Sold: The Wave That Changed Everything
Steve’s breakdown: Last December world famous surfer, Kelly Slater, revealed the greatest wave machine ever. Check out the featured video. Now the owners of the World Surf League are going to buy his company and the ski’s the limit. WSL Holdings is this company and they can be reached at this link.
Paul Speaker is the CEO
LOS ANGELES, CA: Like most people in the surf world, I’ve been stalking Kelly Slater more than usual since December 18th, 2015. That’s when The Wave That Changed Everything was revealed. But, like most people in the surf world, I’ve had to settle for scattered rumors, Kelly’s mostly thoughtful social media posts and staccato drops of online videos from the KS WaveCo that took over the Internet for a day.
That all changed this morning.
Today, the WSL publicly announced that they’re buying the KS WaveCo for an undisclosed sum — their first and only acquisition in three and a half years — and I finally got Kelly on the phone.
Before I got to Kelly, I talked to WSL CEO Paul Speaker and Commissioner Kieren Perrow to see what they think the transaction will mean for pro surfing. Turns out, they think it’s going to mean a lot. “A watershed moment for the sport,” Speaker said.
The deal itself is not exactly a surprise to industry insiders. There was already shared ownership between the WSL and KSWC — namely Dirk and Natasha Ziff and Kelly’s manager Terry Hardy — though, according to Speaker, “we have created a working environment that has put up these walls between us and kept confidentiality.”
Structurally, according to Speaker, the deal works like this: “WSL Holdings is the parent company. So these two companies, WSL (the league) and the Kelly Slater Wave Co. will be sister companies. And then, like any corporation, there will be some shared resources.”
As for how the deal went down, the way the WSL works is that anything new that has to do with competition has to go through the commissioner’s office, which simply meant that Kieren Perrow needed to approve the wave — needing to “feel that there was energy and power in that wave that resembled the ocean,” Speaker said — before the WSL would break out their checkbook.
Perrow, Speaker and Jesse Miley-Dyer were among the second crew to sample the wave last month — and KP was impressed, comparing it, as others have, to a section of Greenmount.
“You don’t know when you see it on video what it’s going to be like when you’re there, but the scale of the project is pretty mind-blowing,” KP said. “The pool is a lot bigger than I imagined and the wave a lot longer. There’s more power in the wave than I expected, too. I had a lot of questions – like, freshwater vs. saltwater – that were answered just by surfing the wave. When you see that section start to hollow out and open up, your instincts kick in and you just feel like you’re surfing wherever in the world that a wave like that breaks, and you adapt to it. It was an incredible and very interesting experience.”
So, does this acquisition mean there’s going to be a Lemoore Open this summer or in the foreseeable future? “We need to spend some time working on how to adapt the wave and refine the technology to suit what we need for a CT-level event,” he said. “But obviously, the beauty is that everyone can see the potential is there, and what has already been achieved is amazing.”
As CEO of the WSL, one of Speaker’s bigger goals is growing the sport of professional surfing. More fans equal more customers. “The potential for this surpasses what we right now can recognize as possible,” he said. “The amount of people, the amount of enthusiasm, the exposure for our athletes…TV partners are going to be able to — for the first time — turn us on and off live at 1 o’clock on Sunday afternoon. Also, it’s no longer limited to geographic location. We can put [pools] in places where we know it’s important to grow the sport, in emerging markets.”
Right before I hung up with Speaker, he brought up a final, salient point: “Think about what Kelly has done,” he said. “His commitment to this project I would argue is probably the most significant contribution an athlete has ever made to his or her sport.”
Big call, but it certainly could be true.
I had another call to make. And Kelly picked up. And here’s what he said.
Surfline: So this wasn’t your first wavepool project, correct?
Kelly Slater: Yeah. Ten years ago we were working on that circular wave. That was really where the initial sort of spontaneous enthusiasm for this came about — seeing the ring pool. And then my mind just went off with the possibilities of it. I remember showing it to the Hobgoods and Andy Irons and a lot of people and saying, “What do you guys think about this?” And everyone was like, “God it’d be so sick to have a real wave that you could ride forever, get barreled on, do whatever. Like a real wave that you could make.” So we worked on it for a couple years, then that ran out and our direction and technology changed. So we amicably parted ways at that time.
Can you talk about the technology?
