Why Did Super Bowl 50 Cancel Mavericks?

The highly anticipated Mavericks surfing contest has been nixed this weekend even as epic waves roll into Northern California's coast. Blame the Super Bowl.

Feb 5, 2016
Outside Magazine

Mavericks brings tens of thousands of viewers to Half Moon Bay when it happens.    Photo: Frans Lanting/Aurora Photos

The waves at Mavericks were world class yesterday. The bone-crushing break 25 miles south of San Francisco—arguably the most famous big-wave surf spot in the world and home to the gnarliest competition in the sport—featured the kind of perfect, peeling beauties that come around maybe once a year.

“Mavericks was full on psycho today. Some of the heaviest waves I've seen in years,” surf photographer Dave Nelson wrote on Instagram. “A day to remember forever out there,” he added.

But while the lineup was crowded, the famed big-wave surfing competition didn’t materialize. The contest has never had any set dates, just a months-long window each winter during which organizers anticipate monster waves and closely watch the swell for when they come. If the models predict excellent surf, the event is green-lit and participants from around the world are put on 48-hour notice to show up in Half Moon Bay for a contest. If the surf doesn’t look promising, the contest isn’t held. (Of the 17 years that the contest has been active, contests have occurred only nine times.)

The lack of a scheduled event has always posed problems in terms of attracting advertisers and securing media deals, but this year we’re seeing the development of yet another tricky wrinkle in the challenge of pulling off Mavericks: its overlap with Super Bowl 50, which is being held at Levi’s Stadium just over the hill from Half Moon Bay. Local officials were concerned about their ability to manage both the biggest football party of the year and a surfing event that brings tens of thousands of viewers to the tiny highway that hugs the coast.

“You take Woodstock by the Bay, where everybody is drinking and partying,” says San Mateo County deputy harbormaster Cary Smith, referring to the Super Bowl, “and now you just added 20,000 people to the coast. That’s double the coast-side population right there.”

Smith said that with the football championship game hogging manpower, local agencies don’t have the resources to control crowds and keep the public safe at Mavericks. Smith noted an incident during the 2010 contest in which several spectators on the beach near Mavericks were injured by a rogue wave. At the 2006 contest, crowds were packed so densely on the bluffs overlooking the break that the edge of the cliff crumbled, and a woman fell down the cliff face and broke her hip.

Today, organizers and county officials hope to ensure bystander safety by keeping California Highway Patrol, Coast Guard, CalTrans, and local fire officials and sheriffs departments on hand during the event. All of those organizations will be plenty busy this weekend, Smith said, and made commitments to help keep the Super Bowl running smoothly months ago. Plus, to make matters worse, since much of the partying is taking place along San Francisco’s coastline, the Department of Homeland Security has stepped up security along the region’s coasts and bridges, Smith said.

“Every single agency is tasked with something to do,” Smith said. “There’s nobody left.”

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