The Future Of Wave Pools In Competition Surfing

Over the last 5 years wave pool surfing has grown in leaps and bounds. In the 80’s, Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pennsylvania set the precedent by hosting the world’s first Inland Surfing Championships. Shortly after that Typhoon Lagoon in Disney World, Florida invited surfers to rip on its 3 foot waves. (Ben Gravy recently got invited to surf it).

Fast forward to today and there is a wide selection of wave pools scattered across Europe and the US. Different companies power these waves each with their own special wave technology. You’ve got Wavegarden powering wave pools in the Basque country, Wales and in Texas. American Waves Machines in Waco, Texas.

Surf Lakes with its unique concentric surfing lagoon down in Australia. The undisputed leader though has to be Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California which offers both lefts and rights with open faces and barrelling sections. 

The waves are of such high quality at the Surf Ranch that the WSL has included it as a tour stop on the CT (Championship Tour) in the past. This of course begs a greater question – what is the future of wave pools in competition surfing? We sat down with a few experts to get their thoughts.

surf ranch

Chris from Stoked For Travel

Wave pools certainly offer a lot of opportunities for competitive surfing – not only for training but for the competition themselves. By removing waiting periods and having set, repetitive conditions it levels the playing field in terms of technical aspects of surfing, so from a logistical perspective it certainly makes a lot of sense.

The flip side to this is that they can never fully replace ocean based competitions – the very nature and skill of surfing is about being able to read the ocean and make the most of the waves on offer, however frustrating this may be!

The Surf Ranch Pro is a prime example of this – however perfect the waves, most surfers would prefer to watch ocean based surf events rather than heavily commercialised wave pools…myself included!

Wave pools certainly open up the sport of surfing to a wider range of commercial sponsorship deals – both through ad revenue for in steaming ads and physical ad placement around the wave pool. The predictable nature of a wave pool event also means sponsorship costs will be fixed with the time frame.

As more wave pool events spring up, inevitably the sport of surfing will grow (alongside its recent boost due to Olympic inclusion) and so will its marketing appeal for non-surfing brands looking to capitalise on the lifestyle appeal of the sport.

Big names such as Jeep, Corona have already paved the way for this and even pro surfers such as Kanoa Igarashi have shown how non-traditional sponsors can boost pay cheques – he’s even sponsored by a Ramen company!

In terms of professional opinion of the wave pool revolution it seems to be pretty split. On one side of the coin brands and even the WSL itself seem to be backing it (with their purchase of the Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch) and it’s bringing a lot more money into the sport. On the other hand the repetitive nature of the wave pool certainly doesn’t appeal to some and even pro surfers have openly stated they aren’t fans of the format.

Simeon from Riders.tv

Competition surfing will continue to be dominated by natural waves for two reasons: firstly,  because of the extra challenge that natural variability brings and secondly, because the culture of surfing involves being at one with nature.

Having said that, there is a place for wave pool competitions to offer opportunities for people who can’t reach natural waves, as well as for the very useful ability of wave pools to ‘turn-it-on’ at predictable times to suit some media needs. 

The media argument for running contests at wave pools is very compelling. They can run at an exact TV time slot, it’s a level playing field for surfers, and (in the case of Surf Ranch) there is a genuine stadium set-up for fans. 

There are quite a few concerns from pro surfers regarding the viability of wave pools. Foremost among them is that wave pools don’t currently provide the natural world challenge of variability that leads to wave selection and ‘read’ of each wave – a big factor in claiming to be the best surfer in the world. 

The best surfer isn’t just a machine grinding out turns and airs on an ultra predictable wave face. The best surfer is also a master of the natural world, at one with the ocean, able to read the ocean, the moods of the ocean, to position themselves at the optimal time to find that great wave out of the hundred or so that pass through any given 25-30 minute heat. 

Take that away, by using a wave pool, when you don’t really need to, when surfing is about so much more, and you may end up having metaphorical blood on your hands as far as the surfing community and surfing culture is concerned. This is no small thing. Surfers care about this stuff.

surf lakes

John from Respondek Photo

The future of wave pools for competitive surfing is huge! While I personally find surfing in wave pools to be a bit repetitive, I believe it’s going to play a huge part in bringing competitive surfing into mainstream viewing and expanding its existing audience.

Wave pools will most certainly bring more sponsor dollars into the sport. Firstly, having a competition in a wave pool eliminates the risk of the surf being flat. Also, pools can be built anywhere and can bring surfing into the most densely populated cities in the world. In addition to this, the pool itself can be blasted with sponsor branding which can be seen on camera when broadcasting the surf event.

Most of the surfers that I shoot with find wave pools very fun at first, and the continual supply of similarly-shaped waves provides the opportunity to try new tricks. However, for them, it seems like the novelty wears off a little over time. 

wave pools

Conclusion

Suffice to say the sentiment from the above experts seems to be pretty well aligned. Wave pools are most certainly great for surfing from a commercial standpoint, but when it comes to authenticity and heritage of the sport they pose somewhat of a threat. It will be interesting to see if they will secure their spot on the WSL in future years.

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