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Surf Events Face a Changing Tide

Initially resistant, sport's ruling body agrees to sanction a competition in Huntington Beach that uses a team format.

August 09, 2003|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Competitive surfing will take on a new look today at the Huntington Beach Pier, that of a team sport involving some of the world's most talented pros and designed to captivate both on-the-sand and television audiences.

And before the first wave is even ridden, large or small, nine of the participants will be breathing a lot easier, having narrowly escaped a controversy that had grown to tsunami proportions, threatening to wipe out their season and jeopardize their professional careers.

Today's event marks surfing's debut in the X Games -- it will be shown Aug. 19-21 on ESPN and ESPN2 -- and in the field of 20 athletes are nine members of the Assn. of Surfing Professionals' elite World Championship Tour.

Seeing an opportunity they could not pass up, they had vowed to go ahead with today's East Coast-vs.-West Coast competition against the ASP's wishes and faced disqualification from the WCT, which boasts the world's top 44 surfers.

But the ASP, seemingly realizing the damage such a punitive action would cause its showcase tour, relented Friday afternoon, agreeing in principle -- again -- to sanction the event and not penalize any of the participants.

"We had a meeting and those guys gave us the A-OK," Pat O'Connell, 32, a WCT veteran and the unofficial spokesman for the nine athletes, said early Friday evening. "They're going to sanction the event."

The tumultuous situation arose with the popularity of the sport at an all-time high -- higher, some say, than it was even during the "Gidget" and Beach Boys era. Which might help explain things to some extent.

"It looks to me like surfing has arrived," said David Carter, a sports media consultant. "The minute you have a high-profile power struggle over television and money flowing into sports, that speaks to the big-time [nature] of the sport."

At issue were several factors. The ASP, with headquarters in Australia, was not thrilled about, and perhaps felt somewhat threatened by, its best athletes performing in an arena other than its own, under a different format.

The haggling went on for weeks, but the ASP ultimately agreed to sanction the event if ESPN paid a $35,000 fee by July 31.

ESPN, whose haggling centered on the money, saying the exposure it would give the ASP and its athletes would be worth far more than the sanctioning fee, ended up missing the deadline.

ASP President Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew, already under criticism from the primary sponsor of next month's WCT event at Lower Trestles in San Clemente, then reminded the athletes of an ASP rule stipulating that any WCT athlete competing in a nonsanctioned event runs the risk of disqualification from that year's tour and of losing his or her points that count toward seeding purposes for the following year.

Bartholomew couldn't be reached for comment.

The Boost Mobile Pro at Trestles, scheduled Sept. 4-13, is the only one on the U.S. mainland. Peter Adderton, chief executive of Boost Mobile, maker of cellular phones and related products, reportedly had complained to the ASP that the X Games event threatened to steal some of the Boost contest's thunder.

That Boost Mobile's business rival Verizon, one of several X Games sponsors, was going to receive a good deal more publicity for a lot less money further aggravated executives working for a company that had invested $1.2 million to stage the Boost Mobile Pro.

Chris Stiepock, X Games general manager, said he tried assuring Adderton that the X Games event would more likely whet the public's appetite for more top-level surfing at the WCT event, which will be shown, delayed, on Fox Sports Net. A crowd of about 85,000 was on hand at Huntington Beach on Sunday for the final day of the U.S. Open of Surfing, an ASP World Qualifying Series event won by Cory Lopez of Indian Rocks Beach, Fla.

Lopez, using the event to shore up points that count toward re-qualification on the WCT, ranks eighth in the WCT. His brother, Shea, ranks 15th. Both will be representing the East today in a format designed largely by former WCT standout Brad Gerlach and his father, Joe.

The format puts surfing on par with mainstream sports games in many respects. It is played in four quarters, with teams of eight, plus two wild cards, who answer to coaches and their assistants, who call the shots from the beach and in the water.

Each quarter is broken into two 20-minute heats. Each heat is surfed as a team and only four surfers from one team paddle out for each heat. This eliminates competition between individuals and allows for the team to work together to make the most of whatever waves roll in during each heat.

Surfers keep their two top wave scores, which are added together at the end of the game for the final score.

Coaches are allowed three timeouts per half and can use them, say, during lulls in the ocean with time running out in a heat. Or, perhaps, during an incoming set of waves just before the end of a heat, to keep the next team awaiting the start of its heat from getting off to a good start.

"All of the surfers say this is an excitement they haven't felt in a long time," O'Connell said. "For us, we love surfing more than anything else in the world and now we have a chance to bring it to new people and let them share our stoke."

The West won a narrow victory in practice Wednesday and the East "slaughtered" the West in a rematch on Thursday. On Friday there was a fog delay before the teams performed in a walk-through before the cameras.

Today, the real game begins.

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