Can Pro Surfing Survive Without Kelly Slater?

More likely than not, Kelly Slater, who’ll turn 43 this February, will step away from the pro tour after Pipe.

But wait. It’s never that easy with Kelly.

Every year it’s been a 50-50 shot that he’ll appear, last minute, at the first event on the Gold Coast. Kelly uses the event as a litmus test on whether or not he’ll continue on the tour, something he’s been threatening to leave since he came back from retirement in 2002 after a three-year sabbatical.

Kelly slater pipelinePhoto:

However, 2015 is different. The event sponsor Quiksilver is no longer his sponsor. His small-wave game is shadowed by the barely believable histrionics of Filipe Toledo, Gabriel Medina and John John Florence.

Kelly is smarter than most. He’ll preserve his legacy and step off the tour rated second in the world. He won’t disappear, of course. Kelly’ll appear at those events at which he excels, Fiji, Teahupoo, and will hover around the commentary booth.

But how will the tour look without Kelly Slater? Can it even survive?

1. Will the title matter?
Gabriel Medina will win the world title this year and it will mean something because he’s racing against Slater, even if the 11-timer is almost 43. Let’s swing back to the years when Kelly wasn’t on tour, 1999, 2000 and 2001. In 1999 Mark Occhilupo won the title, Sunny Garicia got it the following year and CJ Hobgood, in an abbreviated year, 2001. Two of those titles went to surfers far beyond their primes; the other was an anomaly of a six-event year. Compare those titles to Andy Irons’ three consecutive crowns fought against Slater. In 2015, without Kelly, the title will be the most open it’s been in a decade-and-a-half. But there’ll be the shadow of doubt cast upon the winner. As in, could he have beaten Kelly?

2. You can forget about the voodoo that strikes you in the heart
John John is very close to miraculous at Teahupoo and wherever else (yeah, ok, France). But it’s Kelly, who like Tom Curren a generation before him, can conjure a 10-foot standup barrel where others were falling off in closeouts; who’ll nail a full-roter in a stinging offshore to beat whomever he has to. It’s in Kelly’s fight-to-the-death nature. No other surfer has anything close to Kelly’s desire to win.

3. It helps if the Champ is lucid

Apart from being movie-star handsome, Kelly Slater is also the smartest guy on tour, if a little too hot for conspiracy theories. And so after a heat, or a contest, win or lose, Kelly will dissect in forensic detail his heat or event. He’ll push back on a commentator if they’re wrong and answer tough questions if he feels they’re warranted. There is no other surfer on tour even close to Kelly when it comes to opening their mouths. This year surfing will have a champion with English as his second language. A boon for Portugal and Brazil, of course, but at a time when surfers, the bulk of whom are from English-speaking countries, need to be turning into the ASP webcasts, not tuning out, it’s bad timing.

4. You can forget the mainstream coverage

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