The Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Champion will be determined at the 2014 Billabong Pipe Masters (December 8th through 20th) in Oahu. But this year, the event holds special significance — because the tides of surfing are turning.

There’s a saying amongst surfers: “no two waves are the same”. And it’s true. According to astronomers, the moon annually moves four centimeters farther from earth. This causes tides, which are controlled by the moon’s gravitational pull, to shift and seas to rise (four millimeters each year). With each ebb and flow, the ocean is altered permanently; currents shift like the wind, and no wave will ever be replicated.

These ocean changes are happening very slowly. The sport of surfing, however, is experiencing a wave-churning tectonic shift — right now.

“The girls don’t have an event at Pipeline, but I’d love to win the Pipeline event, against all the guys. And then I’d walk off into the sunset.”
-Stephanie Gilmore, 2014 Women’s ASP World Champion

The Billabong Pipe Masters is the ASP World Tour’s final event in 2014. It will also be its final event ever: Starting in 2015, the ASP will be rebranding itself as the World Surf League (WSL). Despite the name change, the WSL’s ultimate objective will continue to be, according to CEO Paul Speaker, showcasing “the world’s best surfers in the world’s best waves”. But their other objective is reach. They want to bring surfing to the main stage, to the same global level as other predominant American sports. However, expanding a location-centric sport like surfing is no small order.

Surfer to Watch at Pipe Masters: John John Florence

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A Hawaiian hasn’t won at Pipeline since the late great Andy Irons in 2006. And the drought looks likely to continue in 2014 — that is, unless John John can do anything about it. Having grown up in Oahu, the 22-year-old has a hometown advantage at Pipeline, though other pros have been surfing here for years as well. Entering fourth in the ASP World Rankings, John John is mathematically out of the running for ASP World Champion; still, the reigning ASP Rookie of the Year is gunning for the win at Pipe Masters, and, having just won the Quiksilver Pro France in October, his confidence will be sky high.

Since its genesis in 1982, the success of the ASP has ebbed and flowed. Which is not really a surprise; surf competitions’ odd pairing of aggression and spirituality is paradoxical, an oddity in a sports world that places a premium on simple, team-based competitive drama. And for one reason or another many of the world’s best surfers have burnt out quickly: Dane Reynolds, one of the great free surfers, and the late Andy Irons are two of the most well-known surfers to have gone on hiatus from competition. What’s more, many surfers have been unhappy with the inconsistencies of the ASP World Tour; Kelly Slater, the greatest surfer of all time and the sport’s longtime figurehead, even tried to break away with his own Rebel Tour in 2009.

It all comes back to money. Scroll through the list of current ASP tour events and you’ll notice right away that each is backed by a big-time surf sponsor: Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, Hurley Pro Trestles, Billabong Pipe Masters — the list goes on and on. In the past, the ASP World Tour was a series of individual events controlled by individual sponsors. As a result, the tour lacked cohesion, with events changing based on their sponsorship. But it had to happen; the sponsors supplied the moola. And the tour meant everything for them; these professional surfers were the face of their brands, and if they weren’t surfing, the brands would sink, or at least flail.

Surfer to Watch at Pipe Masters: Kelly Slater

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The sport’s all-time great hasn’t won an ASP event in 2014 — a shock, considering his current third-place World Tour ranking. In reality, it’s a testament to how consistent he’s been throughout the year. Although Slater has outside of an outsider’s shot in hell to win his 12th World Tour title, nobody would bet against him to win this event. He’s the reigning champion, having won his seventh Pipeline in 2013.

On top of all this, surf sponsors learned that they could make additional money hosting their own events in more popular locations like NYC. But this was sacrificing wave quality for exposure, which conflicted with the ASP’s “best waves, best surfers” mantra. The ASP World Tour’s main backers were also its main competition: dire straits indeed. Pro surfing needed to be galvanized, and quickly.

In October of 2012, ZoSea Media Holdings, Inc. acquired the ASP. Under the leadership of billionaire investor Dirk Ziff and former NFL execs like Paul Speaker, ZoSea started to take a more pragmatic, business-like approach to surfing. First, they forged a new centralized media deal; the huge surfing brands (Quiksilver, Billabong, Hurley, Rip Curl) will still be prominent in the WSL, but they will not have the same influence. The “new ASP”, as dubbed by professional surfers, then acquired the Big Wave Tour, revamped their website and upped their overall brand. They are also adding tour events for men and women; in fact, women stand to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the change, with 10 ASP World Tour events this year, more than they’ve ever had. And more events are hoped to be added in the future.

Surfer to Watch at Pipe Masters: Mick Fanning

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The Australian has never won at Pipeline, but last year he finished third, which was enough to earn him his third ASP World Title. A year later, Fanning is again in the running. He’s currently second, behind Gabriel Medina, and has a realistic shot at retaining his ASP crown. So far in 2014, the 33-year-old has won three of the 10 events — most recently, the Moche Rip Curl Pro Portugal in October — and will be ready to end his Pipeline goose egg.

The Association of Surfing Professionals has never really caressed the tongue, and its acronym warrants more explanation than repute — hence ZoSea’s effort to rebrand it as the World Surf League in its third year at the helm. “We’re making this change because we believe the new name is easier to understand”, Speaker said in a press release to the surfing community, “and gets us on a better track to serve our fans, athletes and partners, and to grow the great sport of professional surfing worldwide.” So far, there hasn’t been too much negativity in response to the switch. Actually, it seems everybody, professional surfers included, is stoked about it.

So the 2014 Billabong Pipe Masters will be surfing’s last event under the ASP name. But fear not: Pipeline isn’t going anywhere. Running seven miles along Hawaii’s North Shore, it’s one of the sport’s most historical and revered locations, pumping out consistent swells over precariously shallow waters. It’ll be one of the WSL’s flagships for years to come.

This year, Pipeline will once again be the playground for an incredibly talented field. Although there are only three surfers with a mathematical chance of claiming the ASP World Title (Gabriel Medina, Kelly Slater, and Mick Fanning), all will be gunning to lift the heralded Pipeline trophy. This past July we sat down with a few competitors to discuss the evolution of surfing, diets, training regimes and what it’s like being a professional surfer amid these changing tides.

Watch the 2014 Billabong Pipe Masters live, here.