Kelly Slater Wave Company (KSWC) grabbed the world's attention when it unveiled a head high, barreling, and perfectly repeatable man made wave. The wave grabbed the attention of World Surf League Holdings, the parent company of the World Surf League (WSL), who bought the majority stake in Kelly Slater Wave Company. Today's announcement brings questions about the direction of the World Surf League and the future of competitive surfing.
The mission of the WSL is to put the best surfers from around the world on the best waves around the world. The mission aligns with the core tenants of the sport: traveling and exploring the world in search for perfect waves. As surfers we live with, and enjoy, the variables that the sport throws at us. Suffering through flat spells and poor wind conditions gives more meaning to the days when all of the conditions come together.
Suddenly all of the variables are taken away. The Kelly Slater Wave Company always has swell and each wave breaks the same. Without the variables all we are left with is the simple act of riding the wave. Surfing is so much more than that. For the average free surfer the majority of your time and energy is spent doing everything other than riding the wave. By investing in wave pool technology the World Surf League is investing in an idea completely foreign to the average surfer. In this way they risk widening the gap between competitive surfing and free surfing.
While we do not know if and when top level competition will be brought to the wave pool, we know the WSL is more than willing. CEO Paul Speaker says on the matter, "We do believe that all stakeholders - athletes, fans, broadcast and corporate partners - will be super energized by the advent of Chapionship Tour-level competition with man-made waves."
Until the WSL brings competitions to the man made wave, they plan to create a global network of training centers using this technology. In their vision, this technology will bring performance surfing to a new level.
Kelly Slater sees his creation as a sort of surfing utopia. "Surfing great waves in a controlled environment adds a new dimension, as there is no hassling for waves, no stress over who got the best wave - they are all good. Everyone can relax, have fun and focus on improving their surfing." He adds, "It will democratize surfing and provide incredible training opportunities for athletes as well as aspirational surfers in areas with no ocean waves."
In reality, these man made waves are the anything but democratized. Since we first saw Kelly Slater ride the first wave at his pool, we have not seen film of anyone except other pro surfers riding the wave. As training facilities, as the WSL envisions, they will serve elite pro's with sponsor support. And if the wave pools are open to the public, surely access will only be for the economic elite. It is simply a novelty that most surfers cannot afford.
Ultimately, this will not affect the average surfer. We will carry on as usual surfing out local beach break and saving for a trip to Mexico once a year. However, it's a delicate task for the WSL to bring performance into the future while remaining true to its roots. The WSL's partnership with the Kelly Slater Wave Company risks alienating the average surfer if they push the sport to far away from a shared experience.