I worked mostly with our scientist, Adam Fincham. I wanted to make a wave that, in scientific terms, is called a “soliton,” that’s like a groundswell [when it reaches the shore]. Being a surfer, I was pretty far from the scientific mind Adam had, so it was really he and I trying to decode what each other was saying. He goes into these longwinded explanations of the scientific matter and proof of hypothesis and all that kind of stuff. And I just kind of want the answer [laughs]. I mean, I don’t want to go through all the jargon; I just want you to tell me the way it works. So he and I worked together for years trying to decipher what type of wave we wanted to create, how to create that wave, and then how to get the engineers to be able to manufacture that. At the end of the day it comes down to: How do you create a swell? How do you impart the energy from the mechanism to the wave? That’s where you can get into some of the proprietary stuff. I think in a way I almost don’t want to talk about it because I find it so interesting when people don’t know, because your imagination is just spinning. I’ll just say it’s a pretty simple mechanism that goes through the water and angles a swell off and all the energy at just the right angle and right timing. When you see it, it becomes so simple, but there’s some pretty specific math you need to have — the speed and height and all that match up right.
The bottom contours aren’t very difficult, I don’t think. It’s more about matching up depths, or ratios of depth to height of wave size. Then also wave speed and how the bottom comes to a ledge or gradually slopes up. There’s a lot of different ways to create this imagery and to make it utilized in a proper way. We’re a little bit limited by property size — the actual lake is 2000 feet long — and the scope of how I really wanted to do the bottoms, but I’m pretty happy with it. It’s unbelievably fun and cool lookin’.
How did you go about the business side of things?
Ten years ago, I got together with all the guys who were SIMA, all the heads of all the companies, for a meeting at Dana Point. Like 25 guys. I thought this could be a big thing for surfing. And I think everybody really did enjoy it and they saw the idea and what it could be — the idea of expanding industries and that sort of thing. I wanted to see this as bigger than being just Quiksilver, who was backing me with it. I wanted it to be something for surfing as a whole. But at the end of the day it was a tough sort of conglomerate to put together with all of those different people, and everyone had different ideas about it. Timelines and finances and marketing budgets and that kind of thing. So I think everyone’s excitement was in the right place, and it was just unfortunate that we couldn’t, you know, take 25 people and each put a million bucks in and do it right then.
We basically just stepped into the footing of an existing lake. In that sense, it was pretty easy because a lot of the earth was already sort of developed and shaped, roughly, close to the shape we needed. The lake’s been here for 20-25 years before us. It really came down to the land’s not super expensive here and we had a couple existing structures on the property, which would help us with accommodating what we needed once the wave was made.
The WSL is talking about training facilities. Is that what you were thinking when making it?
That came into my mind. A half-pipe or a bowl; skating or snowboarding… the kind of thing where you create the shape and just try stuff out over and over. The training center aspect definitely came into my mind. And, really, the fun aspect. Being able to make something at an elite level that you could also scale back that’s just at a fun level, or even a beginner level, too. So being able to make a bunch of different types of waves. And I mean, it’s a little cliché, but it’s a “build it, they will come” thing. It is truly one of those things that a lot of people couldn’t understand until they saw it built, and now it seems like everyone understands it; like it always existed.
How would you see it affecting contests?
If there were ever a World Tour level event, or any event, really, it would just strictly be about the surfing that’s being done. It’s not about the hassling. It’s not about anything other than just the technical aspects of how you surf. It’s a much easier comparison when you give two different guys the same exact wave and see how they choose to surf it. I think that changes the whole mentality of how you go about competing. It just literally becomes about the performance, how far you’re going to push yourself, how conservative you’re going to stay to make the waves, but also how far you’re going to try and push the envelope and put pressure on another guy.
It could really favor certain guys’ styles.
Yeah. If it suited a certain guy’s style and he just practiced in the wave over and over and over again to where no one could touch him. But that’s where performances get pushed. That’s the thing: When I got on Tour, I always said my first couple of years that I felt like the level was really bad. I thought there was a lot of pressure from the old school to out-compete people, not out-surf people. I’ve always wanted it to be about the performance level expanding. Bigger maneuvers being thrown and better carve lines being drawn and nicer flow between things. In something like this there’s no excuse. I think everyone can quickly become good at almost every aspect of that. Who is a good surfer? They should all be able to push their boundaries pretty quickly. And leg strength. The wave’s frickin’ long, so you’ve got to have some muscles.
Have you thought about a potential structure for a contest?
