People don’t go on vacations to see empty football stadiums. Soccer fields and baseball diamonds without players are nothing more than grass and dirt. Surfing might be the sole exception. The ocean as a natural amphitheater is more of a draw for fans than the sport itself.
“As a custodian of the sports history, I’ll remind people that before automated surf shot it out from beneath us, we were riding the unicorn of sports,” said Encyclopedia Of Surfing author, Matt Warshaw in an interview for BeachGrit about the World Surf League(WSL) contest held at the Wave Ranch in Lemoore, California.
The Wave Ranch is compared to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for a reason. Hidden behind large gates is a 700-yard-long artificial wave pool testing facility designed by 11-time world championship surfer, Kelly Slater.
The only way to surf the Wave Ranch is to be invited by Kelly Slater himself or win a sweepstake.
Last week, Slater opened the gates for a lucky 12 individuals, men and women, for a surf contest dubbed the “Future Classic.” It wasn’t the first time professional surfing held a surf contest in a wave pool, but it was the first time technology surpassed anything found in nature. “It got heckled seriously because it was pretty crap,” said Ian Cairns in an interview with the OC Register about the early wave pool contests.
The inaugural wave pool surf contest was held in 1985 at the Dorney Park Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Australian surfer, Tom Carroll, won.
Kelly Slater won the second chlorinated surf competition at Disney World in 1997 in his home state of Florida.
However, in both instances, the artificial waves were laughable compared to the raw power that the ocean provides.
That is, until Kelly Slater unveiled the Wave Ranch in 2015.
In order to test if the pool was fit for competitive use, the WSL and Kelly Slater invited some of world’s best surfers to be test pilots to see what a surf contest with on-demand perfection would be like. The contest showed that the Wave Ranch is viable as a venue for professional surfing.
“The wave is perfect, it’s like what we draw on the paper,” said Filipe Toledo in an interview with the WSl after he placed second in the contest.
In a press release of the event, the WSL said “surfing is now ready for the next step, and the ability to dial up perfection anywhere at anytime changes the game even more.”
Sachi Cunningham, a Multimedia Professor at SF State, is an avid surfer and one of of the few people who can swim through the shorebreak at Ocean Beach to shoot water photography of waves and surfers.
Cunningham didn’t see the contest live but, in her opinion, she doesn’t think it will replace pro surfing in the ocean.
“From what I’ve read, it certainly makes sense as an event on the championship tour. It will be a complete game-changer for both contests and those surfers lucky enough to train at the facility,” said Cunningham.
The WSL World Championship tour is comprised of 11 events held on the beaches of Australia, Brazil, Fiji, South Africa, Hawaii, France, California, Portugal and Tahiti. If the WSL, who bought the wave pool in 2016, decides to host an event at the Wave Ranch, it could be at the expense of an existing contest on the schedule.
Professional Big Wave Surfer and SF State Alumnus, Colin Dwyer, isn’t in favor of a shift to wave pools in professional surfing.
“I think it’s novel and cool but I’m concerned the WSL is pushing for an elite-centric platform, sacrificing fairness for revenue,” Dwyer said.
Surf contests are judged subjectively, like ice skating or gymnastics. But in those sports, the field of play is stationary. In surfing, the ocean is always changing. Often, the better surfer loses simply for not catching the best wave. Wave pools provide the exact same canvas for every surfer to compete on leveling the playing field.
The WSL knows that wave pools won’t replace the special relationship that surfers have with the ocean. “I think the connection to nature is what makes surfing so revered by its constituents. I can’t speak for all but for me, I gain a spiritual fulfillment from spending time in the ocean sliding across waves. I don’t think I would get that same type of fulfillment from a pool,” said Dwyer.
At the Wave Ranch, they can have perfect waves at the flip of button making the sport better suited for live television. With surfing set to debut in the Olympics in 2020 in Tokyo, Japan Cairns, who helped establish professional surfing as a sport, thinks wave pools create a better viewing experience.
“Look, this is the technology that’s going to save the Olympics,” said Cairns in an interview for the WSL. “If they try to hold the Olympic event at that tiny beach break in Japan it’s very likely going to be one and done for surfing. They need this.”
But would fans of a sport that has always had free admission to both participate and spectate be open to a paid stadium setting?
“The biggest draw to the sport is that surfing is free and takes place in the ocean,” says Dwyer. “Holding surf contests in wave pool makes it feel very golf-esque.”
SF State Alumnus and formerly sponsored surfer, Jared Cassidy, revolves his life around the wave conditions at Ocean Beach. He agrees with Dwyer that wave pools will create a “yuppification of surfing”, further commodifying the ancient Hawaiian past-time to something that can be packaged for the masses.
“On the surface level, I think wave pools are cool and provide a great canvas for practicing new tricks or for surfing when the ocean doesn’t have waves, but it will never replace the ocean or the culture associated with the beach,” said Cassidy.
Cunningham hopes that there will be an effort to share the pool with a diverse group of people. Once someone buys the necessary equipment to surf, waves are free wherever there is a coast.
2015 World Champion surfer Adriano De Souza’s first surfboard cost his older brother $7.
Wave pools give the opportunity for surfers from landlocked areas to participate in surfing, but considering that they cost millions to build, access to them could be limited to the upper echelons of wealth.
“If you’re surfing, you’re not working, so there’s a built-in elitism already. Not to mention the cost of boards, suits, and travel,” said Cunningham. “The more accessible we make surfing to more people in the world will be better in my opinion. But I don’t know that the wave pool is any more gentrifying than a boat trip to the Mentawai islands.”