The Best (And Worst) Things About the World Tour Right Now
Josh Kirkman left bodyboarding in 2006 as a confused 22-year-old, burned out and resentful of the pro life. But fast-forward a decade to a family holiday aptly timed in tandem with the Jeff Wilcox Memorial Competition – despite the many years away from his once-devoted craft, Kirkman threw his name into the Masters Division and finished favourably. It was a move that energised the man’s comp stoke once again, inspiring him to rejoin the world tour in 2017.
But what’s it like to return to the tour after such a long absence and so much change? In light of the dramatic updates to the 2018 World Tour, we asked Burguete-Kirkman to tell us what he learned on his year back in the comp rashie – what it’s really like to chase the pro “dream”, and what he believes should be done to make the world tour better. Fair warning: man spits some truth. No hard feelings, ok?
Many say that bodyboarding is dead, or has at least hit rock bottom.
But it’s not, and neither is competitive bodyboarding. Both exist in isolation, but together they are less than the sum of their parts. After chasing the world tour in 2017, here’s what I learnt about the pro life right now, both good and bad.
Chasing the world tour – it’s expensive
To have completed the required number of events in order to be in contention for the world title in 2017, you would have had to outlay around USD $10,000 (not including the Tahiti or Pipeline events). This, of course, is a very conservative estimate (and about the same amount to be in content in 2018). Add to that, a literal handful of pro riders get paid what could be called a “wage” to bodyboard. The amount of prize money on offer for those competing is therefore a problem.
If competing on the tour costs around 10-large, then only the top three riders in 2017 made a profit. When only a handful of riders in the world get some kind of financial return, we have a big problem. There is of course the joy of seeing the world, riding amazing waves with your peers, and of course competing for a world title to motivate anyone, and that is money well spent. And admittedly, a handful of guys on this list make a few bucks from sponsors along the way. But as far as investments go, this isn’t a great one.
The waves are good – but is that enough?
Back in my day, it was a victory to have three events on tour. There was Shark Island, Sintra, and Pipeline. Tahiti made an appearance in 2003, but that was about it.
In 2017, I competed in Brazil, Chile, Sintra, Nazare and El Fronton. Three out of the six events were mind-blowing in terms of wave quality, two were average, and one was horrendous. Of the events I didn’t attend, two were exceptional (Pipe and Tahiti), one was horrendous (Viana) and the two others looked good but were too low in star-rating to warrant anyone attending due to cost (Japan and Sandy Beach). On face value, the tour was much better than my previous experience – and organisers and promoters should be commended for that – but does stellar wave quality make up for the fact that there is very little chance of making a living from competitive bodyboarding for 21 of the top 24?
In theory, a world tour that expands to more locations is great. But for those relying on sponsorship funding alone, chasing a world title with a long list of faraway tour stops is problematic. There are some great people doing their best at the APB on an administrative level – but I feel that the quest for a dream tour, like what the WSL has, is not sustainable for bodyboarding.
The competition is fierce – but sometimes, the best riders don’t show up
The level of riding I witnessed on tour in 2017 was equal to or better than what I witnessed ten years ago. I have never seen a better competitive performance than what I saw from Iain Campbell last year (his world title should be recognized in the history books as one of the greatest ever). More recently, I saw the best heat ever in Tanner McDaniel’s win over PLC in Arica.
But sometimes, the best riders don’t actually show up to events. I’m not talking about the lack of Australians on tour, but the fact that a number of riders consistently dropped in and out through the year. A lot were out for family duties (like Amaury, PLC and Jeff Hubb), but other riders skipped events to instead stay home or embark on promo tours (such as Mike missing Arica and Brazil to visit Australia). I missed the Brazil event this year as I simply couldn’t justify the expense.
The Tour de France is a legitimate tour to the extent that all riders participate in a series of events to determine an eventual champion, only missing certain events due to injury (or an inconvenient blood test along the way). Cyclists don’t pick and choose which parts of the tour to do – they participate on the whole tour. Bodyboarding cannot say the same thing. The elephant in the room is evidenced by myself finishing as the second-highest ranking Australian rider in the world. I can count 10 Australian riders who ought to be competing on the world tour – why aren’t they there? Many reasons, but one is that they don’t have to be on tour to call themselves professional anymore. These days, it seems Instagram and the odd clip is enough to sell a few boards and keep sponsors happy.
The professional freesurfer – they’re hurting competition
During my years as a “pro” bodyboarder, I hated that I had to rely on a handful of photographers, videographers and magazine editors to ensure commercial exposure of my riding. There was something insincere and desperate about it. These days, it all comes down to the rider and how they manage their own content creation. And while I think it would be really nice to have more magazines, a part of me feels that things are much better in terms of one’s ability to generate exposure.
However, the existence of ‘freesurfing’ professionals versus ‘competitive’ professionals is a problem that the competitive bodyboarding needs to figure out. For every dollar spend by a freesurfer chasing a swell, a dollar isn’t spend investing into the world tour.
In Australia, riders are choosing content over competition. But internationally, we have riders choosing the opposite – especially the Brazilians and Chileans, who in many cases are funded by government money to compete. Australia and the US don’t have the government support for riders to chase competitive glory, and the sponsorship dollars are only dwindling as the pie of bodyboarding is cut into ever smaller slices. In many instances, it’s more valuable for a sponsor to have a rider create great content that drives sales, as opposed to chasing a world title. The problem for the rider is that they often have to choose between the two. The APB’s new ‘Sessions’ format provides more chance of exposure for sponsors – but nevertheless, a strike mission to a spot like Namibia will still do a better job (right, Ben Player?).
Competitive bodyboarding – it’s not a profession
I don’t think competing for a world title should be a profession at all. If you are a rider on the APB Tour today and competing for money, you are on a collision course with disappointment and guaranteed financial challenges in the future. Instead, competitive bodyboarding should be a passion that is within reach of everyone, not just those who are fortunate enough to have a few sponsors (or who, like me, have a working arrangement that allows them to work remotely). That should do away with the search for a “silver bullet”-like sponsor, and be what it has always simply been: a protest sport. Counterculture. Underground.
We should go back to something similar to the Morey Boogie World Championships back in the day. Think a three-week festival of bodyboarding: one big event each year, that moves from country to country in the best waves possible. Top seeds would be decided by qualifying from the different regions of the world, and the rest of the numbers would be made up by anyone who wants to have a go. Everyone could participate as the costs of travel are reduced significantly. We could even have more divisions with a full field of competitors from around the world. Imagine a vintage heat between Ben Holland, Pat Caldwell, Nicolas Capdeville and Ben Severson; or seeing Hardy, Rawlins, Pierre-Louis Costes and Spencer Skipper battle it out.
I am not talking about a small event here, either. I am talking about the biggest bodyboarding festival the world has ever seen. The FIFA World Cup is held every four years and it stops the earth from spinning. Bodyboarding can have a similar impact every year without riders having to literally live on minimum wage and the APB running on a shoestring. One big event each year that crowns a world champion might even be more lucrative to sponsors, and probably see much higher prize money awarded to riders.
We all like to compare bodyboarding to surfing when discussing what could be, but this is a fool’s errand and does bodyboarding a disservice. Surfing is becoming increasingly more mainstream and, in some ways, kind of lame. Bodyboarding doesn’t need that kind of mainstream acceptance because it isn’t who we are. We are a protest, or a thumb on the nose to ‘The Man’, and ultimately, an embrace of the weird.