"THERE'S A FINE LINE between success and exploitation," says surfer Jeff Clark, 52, of the contest held at Maverick's, the notorious break off Half Moon Bay, California.
"Maverick's is far bigger than any one man," says Keir Beadling, CEO of Mavericks Surf Ventures (MSV).
So went the soap opera leading up to this year's season at Maverick's. In June, the CEO of the company that owns the world's richest big-wave contest fired the man who founded it.
For 15 years, starting in 1975, Jeff Clark famously surfed Maverick's alone before anyone dared to join him. In 1999, he ran the site's first contest, the Quiksilver Men Who Ride Mountains, but Quiksilver moved on after 2000. In 2003, he partnered with Beadling. The two made odd bedfellowsthe soul surfer and the sports marketerand there were tensions from the get-go, with Clark focused on wave and surfer quality while Beadling strived to grow the business. Still, they managed to stage four successful contests before things boiled over last winter, when MSV signed sponsors late and the event never happened.
If there's any wave that should host the ultimate surf showdown, it's Maverick'sor so you'd think. The behemoth is only 40 minutes south of San Francisco, making it the only big wave within range of a major city. And yet the contest has had trouble attracting mainstream sponsors. That's partially because Maverick's is a half-mile offshore and often fogged in. (Compare that with the Quiksilver In Memory of Eddy Aikua contest, held at Oahu's Waimea Bay, where the wave is smaller but sun and bikinis are omnipresent and you can easily see the action from the beach.) It's also because big-wave contests are notoriously hard to plan. Maverick's breaks a handful of times every year, and the event is held with 24 hours' notice. It's not easy to find companies willing to put up big dollars for something that requires a near-perfect storm.
MSV may also have created some of its own hurdles with its alternative business strategy. This spring, the brand launched a Mavericks clothing line along with a 17-city concert series that Beadling likens to the Vans Warped Tour. This counts as reverse engineering in the surf industry, where established companies typically use their brands to promote events, not vice versa. Indeed, surfwear labels now seem inclined to stay away from Maverick's.
Last year all of these difficulties came to a head. Maverick's saw 40-foot walls and blue skies over Thanksgiving, but MSV didn't have a sponsor. When Beadling finally inked deals with Jim Beam, Sony Ericsson, and others in December and announced a record-setting $150,000 purse, the ocean fell flat. Clark says Beadling pressed to hold the contest in small surf to appease sponsors, a claim Beadling dismisses as "reconstructive history."
"He's the P.T. Barnum of surfing," says Clark.
"Tyranny," Beadling said of Clark's reign as contest director shortly after dismissing him. "When you're not doing your job, there are consequences."
Post-breakup, Beadling is certainly doing his best to make sure the show goes on bigger and better than ever. This year, he plans to broadcast the event live over the Web and on a giant screen at San Francisco's AT&T Park. He's booked a blimp to hover above the break as a sort of VIP section, and fans have reserved spots on boats that will float close to the action.
Meanwhile, the pro surfers who depend on Maverick's-size exposure to make a living are divided. Some, like Ken Collins, note that Beadling and his team "bring a lot to the table." Others have considered a boycott. Without Clark to forecast the swell, the 24 invited competitors will choose the event day by vote. They have also extended Clark an honorary invitation. Clark has never actually competed at Maverick's, and he's not sure whether he wants to change that now. On contest day, he says, "I'll probably be surfing someplace else."