You might have missed it, but professional surfer Mikey Wright released a new surfboard model this week. It’s called the ‘Schooner’, and is made by JS Industries of Queensland, one of Australia’s top manufacturers.
Wright posted a video on Instagram promoting it, in which he and comedian surf commentator Vaughan Blakey are drinking in a typical Aussie front bar and have a conversation that confuses the board with the beers they are drinking.
This nonchalance, which is typical of surf marketing, is a million miles from what another Australian professional sport star, Nick Kyrgios, is experiencing right now, and the contrast explains a lot about the problems that plague the most high-profile sports.
Kyrgios started the week at Wimbledon by spitting in the direction of fans who were “disrespecting” him. Then he abused a line judge and was reprimanded for wearing the wrong-coloured shoes on court. He ended the week facing a charge of sexual assault back in Australia, for which he will have his day in court next month.
The more money a sport makes, the harder athletes need to work to get to the top, and the more they are expected to become role models when they get there.
You can see the dilemma – people who have spent all their teenage years isolated from the world pursuing their dreams are expected to acquire the wisdom and restraint of Solomon the minute sponsors start throwing millions of dollars at them and fans start to swarm.
Surfing has occasionally, over the years, tried to become a mainstream sport. To its eternal benefit it has mostly failed, remaining a fringe activity with an audience restricted to people who share its passion and understand its culture.
Surfing officials do not issue fines when an athlete smashes his board on the rocks after losing a crucial heat (which is rare anyway) or reprimand them for wearing the wrong-coloured clothing while competing. Nor do they pry too deeply into the athletes’ private lives.
Pro surfers were once notoriously hedonistic. The sport’s history is littered with casualties who shone bright before burning out in a toxic swamp of narcotics and mental illness. It took a few generations, but the cautionary tales are now mostly heeded. Hedonism is the exception, not the rule.
One of the stops on this year’s tour was G-Land, Indonesia, which is at the edge of a jungle on Java. The entire entourage – officials, judges, commentators and competitors – had to stay in an isolated cluster of camps on the beach.
When the surf forecast predicted a few days of no waves, an impromptu, wild party was held, which was described by one attendee as a “massive sacrificial jungle doof”.
It was a throwback to the 1980s and 90s, when such parties were held almost every night at professional surf contests, and a reminder that this sport isn’t constrained by the niceties of the mainstream.
The reason the sport can do this is it administers the same company that produces the broadcasts of it. This doesn’t make for high-quality impartial commentary, but it does allow the whole package to reflect the irreverence, humour and frivolity that most surfers share, making it more entertaining than your average tennis match.
This, in turn, generates the kind of authenticity that other traditional sporting stars struggle to convey. In this way, it’s similar to UFC, which is also administered and produced by the one company.
Nobody embodies this authenticity better than Kelly Slater, the greatest surfer of all time and possibly the greatest athlete in any sport in history. He has won 11 world titles and 56 events in a career spanning 30 years, and is still competing at age 50.
Slater, this year, released a series of videos about his campaign to win the title in 2019, going behind the scenes into his life. Even seemingly mundane moments come across as charming and insightful.
In the first episode, shot while Slater was competing in the Quiksilver Pro on the Gold Coast, we follow him to a training session in a pool where he prepares for heavy wipeouts. After a challenging underwater exercise where he learns not to panic, he says to his coach, “The message is to remain calm. I think this can be applied to situations in life, not reacting to everything around you. Going back inside and seeing how you feel.”
You’re unlikely to ever hear Kyrgios say that about a backhand cross-court or smashing a second serve.
Slater segues from philosophical insights about his own competitiveness to beating himself up for surfing badly at a contest, then telling aspiring young pro surfers, “Don’t let anyone else tell you who you are.”
Asked why he wore the wrong-coloured shoes onto the court at Wimbledon this week, Kyrgios said, “I do what I want.”
So do professional surfers. They might get paid less, but at least they don’t get reprimanded for it.