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Elite Surfers Going by the Board in Southland

"In Australia, you've got to go nuts to get a good sponsorship. You've got to be winning contests or just be a freak like a Mick Fanning or a [Joel Parkinson]. Here, you can do a couple of aerials down the beach, some bloke sees you or whatever and then all of a sudden you've got a deal." -- Jake "the Snake" Paterson, 30, veteran pro surfer

September 05, 2003|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Beyond the sandy shores of Lower Trestles in San Clemente, the world's top 44 wave riders and four wild-card entries are surfing their hearts out in the only top-tier pro surfing tour event held annually on the U.S. mainland.

And when the foam settles after the final sometime Monday afternoon, a Boost Mobile Pro winner will emerge, $30,000 richer and with his World Championship Tour standing and overall stature having vastly improved.

But if you're thinking that will be one of our own, think again.

More likely, he will hail from Hawaii, Australia ... or even Florida.

Carlsbad's Taylor Knox could rally in front of his family and friends. So could Laguna Beach resident Pat O'Connell, or Oxnard's Tim Curran. But neither has won this year, and the first two, both aging veterans in their early 30s, have only one WCT victory between them -- a 1996 triumph by Knox in Brazil.

Curran, 26, who posted two WCT victories in 1999, has struggled since and is mired in a four-way tie for last place. Knox ranks 16th and O'Connell 19th.

Southern California fans' best hope at Trestles might rest with either of two local wild-card participants, veterans Rob Machado and Shane Beschen, who are no longer on the WCT. Dane Reynolds, a rising star from Ventura, and Hawaii's Bruce Irons are the other wild cards.

Meanwhile, Hawaii has Andy Irons at No. 1. Florida has Kelly Slater at No. 2. Australians are Nos. 3-5, then there are another Floridian, another Australian, another Floridian, another Australian and yet another Floridian rounding out the top 10.

All of which prompts a couple of questions:

* Why is Southern California, a region awash in quality surf and sunshine, where lifelong surfers number in the tens of thousands, so under-represented on the grandest of world stages?

* And what business does Florida -- with its notoriously lousy surf -- have outclassing Hawaii and Southern California?

There's a simple answer to the second question. Kelly Slater, who is to surfing what Tiger Woods is to golf, happened along in the early 1990s and reeled off an unprecedented six world championships. Following in his wake were the Lopez brothers, Shea and Cory, and the flashy Hobgood twins, C.J. and Damien. Shea Lopez is the lowest-ranked of the bunch, but hardly a slouch at No. 15. C.J. Hobgood, the 2001 world champion, is No. 6.

As for California's woes ...

The answer seems more complex. Many of Southern California's most promising surfers, despite their considerable talent, no longer seem to have the drive and determination required to commit to the grueling World Qualifying Series circuit and ascend to the upper echelon as competitive athletes.

This, in part, is because there isn't the structure there was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a domestic circuit was started and grew into what eventually became known as the Bud Surf Tour. The Bud Tour offered significant prize money and ultimately enabled surfers to build qualifying points without having to go abroad as much as they do now.

At one point there were the equivalent of three WCT events in California -- in Santa Cruz, Huntington Beach and Oceanside. Competitive surfing had a presence here. Aspiring pros had a theater in which to watch and operate. Santa Barbara's Tom Curren was the Slater of the era and following in his wake were fellow Southland standouts such as Knox, Machado and Beschen.

The Bud Tour, however, became a victim of the recession of 1990-91, and only recently has the Foster's Pro Surfing Tour, sponsored in large part by O'Neil Clothing in Irvine, begun evolving into something similar -- with the Honda Element U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach as its centerpiece event.

But that's not necessarily a reason to tip one of those big blue cans in celebration.

Things are different today in the Southland, where the market is huge and where much of the industry is based.

Corporate sponsors, some anyway, have become less interested in tour results, as long as they're getting exposure through magazine spreads, videos and advertising campaigns.

"Ideally, you want to sign an athlete who's going to do well in the competitions, but also have charisma and some editorial pull with the magazines and be someone the kids are going to look up to -- to be the overall package," says Adam Sharp, a marketing executive for Rip Curl, an Australian company with a base in Carlsbad. "But here in the U.S., a lot of the guys are not so event-driven. The [public] following of the tour is not as strong, and as a result, the companies are looking for other ways to fulfill their marketing strategies."

Rip Curl sponsors four WCT athletes, all from Australia and two of whom -- Kieren Perrow and Mick Fanning -- are in the top five. Billabong has Andy Irons. Quiksilver, the presenting sponsor of the Boost Mobile Pro, has Slater and Paterson, who ranks 17th. So the bigger companies obviously still recognize the value of maintaining a strong presence on the WCT.

But where does the Southland figure into the mix?

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