Andy McKay first met World Surf League Tour Director Brian Robbins at a restaurant bar in Costa Rica.
Over beers, McKay bent Robbins’ ear. The Pismo Beach business owner asked Robbins, in so many words: Why do my nephew Austin Neumann, a rookie surfer trying to turn his passion into a career, and I have to travel so far to compete in a World Surf League Qualifying Series event when there were plenty of world-class waves to be had back home in California?
McKay has a point.
Last year, the WSL QS, pro surfing’s version of the minor leagues, held just one lower-level event out of its 49 total events in California, a state drenched in surfing culture.
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McKay said the lack of events makes it difficult for many California surfers to afford travel and make their way onto the pro tour, creating an environment where it’s sometimes the most wealthy — not necessarily the most talented — surfers who succeed. The effects are evident. Out of 34 members on the Championship Tour, pro surfing’s version of the big leagues, there are just three surfers from California — Kolohe Andino (San Clemente), Conner Coffin (Santa Barbara) and Kanoa Igarashi (Santa Monica).
McKay learned the WSL doesn’t put on events, it simply sanctions them. It is then up to the people and businesses in the city to make each event happen.
“I said, ‘I live in a perfect town,’ ” McKay said, standing under the Pismo Beach Pier. “I went to four or five events and saw how it was run. I said, ‘I can do this, but I don’t know how it works.’ ”
After more research and a flurry of emails, the idea for the Pismo Beach Open came to life in October 2016. McKay petitioned the WSL for the QS 1,000 event — a smaller WSL event surfers use to accumulate points needed get into larger, bigger-money events — and it was officially sanctioned. He gave a presentation to the Pismo Beach Special Events Committee, picked a date in November, and the event was unanimously approved.
“I think it’s a great contest for surfers. We don’t really have anything like that,” said Gordon Jackson, executive director of the Pismo Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau, adding the city will help with advertising costs if the event happens. “It’s a good time of the year because it’s an off-season, it helps hotels and it fits the Pismo Beach brand, which is Classic California.”
Now comes the hard part.
Raising the dough
“I have no experience, I’m totally lost, but I’m super passionate about it,” McKay said. “I am just having trouble raising the money.”
McKay, who owns Surfside Donuts in Pismo Beach, said he has been able to gather about 20 percent of the $35,000 needed to put on the Nov. 17-19 event, which would feature nearly 100 up-and-coming surfers from around the world. McKay has assured sponsors that the event will give a lot of exposure to the businesses because of the increased foot traffic and a livestream of the event.
$35,000Money needed to fund Pismo Beach Open, which includes prize money for surfers
McKay remembers when he was a kid growing up in Huntington Beach. Back then, contests were more frequent and he had the chance to make money surfing through events and sponsorships. But now those opportunities are gone.
“The major core surf brands aren’t investing heavily into the competition side of things,” WSL head judge Bill Seitz said. “The opportunities lie outside of the core brands. A lot of people are throwing (money) into the bigger events.
“I feel there should be at least six events in California, not one.”
The main sponsor for the WSL, up until recently, was Samsung. Currently, the WSL is working on a lead sponsorship deal with Visa, and surf tours in the past have been sponsored by Budweiser and Coca-Cola, not top surf brands like Billabong or Quicksilver.
McKay said he has been working that same vein, courting members of the local beer and wine industry along with local health care companies and hotels. If he can’t raise the money by finding corporate sponsors in time, the event likely won’t happen, unless he puts up the remaining cash himself.
“Surfing is more popular than ever, but companies haven’t found a way to monetize it or get return on investment in the surfing event realm. It can be a hard sport to monetize,” Seitz said. “But there are opportunities to monetize if it’s done the right way. It could really work for a town like Pismo Beach that relies on tourism.”
Last year, Neumann, the pro surfing hopeful, used donated frequent flyer miles and raised money to travel to Israel for a competition. He chose that event because there were plenty of open spots and it was a good chance to build up the much-needed points to qualify for bigger money events. But when the rookie was bounced in his first heat, McKay said Neumann was devastated and felt like he let down those who had donated.
“Having an event here would just be a huge benefit to a bunch of us surfers here,” Neumann said. “The traveling is super expensive. So if we could get an event here, it would save so much money.”
I want to help myself, help the town, and I want to help surfers.
Seitz, who lived in Morro Bay briefly, said when he started judging contests there was an event every fall in Morro Bay, and he would love for contests to return to the Central Coast.
“It’s important for people like Andy and for other people like this to take on these projects,” Seitz said. “Without him, we wouldn’t have these events.”
If all goes according to plan, McKay wants to find enough sponsors to put on the Pismo Beach Open and use that momentum to create a business that puts on a Tour of California with surf contests from San Francisco to Ventura. Over time, McKay said, the best California surfers will have more opportunities in their backyards, and local surf fans around the world will have more events to enjoy.
“Surfing has just changed so much, I want to help it get back to the way it was. I want to help put California surfers back on the tour,” McKay said.
Find out more
Visit www.pismobeachopen.com to learn more about the World Surf League Qualifying Series event that is scheduled for November.