Is Anyone Going to Watch The ASP when Slater's not There?

The King is Gone - Oh Sh** - what do we do now?

The ASP has a problem. It’s 5’9, 159 pounds and has a cleanly shaved bonce. And it won’t be around for much longer.

How many more turns like this are we going to see from Slater in a competition rashie? Photo by Jim Bahn used under CC 2.0 SA

Yes, at some point in the foreseeable future, although probably not for at least another year unless some minor miracle takes place at Pipeline, Kelly Slater is going to retire. And the ASP, or WSL as it is soon to be called, has nothing like a suitable replacement.

I’m not talking about in surfing terms. We could argue all day who has the better bottom turn or the most complete repertoire of above-the-lip manoeuvres. But there’s no one with anything like the draw of Kelly Slater.

Let’s get one thing straight. I’m not a Slater ‘fan’. He’s by no means my favourite surfer to watch. I’ve seen him in the flesh a few times and felt no compulsion to rush up for an autograph. Yet I reckon I’m about 5 times more likely to tune in to a heat if he’s involved. Double those odds if it’s a semi-final or final. Why? I must confess, I’m a sucker for a good story.

And Kelly Slater’s is an awesome story.

Kelly Slater just about to add another chapter to that story. 30 minutes later he was the 2011 world champion - Jessica Worthington used under CC 2.0 ND

The clean-cut wonder kid who upset the old order. Who dated Pamela Anderson. The burnt-out superstar who quit the tour and disappeared for three years like some religious mystic into a cave, then came back stronger, armed with Chia seeds and perspective and started winning all over again. The legend who just keeps on getting better.

Yes, there’s a sprinkling of excellent marketing by his former employers, Quiksilver, in all this as well, but The Kelly Slater Story is by far the most compelling thing in modern competitive surfing. The WSL needs to start thinking about how on earth it’s going to find a replacement.

Because let’s be brutally honest. Watching pro surfing can be a little bit boring. Surfing, for all its inherent excitement, is a bit slow to watch in real time. In the space of one half-hour heat you could probably watch fifty times the number of waves, better manoeuvres and more surfers by sticking on your favourite surf DVD. And you won’t have to listen to the commentators trying to think of things to say to fill the time, or be subjected to a load of ads. To put it another way – there needs to be a good reason other than a desire to watch world class surfing to tune in to a webcast of a comp. At the moment that reason is Kelly Slater.

Title number 11, will we see a #12? Jessica Worthington used under CC 2.0 ND

If you like to see him winning for the sheer incredulity of it, are awed by the physical and mental achievement of being at the top so many years, there’s your motivation. If you can’t stand the sight of him and want Medina, Fanning or whoever else to whoop him into the middle of next week, there’s yours.

Like it or not, Kelly Slater defines most people’s relationship to modern pro surfing. He is loved. He is hated. He fascinates. He aggravates. He intrigues and he inspires. And there’s not one surfer on tour who could even start to replicate this level of interest.

Just to stress again. I’m not arguing that Kelly Slater is the best surfer on tour. Simply that once he’s gone, it’s very difficult to see any surfer, any rivalry, any title race, feeling quite as compelling.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Slatermania is largely a result of some serious overhyping, especially during the nineties. We don’t just watch Kelly surf. We feel like we know him because of the endless documentaries, interviews, articles and speculation that have surrounded him ever since he first put on a vest. Perhaps the industry has relied too heavily on this one icon to carry it through to the modern era. Maybe once Slater has retired it will be as if shackles have been loosened and fans will be able to forget narratives about rivalries and records and simply appreciate the mind-boggling athletic ability of the surfers for what it is. But then we're back to that point about the DVD...

To return to the question posed in the title. Yes, of course people are going to watch the WSL when Slater finally retires. It’s a daft question really. There will always be fans. All I’m saying is that without a compelling narrative to latch onto, a personality to empathise with, many of those who have a take it or leave it attitude to pro surfing might start to leave it more often than not. The WSL better get writing.

One day, he's going to walk away and not turn back. - Allan Nadal used under CC 2.0 SA

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