Despite the cult classic surf movie North Shore making wave pools look super hacky, it seems the wave pool is the future of surfing — and it’s thanks to surfing legend Kelly Slater. His investment into wave pool technology and subsequent sale of his surf ranch to the World Surf League will change how the how the World Surf League will brand and sell the sport.
According to the WSL Surf Ranch website, Kelly’s wave is the longest engineered open-barrel wave in the world. When compared to the rest, it’s a vastly superior, longer and better wave. Although wave tech has been around, it has never been utilized for the world tour. There are many pro surfers, regular joes, couch surfers, and analysts with their own perspectives: It’s bad for the sport, it’s boring, it’s not the ocean; or, if you’re in the pro camp, it’s a good thing for the sport and it will change it for the better.
It is hard to ignore that technology has been great for surfing. Live webcasts, drones, and GoPros have made surfing accessible. It’s helped the WSL deliver quality content. The free model WSL utilizes to attract consumers around the world and has allowed many to tune-in. Who wouldn’t want to see John John Florence and Gabriel Medina do 7-foot airs or take on 15-foot barrels live from the comfort of your own home without having to fly out to Hawaii or South Africa?
Obviously, there are many cons, too. The internet has helped the WSL build a bigger consumer base which has attracted more advertisers making the sport more commercialized. The WSL used the horrible Facebook Live feed instead of their website to attract more people, too. It’s a business, they want to attract more people, and sell more things. Cashing in on surfing is nothing new. For the most part, it shouldn’t really cost much. All you need is a surfboard, some wax, and (if it’s cold) a wetsuit — everything else is like a wave tracker or a tide watch are just useless accessories.
However, a competitive sport that is done in nature is far from ideal from a business standpoint since nature can be fickle. Contests can and have been put on hold or moved because of bad surf conditions which cost the WSL money. Because of the vicissitudes of nature, the WSL is jumping head first into a technological abyss: the Surf Ranch. Which brings us to the legendary Lowers Pro at Trestles.
This contest saw the rise of Kelly Slater and many others. It’s no longer on the WSL’s schedule and has been replaced with the Surf Ranch at Lemoore, CA. The Lowers event has been plagued by lack of swell in the past couple years. One can argue both waves are somewhat similar, too. However, the Surf Ranch can potentially make a lot of money since the swell is always pumping and you can sell tickets, something the WSL rightly wants to promote and capitalize on. Will this change surfing and has the WSL sold out? Yes, it will change surfing. But, no, they didn’t sell out. They’ve been sold out. It’s a business and it always will be. One thing is true, the format that has attracted many fans to WSL webcast and contests seems to be fading away.
It’s understandable. Wave pools have the potential to make the surf business more profitable. People won’t tune out of a webcast because the swell went from perfect 10-foot waves to a blown out 3-foot mush. Wave pools are consistent, controlled, and can be built on private property creating the potential for greater profit via ticket sales and events. The pool can be also be used by average surfers looking for a wave-fix when the ocean is flat or when they’re a trapped in a landlocked state. It can be sold as an experience for those who don’t live near the ocean. Take the current prices: a full event general admission package (Friday-Sunday) starts at $199 for adults, daily passes are $99 each. The VIP experience, which includes an exclusive VIP viewing deck, elevated food options, and an open bar is available for $499. Those are typical prices for a music festival and a lot of extra cash flow for the WSL.
And the surf ranch is being sold as such. Blink-182 is headlining on Saturday, the grounds are loaded with booze and food vendors, and you get to watch pro’s surf. Will it change the face of surfing? Probably. If this wave tech does catch on and if the technology improves, it will definitely privatize elements of surfing in a way that has never been done before. However, the ocean will always be there.