An Honest Interview With APB World Tour CEO Alex Leon
In case you missed it, a surgical knife has been taken to the world tour this year, cutting up everything from competition format to iconic tour stops like Pipeline and Teahupoo from the itinerary (more on this below if you’re not yet up to speed). Unsurprisingly, many fans and pro riders alike have cried foul. But skeptics be damned – at least where the first two legs of the tour are concerned, with both Arica and Itacoatiara playing out smoothly thus far in powerful waves and a punchy man-on-man design. Tanner McDaniel’s 20-point air reverse assault at Arica. Tristan Roberts and Iain Campbell going hell for leather in macking Itacoatiara. Manny Vargas’ lovable fervour coupled with an array of questionable headwear. For the first time in some time, it’s been fun to watch the tour again.
For someone in a position as heavily watched as Leon’s, it’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But this year, he’s all about doing – something we learnt when we sent our roving reporter and Irish slab tamer, Shambles McGoldrick, to interview the man himself about the recent changes; to dispel the rumours with cold hard facts. What we got was better: a raw, unfiltered exchange with a man hellbent on spit-shining the professional side of bodyboarding, jumping endless hoops and hurdles to do so. It’s not everyday you get the chance to sit down and talk truth with the head honcho of a global sport, let alone an invitation to the table. But that’s the nature of Leon – humble, honest and passionate. You want the truth of what’s going on with the world tour, in front and behind the scenes?
Pro bodyboarding has made enormous strides since the days of the IBA, an organisation which reached for the stars before disappearing into a financial black hole. Alex Leon has learned from these mistakes and has made a huge effort to create a professional bodyboarding association that makes steady progress from the grassroots right up to the elite professional level. This year, the APB's mission is to consolidate gains made in the last four years.
The first order of business? Downsizing the world tour and making it more affordable for the globe's elite male, female and junior athletes. “We have decreased the number of grand slams that are taking place,” explains Leon. “The fans would want to see an event every month but that isn't viable for the athletes. There are going to be five grand slams, but we are only going to count the athlete's best three results to win the world title.”
The women's tour will also have five events this year, three of which will count for the title. “It would be great to have twelve grand slams a year,” says Leon. “But until the athletes can afford it, and the administration is big enough to handle it, we are better off downsizing and capitalising on our strong events.”
You’re probably across the changes to the World Tour by now, but here’s a refresher just in case: this year’s tour will consist of a field of 32 riders – the top 24, plus the four best trialists and four wildcards. They’ll surf three non-elimination rounds against alternate athletes, with only their best three waves deciding if they will make the top 16 and enter round four – where they then switch to man-on-man heats that will continue up to the final. This will hopefully mix the most exciting aspects of both free-surfing and competitive surfing; and likewise, discourage athletes from adopting a play-it-safe mentality, giving fans more opportunities to see their favourite riders in action.
Despite these spicy changes to the format, man fans were stuck on a more pressing issue: that Pipeline and Teahupoo, arguably the jewels in the world tour crown, were pulled from the 2018 roster. “Pipe is one of the most important wave venues for any world tour,” says Leon. “I was extremely upset about not having Pipe on the tour this year. It was super frustrating because we were doing all we could to get the permit, but it doesn't come down to money or statistical data. It is simply a political process where the local council choose who they want to give their permit to. They simply choose events randomly and say, ‘Yeah, you have a permit on these dates’. It has nothing to do with the history of your event or your sport or the money it brings into Hawaii.”
“The local community is upset with people trying to come in and run events at Pipe, [which means] it is so strict,” says Leon. All we can do is apply every year. For me, Pipe has always been the jewel in the crown – since the birth of pro bodyboarding in ’82. It put bodyboarding on the map and has created the greatest world champions of all time. So when can we see another bodyboard event at the fabled wave? “Unfortunately, we didn't get the permit this year but hopefully next year we can,” says Leon. “Hopefully there is enough rallying and lobbying done by the local bodyboard community so that we can return in 2019, because having Pipeline on the tour is important for the credibility and status of our world tour.”
And what of Chopes? "The only reason why Teahupoo is not on the tour is because we weren't successful with sponsorship this year. Our permit is still in place for next year. Hopefully, if we get the sponsorship, we can have the event in 2019."
“[Teahupoo] is one of the hardest events to run, and with the permit system in place there it is very, very costly. Each day you run that event, it costs you close to $20,000 in water safety alone. Because Teahupoo is such a dangerous wave, the government does not allow rogue promoters to run events there. You need a certain number of jet skis per athlete in the water, you need back up jet skis and backup ambulances on the beach. You need massive medical and safety assistance in place. Not to mention the broadcast, which you have to set up on land and then build the scaffold tower out on the reef. The logistics of that event are just incredible.”
“Having it last year with some of the guys who were absolutely charging it, ten foot, I thought it was great for sponsorship opportunities. We had great content coming out of the event at Teahupoo and we definitely made a lot of noise from it – but the sponsorship game is so fickle. It is hard to attract major sponsors and funding for these events. It’s one of the hardest things I have had to deal with and it’s unfortunate we didn't get the funding for Teahupoo but it is the most expensive event on tour to run.”
As for finding World Tour sponsors, Leon says the APB is now working with an action sports agency to help with the search, and in the short term, is focused on building the fan base and upping online engagement.
In a boost to Australian bodyboarding, there’s a new grand slam on Aussie shores – the inaugural Kiama Bodyboard King Pro. “After years of lobbying and hard work, to have the World Tour finally come back to Australia is an absolute blessing and huge achievement for us. This event also gives a great opportunity for the local bodyboarders and future athletes in this country."
“2018 is going to be exciting,” continues Leon. “Our whole team has been working around the clock, trying to be ahead of the game. We have come up with some new innovations – working with the guys at YouRiding to create Stact, the first app where you are able to look at the history of any rider; where they’ve placed in each event, how they have beaten or lost to other athletes. We’ve got to build these athletes profiles up, put them on a stage and tell their story.”
The level of women's riding is constantly being pushed with Ayaka Suzuki, Joanna Schenker, Alex Rinder and Isabella Souza leading the charge. With the women's tour, Leon is hoping to “increase the field of competitors and participation rate” to hopefully see more juniors coming through. The crowning of junior and dropknee world champions this year also comes down to affordability for the athletes. Leon found that dropknee riders and juniors alike don't have the funds to follow the whole tour. In response, he’s decided on a one-off events in Portugal for each: the dropkneers will have their world championships at Sintra and the juniors will have theirs in Viana.
The good news is that some old familiar faces will be back in contest jersey once again. “Mitch Rawlins will be returning to the world tour this year. He’s been a fan favourite in the sport for so many years, and his wave riding style is impeccable.” Ryan Hardy will also be competing in some APB tour events in 2018 after a triumphant return to the world tour at the Fronton King event in 2017.
“The Fronton Showdown was a wake up call to a lot of other surfing and action sports,” explains Leon. “We made a lot of noise from that event because it was death defying ten-foot Fronton, guys coming in with blood on their heads, people going to hospital, a guy winning a world title. It was amazing. We had this humbling feeling at the end of that event, knowing what we had just achieved as a sport. It was just incredible and that is when I realised I couldn't walk away from this."