Event promoters promised the earth.
Tristan has been the eternal hopeful in the land of promise and speculation. A former professional windsurfer with an incredible vision and a herd of kids keen for fame, glory and fortune hanging off his every word. He was (and still is) always promising that he’s found a ‘new investor’ for the Stand Up World Tour then re-branded as the Association of Professional Paddlers (APP) all while leaving a trail of bounced checks and unpaid athletes. (Does this ring a bell to any of the female athletes of the Red Bull Heavy Water 2019 event?). But the guy is like the cat with nine lives with brazen self-belief that has the ability to sell ice to Eskimos and convince one and all that they need to be a part of his circus once again.
The windsurfing brands who had invested heavily in SUP have always known the importance that professional tours and world titles played in the name of scoring media, magazine covers and features. It was how Robbie Naish became a household name and a brand that sold product to distributors, retailers and fans desperate to be in on what was hot, cool and “Of The Moment”.
Those same windsurf brands that were early to the SUP game have always provided a backstop of support to Tristan and the APP, but in the disrupted economic age, that SUP emerged in, that old rule book got thrown out the window and the question of loyalty and support in times of crises and undelivered promises had to be asked.
It’s true, every SUP brand (or close to it) got its balls drilled against the wall and twisted until slowly cutting off all circulation, the reality of the boom and then the bust inevitably kicked in circa 2016 with no real emergence of recovery to those initial glory days in sight.
Key events disappeared or have been put on life support while others have flourished. You can ring fence these geographically to being US (life support), Europe (flourishing). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out the impact that a boom/bust industry and not being able to get your equipment to events has had on what was the mecca of paddling aka the Beach Cities of Orange County, namely Dana Point and San Clemente.
Only the very strongest of brands have survived via passionate enthusiasts putting their money where their mouth is or have been supported by other arms of their business or by brands getting granular and focusing on niche audiences.
If promoters were competing for the attendance of athletes and brands were trying to sell boards, something much larger and significantly more political was brewing in the background that would go onto affect one and all amongst all this chaos.
Circa 2014 the International Surfing Association pegged a massive stake in the sand.
Circa 2014 the International Surfing Association pegged a massive stake in the sand by declaring it was going to be the governing body that was going to get SUP to the Olympics. Athletes and nations got excited at the prospect of the Olympic rings. National surfing associations rolled their eyes at having to tolerate Kooks as part of their organizations. But when you look at it objectively, the ISA is an organization that was hell bent on getting surfing to the Olympics and the more events that they could prove they could host and run of a Olympic-caliber, the more points they scored with the IOC who would ultimately make the decision. A couple of years later, the ISA was successful in getting inclusion into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. SUP is nowhere to be seen.
Meanwhile, the ISA who at best can be described as an organization specializing in events, media and instructor certification continued to pocket large sums of money while giving very little back to a sport it is attempting to ‘govern’ (in hushed tones it is always rumored to be in the realm of USD$500,000 charged to host cities and the hordes of paddlers who wanted to pay for the honor of representing their country and yes – me included paid close to USD$1000 in entry fees to compete in the 2017 edition in Denmark) was starting to lock heads with the another governing body or another sport, the International Canoe Federation (ICF) who decided that Stand Up “Canoeing” was much more ‘canoeing’ than it was ‘surfing’ and that they should rightfully be the governing body entrusted to oversee this burgeoning sport and get it into the Olympics regardless of if ‘Olympic’ is the best thing for the sport of SUP in the present or foreseeable future.
Six years on and these two outfits are still at logger heads trading punches in the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) on who is best to entrust with a sport that neither really know anything about other than running a couple of events, clipping revenue, strategically placing Olympic rings in the background of photographs (Qingdao – the host city of the ICF World Champs 2019 was a classic) and kudos from the powers that be.
All the while throughout this period, many an athlete tried to rally the troops to form ‘athlete’ federations to represent the collective voice of paddlers to promoters and governing bodies in an attempt to bring the balance of power back to the people that actually paddled. This was GREAT in theory and completely flawed in execution. Why? Ego and breach of trust managed to get in the way of many renditions of these (usually held in Dana Point during the annual hui of Battle of the Paddle and subsequent Pacific Paddle Games).
Ego and breach of trust managed to get in the way.
Chase Kosterlitz turned an attendee list into a membership of sorts, made himself the President and asked everyone on his membership list to make a financial contribution, buy his book and become ‘certified’ by him which was likely great in concept, but failed in execution alongside various other attempts that have came and gone over the years.
The last meeting, I recall took place on the on the grass between the beach and carpark of Doheny State Beach on the Friday to discuss all things Tristan and the APP’s ‘new investor’ and proposed ‘tour’ plans for the following year. Close associates of the WSL were also doing the rounds of the sand making introductions to an incognito VIP who happened to be the new incoming (now former) CEO of surfing’s greatest circus in the hopes of rallying a meeting in the days following the event.
Having seen this shit show far too many times before, I spent that Friday morning surfing some of Doho’s most memorable late summer waves with the people that paddle simply for the pure joy of doing so – the weekend warriors. In all likelihood, I don’t think I missed anything other than the usual back, forward, sideways sling shot around the prayer circle of mistrust with no real progress as to a clear pathway forward.
Why? If I’m completely honest, we never had anyone who held the trust of the majority of the athletes actually want to stand up and take leadership of the situation. A couple of individuals who would befit this position had way better things to do than look out for the needs of everyone else when they themselves were working out how they were going to continue.
So there we have it: A sport developed with huge hype and hysteria, in the inflated age of social media and influence, hit some mega speed bumps combined with a lack of business acumen in the industry department, that is still being fought over and doesn’t quite know what it wants to be when it grows up. And that’s not to say that there haven’t been some smart people – there absolutely have been, but there have been squeaky voices that have been louder when voices counted.
But to the contrary, maybe this initial cycle of boom and bust was necessary to come to a natural level of equilibrium and sustainable growth without the hype?
Well, enter the year 2020 and the great apocalypse of Covid-19. In a matter of weeks we have gone from being a burgeoning sport being fought over in the Court of Arbitration of Sport to majority of the world not being allowed on their local beach, let alone to be able to grab a paddle, jump on a board and hit the water. The one thing we have taken for granted all along – the actual paddling bit just got removed. It’s mighty hard to have a race or a competition if you aren’t allowed to participate.
You see, sport is a privilege and one that the world has taken for granted. Until now.
Sport is a privilege and one that the world has taken for granted.
Events are cancelled for the foreseeable future of this year, but that doesn’t mean they are cancelled forever.
As we begin to emerge from our period of self-isolation, let’s choose to fall back in love with why we started paddling in the first place. For the love of pulling a blade through the water, for the love of catching a wave, for the love of the endless glide and sharing those moments with others who also appreciate them.
Let’s choose to make our sport great again by rebuilding it from our local grassroots first (borders are going to be closed for a long while yet – so international travel is off the radar for this year at least), developing junior talent and providing a pathway to elite competition but remembering to look after the weekend warriors who have the time and money that are the mainstay of the sport.
Let’s give them a reason to paddle, let’s give them heroes to idolize and look up to and let’s get back on track to realizing the potential we have to be as a sport.
Let’s choose to let sport be the winner rather than the lawyers representing the likes of the ISA and the ICF.
This is our sport, we get to steer the direction of where we head from this point into future and what will be best for a sport and everything that supports it – an industry, brands, manufacturers, retailers, media, events, athletes, participants, enthusiasts and the like.