.
Today, even if you have a pool of teenage stars good enough to make it, Reed estimates that it costs £20,000 a year to fund a surfer to get onto the World Tour.
Thomson is confident the raw talent exists in the 10-13 age group, but worries whether the changes he is making will be in place quickly enough for them to benefit.
Nevertheless, both Reed and Thomson agree that it should not be too long before we see a Brit back on the world stage.
“The liquidation of the BSA sounds disastrous but it’s best news for 60 years. We’re starting at ground zero, and we can only go forward,” said Thomson.
But while we struggle to play catch up with our internal structures, surfers from other countries are already packing their bags for New York.