Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Slalom 63 - PWA madness or stroke of genius?

Check out the blurbs from the PWA's top-4 slalom racers on the new "Slalom 63" rules for the pro-tour at WindsurfJournal. Fun stuff. The Cliff Notes version - currently, the pros get to register 2 boards/4 sails for each event. That will change to 3 boards/6 sails for the season.

Interestingly, this is supposed to make things simpler and more affordable for the pros - to them, it's not a matter of how much gear you have, but how much gear you have to cart around while flying from event to event (which then results in huge excess baggage charges). Apparently, the top dogs have 4 or more boards and a full quiver of slalom rigs (sizes from as small as 5.0 for Pozo to around 10m for the light-air events like Korea - in .5 to 1m increments). While they only register 2 boards and 4 sails, most of them still bring everything everywhere, as the events are often close together (especially if they also compete in waves as well). And schlepping all that stuff gets expensive. Plus it makes it harder for new sailors to be competitive on the tour, as they have to stack up against those whole quivers. Sounds reasonable, right?

I find the range of opinions pretty enlightening. A2 gets off a good one-liner on weather forecasts - I assume he's trying to tell us he doesn't like the new scheme too much (nor the current one); of course, given that he dominates the discipline, his pithy comment on the restrictions providing a convenient excuse for bad results wouldn't really apply to him (he tends to not need excuses, and he seems not to hide behind conditions or gear when things uncharacteristically don't go his way - something to be emulated, I'd say...).

KP seems to think that as long as the rules are clear, it doesn't really matter which way it goes - cream will rise to the top and the outcomes will be pretty much the same. Valid point, I'd say. Micah thinks it makes sense b/c it's dictated by the market, although he'd prefer unlimited competition (presumably also taking away the restriction against non-production gear); given that this is the highest level of competition, I can see his point.

Bjorn Dunkerbeck is concerned about whether this will truly showcase the sport. To him, restricting equipment choice means that people will have to hedge risk - which will result in erring on the side of big. And apparently, he thinks that slalom racing on gear that's just a bit too big for the conditions is not sufficiently attractive.

And that's where the disconnect between what the PWA is doing vs. the reality of amateur/grassroots racing becomes really clear. Most amateurs have one slalom board, and probably at most two sails for each of those (that, by the way, was the original 4/2 formula...). That covers racing conditions for just about anything pretty well - not perfectly (as would be what AA and BD are after), but well enough to keep it exciting for the racers. But that's us amateurs - the pros can't live off putting on races that are satisfying to them; they need to create the most attractive spectacle possible to create value for sponsors and have media-friendly content to sell.

PWA (or, in its previous incarnation, PBA) racing went down the road of all-out competition with no limits before. In the halcyon days of the late 80's/early 90's, pros carted around giant stacks of equipment and made real money. An interesting thing happened - as the base of the sport evaporated after the boom faded away, the numbers didn't add up, and manufacturers no longer saw economic sense in supporting the pro-circuit (plus outside sponsors no longer thought of windsurfers as a demographic to reach, which made the pro tour a less desirable marketing conduit).

The current PWA tour is the result of a remarkable rebuilding process. There is a full calendar again, the racing is attractive, and the marketing seems pretty right on. This is still small change compared to most pro sports, but for a fringe sport w/o a huge halo effect (windsurfing is apparently no longer considered the cool, sexy new cutting edge sport), this is pretty good. PWA is forging ahead - good for them; but now the question is are they pushing too hard and making this whole thing unsustainable?

To wit - I'm a fairly committed amateur. I've been fortunate to get some support for pursuing my passion. Nevertheless, my racing quiver at this point consists of 2 boards (one formula, one slalom), and four sails (two formula, two slalom). Sure, I race on the West Coast - so I don't have to deal with 6-9 knot marginal conditions (so I can get away without the 12m), and I'm pretty big and reasonably fit (so I can hold down my big slalom board and 6.0 in most any conditions in which we'd consider racing). My quiver is probably a bit above par for the amateur fleet - so hearing pros whining about having to make do with suboptimal gear choices because they have to stick with the (rather open) restrictions on the PWA tour doesn't really bear a lot of resemblance to my reality.

Is that relevant in any way? Don't know - after all, in most sports, pros and amateurs are on completely different planes (both in terms of resources and performance). If I were making decisions for the PWA, I'd at least consider this point, though.

If the pro-circuit is too removed from the reality of the amateurs, it's losing some of the aspirational appeal and charm. So if you care about what windsurfers think (i.e., if you're marketing the pro-tour at least partially to the windsurfing public, either to create halo effect for products and thus drive industry sales revenue, or to have windsurfers buy PWA "stuff" such as dvd's and provide traffic for content that may at some point create ad revenue), keeping it somewhat 'real' might be important.

If, on the other hand, the goal is mainly to create the most spectacular content to plug into the bigger extreme sports consumer market (where the content is consumed by people who don't really engage in the activity itself, and where the revenue is mostly derived from advertising unrelated products to those consumers, or through some coolness factor), then perhaps keeping it real would be a mistake (as in the race for eyeballs, 'real' will lose out against outrageous every time).

For windsurfing, there's probaby something in between. PWA tried Super-X, and that died on the vine - so apparently pure spectacle didn't work (hey, it's hard to compete with made-for-TV spectacle where people engage in "extreme sports" stunts purely to generate outrageous footage with little apparent risk aversion). Before that, PWA tried Formula (which was driven by what was happening at the grassroots), and while they got lots of "good" (i.e., tactical, skill-driven) racing, it was a non-starter on the marketing front.

Jimmy Diaz, who runs PWA now, has a business degree. He clearly understands the trade-offs involved, and the incremental tweaking of the rules of the game are part of a process to figure out an optimization problem. The competitors seem to mostly get it as well. So far, this journey has been remarkably successful (as in having brought pro windsurf competition back from the grave). As they're pushing the boundaries, I'm wishing the pros well - it sure would be nice to see that what I consider the coolest sport ever can be successful at the pro level.


James Douglass said...

Nice analysis, G-42. It sounds like the current incarnation of PWA racing is making the best of a challenging marketing environment. I hope we can get some similar marketing genius applied to lower levels of the sport (i.e. US Sailing / US Windsurfing) to strengthen the declining "base" you refer to. :)

SeanAUS120 said...

Great post. I thought those comments on were quite funny also.

On another note, one thing I think the PWA could do to encourage its prestige and motivate the semi-pro/top-amateur guys to aspire to it is making Slalom a qualification event.

Currently, you send the PWA an email and get on the mailing list to enter events. Sure, you have to say who you are, but I entered my first PWA event a few seasons back with no slalom kudos whatsoever. I got punished in that event ...

In the back of my mind right now is...I'll concentrate on formula and when I can get the money together to do a decent slalom campaign, I will do another PWA event - I know I can get instant entry, so why bother training for it right now when I'm not up to speed?

That's not a good way of thinking. If I had to qualify to get a wildcard (as you do for the waves I believe?), then I would be motivated to go out and train slalom all the time and get to the level - knowing that by just "competing" at a PWA event I am already considered one of the top slalom sailors in the world. Thats great motivation.

Finian Maynard made this point about 3 years ago, but nobody listened to him.