Yesterday I drove down to Moss Beach, parked, and then biked the last few miles to Mavericks for the highly anticipated big wave surfing contest. The conditions were ideal. It was sunny, warm, and the haze had burned off. The swell was huge, with early speculation hoping that the conditions could make for the biggest waves for a paddle-in contest, ever. These hopes turned out to be true, with wave faces pushing 50ft.
I went to Mavericks, despite the crowds I knew I would have to confront, despite the fact that the break is so far off the coast that you have to watch the waves on a jumbo screen to really see the action anyway, because I wanted to be a part of the energy of the contest.
The day turned out to get international coverage, and not just because of the surfing, but because of the storm surge that resulted in rampant injuries to spectators who were swept into tents, the awards podium, steel barriers, you name it. I happened to be perched on the cliffs at Pillar Point and got a birds-eye view of the fiasco, and it was as chaotic as the videos on youtube make it out to be.
The contest coincided with the first day of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, and the chatter online did well to capitalize on that point. A lot of proud surfers were claiming that the Mavs contest was “the real” Olympics. I definitely think there is one major similarity between these two sporting events: relative obscurity. The Winter Olympics consist of sports that I don’t care about, at all, for 99.99% of my life. And then all of the sudden, for two weeks every four years, it becomes really important to me who wins the individual luge, or who is the best at the biathlon, which pairs skiing and shooting. (As far as I’m concerned, that is the most random pairing of sports you can ask for. I propose to the IOC that for the next Olympics games, they include two other biathlons: speed skating followed by speed braiding, and curling followed by a contest as to who can hold their breath the longest.) As for Mavericks, it’s pretty similar. I personally care a lot about surfing, but the vast majority of people who see the news of the contest don’t give a crap about surfing, they just tune in for the thrill of it.
The same even goes for many of the spectators who were there. I’d speculate that most of the people who got hit by that rogue wave don’t have much ocean experience, otherwise they would have read the signs (wet ground, high tide, high surf advisory) and would have gone for higher ground. My buddy and I were perched on the cliff, and two girls scrambled up behind us (with one of the girls rather shamelessly grabbing my friend’s inner thigh to help propel herself up) who had no idea about what was going on. That’s cool, I’m not being disparaging about a novice audience enjoying the spectacle.
What I am disparaging, however, is the way that the Mavericks webcast fell flat on its face in its ability to engage its audience. After the rogue wave smashed through the crowds, organizations starting posting to Twitter advice to spectators to stay at home, and to watch online. I was already at the contest when this advice went you, but had to drag myself away after the first heats to get back to the city. I quickly flipped on the internet broadcast of the contest when I got home, and within about 5 minutes, completely lost interest in it. The webcast was a far cry from the experience of being there. How did webcast suck? Let me count the ways.
-First off, the camera work. About 90% of the footage was of the surfers in the line-up. That seems to make sense, because it focuses on the surfers, and that is where the action is. But waves come in sets, with lulls sometimes lasting a long time in between those sets. As such, for the most time what you saw was unidentifiable bodies floating over huge waves. Often times the camera would zoom in to try and provide detail for who was paddling, but the lip of an inside wave would obscure the view, and you’d get a fuzzy shot of an empty wave breaking. The other shots that they would cut to were: the judges booth, which they may as well have had a camera pointed at a barn to broadcast the paint as it dried, and the commentators. Which leads to…
-The commentators were pretty bad. I don’t mean any personal disrespect, but it was pretty painful to listen to the contest. I do blame the camera work too though. As I said, the overwhelming majority of the webcast featured empty waves. If you’re constantly on mic, what the hell do you talk about during empty waves? As it turns out, pretty much anything and everything. However, the way the commentators struggled for things to talk about, it’s like they didn’t expect that they would have so much down-time to fill. There were a few “interviews,” but they tended to be just as scattered.
-The scoring was completely and totally cryptic. The judges table was a black hole of information. The audience had no sense of what judges were looking for, what points guys were getting for scores, and why surfers advanced. The heat would happen, and then the three advancing names would get posted. That’s it.
-In general, the best way to summarize this is that the Mavs webcast did not reach out and engage the non-surfing audience. Even as a surfer, I would have appreciated some of the features of the Olympics broadcast that makes it such compelling TV watching. Because let’s be honest, it is an absolute blast to watch the Olympics. We get personal bios during the downtime, we learn about new sports, we get back stories…in general, we personalize the experience of the sport and the competition. Sitting on my couch, the Olympics really matter to me. I have personal reasons for wanting people to win. The Mavs webcast wasn’t able to do that. It put the magnificent power of the waves and the surfers as the sole focus of entertainment, which unfortunately wasn’t enough for it to be compelling watching.
Since I was at the contest, I got to watch Ken “Skindog” Collins celebrate with his kids, and splash around in the water with them. I got to hear a girl cheer for “daddy” during a different heat. I got to bask in the post-heat STOKE (totally deserving all caps) shared between Alex Martins and Carlos Burle, as they bantered in English and Portuguese about their session. Honestly, those were the best moments of the day for me. I saw some sick waves, but those will be re-broadcast in higher definition than I experienced from the bluffs, even with binoculars. But the engagement isn’t in watching small specks of men fly down the faces of massive waves, it is in humanizing these guys. It’s in sharing their stories so that we get to know them, and as we faintly make out a bright blue jersey as it bounces down the face of the wave, we really feel for the surfer as it was our wipe-out too. I hope that in the future, the organizers learn that the engaging drama of the contest lies just as much on-land as it does in the water, or in pre-recorded interviews or vignettes.
If they can successfully capture that part of the contest, then I’ll consider staying off the bluffs and watching online in the future. But for now, I plan on going back to the next contest in person, rogue waves be damned.