When the ASP turned into the WSL, it made it clear that it had grand designs on making surfing into something much larger than surfing. It wanted the NFL in the water. It wanted NASCAR on waves. It wanted viewers and drama and oh-so-much money. It wanted that because it is a business that runs on excitement… and what’s more exciting than a shark attack or a shark encounter or whatever you want to call it? It’s the NFL equivalent of a 90-yard touchdown run. It’s the NASCAR equivalent of a rollover explosion. And it will make the WSL into something much larger than it currently is.
I’d wager dollars to donuts that more people saw that final heat than any other heat in surfing’s history. And I’d wager dollars to donuts that someone somewhere deep within the World Surf League offices is silently celebrating the fact that a great white chose the final heat to show up and poke around Mick Fanning’s feet while the world watched with bated breath. They will not be telling anyone that they’re celebrating, but they are. Paul Speaker and Dirk Ziff are telepathically high-fiving. Television gold! At the expense, of course, of Mick Fanning’s safety. But television gold!
Truth be told, though, the response was amazing. It is surfing, and like any other activity in the ocean, there will be the possibility of sharks. The system the World Surf League had in place worked flawlessly–within seconds, both surfers were out of the water, unharmed. Of course, the shark, if it really wanted to, could have taken a bite if it wanted to take a bite, and all the systems in the world couldn’t have helped that.
Everything about it was perfect, if you think about it. It couldn’t have been scripted any better. The final heat. Only two in the water. One, the grizzled world champion vet, the other the young, handsome hopeful. Mick showing so much courage in the face of what would be the scariest thing imaginable, and Julian choosing to run towards the danger. Courage and friendship and handsome and sharks! Good guy wins. Evil shark runs away with its tail between its legs. Friendship and courage prevails. It is all so Hollywood.
Surfing, for the most part, is not normally exciting to the non-surfer to watch. The heats are often full of lulls, the waves mushy, and those lay days are just killers. Think about it: all the things that happen that take surfing beyond our tiny little core of salty locals and sappy soul surfers are not Kai Otton on a waist high wave. Huge waves (Mark Healey!), huge wipeouts (Mark Healey!), huge wins (Gabriel Medina!), huge losses (Gabriel Medina!), and shark attacks (Mick Fanning!) are what drive views.
And views, whether you like it or not, is what the World Surf League needs to stay afloat. And the more views they get, the more buoyant they become. The world loves to hate sharks. The world loves hate shark haters. And most of all, the world loves to watch sharks. It’s shark week, only in real life. And the World Surf League needs it.