Yeah, it’s buzzed around in my head a little bit, but I haven’t come up with an exact structure since we’ve had this. Years ago when we had this, I thought, well, it’s pretty simple. You have different rounds where each round is about one aspect of surfing. Then you have one round that’s about the overall ride. So maybe you have one round where you get two chances to ride the wave, and you get to pick which wave — because you can dial the wave a little bit differently. There are faster and slower waves, and more performance waves and more barrel waves. So you can decide what you want, and you get a couple of tries for that. And then you might get one score for your overall ride performance. Let’s say there’s 36 guys, so you just label everyone 1 through 36 after that round, and after each of their rounds, everyone just gets a score for each round. The simplest way to do it would be to add up each of their placings from every round. Like, I might have a 1st, a 2nd, a 5th, a 19th, a 36th, you know? So there might be an air round, a maneuver round, a carving round, an X-factor round, a barrel round. So you put all those different rounds together, and add those up. I think the fairest way would be to put everybody in, 1 through 36 for each category, add those numbers up, and you’ve got your winner. That may have simplified it a little too much, but I think simpler is better when it comes to judging.
Do you see Kelly Slater Wave Pools popping up in strip malls all over the world?
Well, it’s not like you buy a surfboard and go out and it’s just free at the beach. It does take revenue and a business plan to get this thing happening. So you have to get some sort of infrastructure going. I mean, I’ve definitely thought that it’d be awesome if everyone had one of these within driving distance of their house. Especially in a place like Florida where we get flat spells for months. To have two or three along the Florida coast, or even inland Florida so guys could drive from the Gulf, too. If you had one in South Florida, one in Orlando, and one in North Florida, somewhere in the central part of the state, it would kind of allow almost everyone in the state to get there within a couple hours. It’s weird, though, because I kind of think of this wave as an experience. Like today, I rode four or five waves, and I’m totally satisfied because they were long rides and I got barrels and did turns. You get a lot of variety.
How will that variety get implemented? Different level pools?
I think there are a lot of different avenues to do it. I think there’s an elite-level wave that guys can train on, and it’s a classic wave; it’s a Rincon or that kind of level of wave you would expect. And you can scale back. You can make it not as fast or make more of those waves, maybe the rides aren’t as long so you can get more people through there in a day. It still remains to be seen, though. This is an almost non-existent industry. It does have relation to country clubs in golf or something along those lines. So you have some that are super elite courses that are only open six months a year, like Augusta, then you have other ones that you pay per day to go and play and are not quite the high level that you would expect at the top course in the world.
Also, you don’t need to do this. You’re at a point in your career where you could just… go surfing. Why?
I didn’t feel like it was something I had to do at all. I just felt like it was something fun. I really didn’t feel like it was something that a lot of people were going to put together in the right way anytime soon, and I thought that maybe I could. So, I don’t know, just for some reason I got on this train and started going for it. I’ve never been involved with anything that’s had this much excitement and interest and fun attached to it. You can probably see that in the videos on people’s faces. Everyone who comes here and gets to experience it has such a fun time. There’s the obvious questions of, “When can I surf it? How can I surf it? What can I do to get in there?” I mean, I would love there to be enough of these so everyone could get to experience it — or enough time in the day. But at this point there’s one of these, and it’s our prototype, and it is a private test facility. It’s not for rent or anything like that at this point. Since doing this project, part of me really wishes I’d been a hermit throughout my whole life so nobody knew me, so I didn’t have any friends [laughs].
Can you talk about the WSL’s acquisition?
It’s exciting for me because it’s something I had a big part in creating. And it’s getting the visibility of being seen as something potentially big for the sport side of surfing. I’d love it to be equally as big or an even bigger part of the lifestyle, the enjoyment of surfing for the average person. But I’ve always said this and I’ll always stick by it — this is not to replace anything in surfing; it’s just to be a supplement to surfing. There’s not yet been a single person who’s come to surf this wave who has walked away disappointed, who didn’t want to come back. To me, that’s just creating stoke, creating fun and good vibes. And actually, around the wave, in the water, and on the side — it’s just amazing to see how happy people are. If you don’t get this wave, you get the next one or you get one later. You surf for an hour and I’ll come in later. It kind of takes away that thing you feel when you go out in a crowd, you know, where people are just frothing to get a wave and like, angry. Here it’s kind of the opposite. Everyone’s willing to share, they’re happy, and really, you’re riding a man-made wave but getting a sense of what the whole experience is really about, because everyone’s happy.
Is anything missing from the experience?
It’s not going down to Mexico in the ‘70s and finding some empty point no one’s ever surfed. It’s not discovery like that and it’s not the journey and the safari that our lifestyle offers — and those things are arguably why I love surfing so much. I still feel like I’m going to go find the greatest wave I’ve ever surfed someday in some far-off land. To me, this kind of inspires that more because I get the fun and all that here, but there’s still the draw of the experience of the surfing journey. This is just the riding part, and you’re not dealing with having to try to figure out what the lineup is or how to outdo this guy or snake somebody for that wave. But all the other experiences connected to that, you can never replace them — and that’s not the intention of this at all.