Op-Ed: Is the Kelly Slater Wave Co. system obsolete already?

It’s been seven years since Kelly Slater first unveiled his dream wave, captivating the minds of anyone who has ever touched a surfboard.

The central-California pool broke down the door for what was once thought possible by creating 10-second barrels over 100 miles from the ocean. 

But the world of wave pool technology has grown lightyears since that eureka moment and, commercially speaking, Kelly Slater Wave Co.’s (KSWC) pool has fallen behind.

“Unfortunately, the KSWC was obsolete the day it was unveiled,” said Skip Taylor, a Partner of Surf Park Management. “Although the KSWC was a dream wave to ride, it was clearly not commercially viable for a public surf park setting.”

“What happens time after time is once people start to dig into the financial feasibility and see the limited capacity, the large footprint of the venue, the scale of civil construction, and the awkwardness of the pool shape to build around, KSWC quickly gets dismissed in most cases,” Taylor added.

Kelly Slater at his wave pool
The foil track creates a perfect wave for those patient enough and willing to spend enough to drop in.

That doesn’t mean Slater’s pool has not been successful. Quite to the contrary, rumor has it the pool, which reportedly costs USD $50,000-$70,000 to rent per day, is booked out well into the future. 

Yet developers across the globe have nearly unanimously avoided Slater’s pool, opting to contract the services of competing technologies, such as Endless Surf, Wavegarden, PerfectSwell, and Surf Lakes, due to their more economically viable models. 

Currently in Brazil, Wavegarden and PerfectSwell are engaged in a slugfest over who can make the world’s ‘best’ pool.

KSM Realty and JHSF, the developers of Praia da Grama and Boa Vista Village, respectively, considered attaching Slater’s pool to their extravagant housing communities, but both came to the same conclusion: Slater’s pool looks really fun to surf, but it doesn’t compare to the commercial potential of its competitors.

Oscar Segall, CEO of KSM Realty, told me that he spoke with Kelly, but it was determined the technology was not viable for their model.

“We were extremely impressed by [KSWC and PerfectSwell], but it was clear that PerfectSwell offered a more holistic approach to surfing, with waves for all levels of surfers, from beginners to pros,” said Thiago Alonso de Oliveira, CEO of JHSF.

I liken the position of Slater’s pool to the Blackberry cell phone circa 2010. 

Blackberry was a pioneer in the cell phone space and even the preferred option of then US president Barack Obama. They had an industry-leading 43% of the market share in the US at their peak. 

Then came the iPhone with its touchscreen technology. 

Blackberry insisted on sticking with a keyboard. Their complacency spelled the beginning of the end. After an initial aversion to transition with the market trends and a far-too-late attempt to enter the smartphone market, the Blackberry cell phone finally sputtered to an inevitable death with its final model in 2018. 

Much like Blackberry, KSWC pioneered a new technology – in this case a wave that could mimic the power of the ocean. And like Blackberry, KSWC is stubbornly hanging onto its original blueprint. As markets demand a smaller pool with a higher wave rate, KSWC is sticking to its guns.

Caroline Marks at the surf ranch
Caroline Marks at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore during WSL competition. Photo by WSL/Cestari

And the results show. 

Despite two attempts to reproduce the KSWC pool in Japan and Florida, neither project came to fruition.

KSWC is still sitting on purchased land in Austin, Texas, having acquired the NLand surf park back in 2019. There hasn’t been a peep about that project gaining any traction.

The fact that they bought land to develop, but never developed, makes you wonder. Why?

Is KSWC satisfied with their single pool and the power that WSL possesses to use it on the Championship Tour?

Or are there internal and/or external factors that are preventing them from reproducing? KSWC/WSL did not respond immediately to requests for comment on the subject.

To be clear, this is not a hit piece on Slater’s pool. I, in fact, admire the pool and, like every other surfer on the planet, dream of the opportunity to surf it. Decades from now, we might look back on the reveal of the wave in Lemoore as the most important surfing milestone of the century. 

Taylor applauds the pool as well.

“The entire industry owes a huge debt of gratitude to KSWC for bringing global awareness of surf parks,” said Skip Taylor. “The “Kelly Slater” factor helped amplify the knowledge of modern surf parks to the mainstream and caught the attention of hundreds of developers that saw that a surf park could be a great amenity to a commercial, residential and/or hospitality resort development.”

“They have done a great job to adapt their original test facility into an amazing exclusive experience for a select few with the pocketbook to afford that level of price tag,” Taylor added.  

But as in any industry that deals with rapidly advancing technology, the landscape is ever-changing and how companies adapt to every minuscule market detail determines their future.

One cannot help but question, if in the last seven years Slater’s pool went from having no real competition to several real competitors who are producing waves at an ever-increasing rate around the world, where will we be in seven more years? 

Based on how the current reality is playing out. Large, low-frequency pools, like Slater’s, are not the best bet for the future.

But, a bet is a bet for a reason. There is uncertainty. 

Perhaps the pendulum of wave pool trends will swing back towards KSWC’s model. Or, maybe just like with their original pool reveal, they have big secrets yet to be revealed, ready to shock the world again. 

I might have grey hair by the time we can definitely judge KSWC’s decision-making, but with enough time, we’ll see if their decisions pay off or spell their demise.

Endless Surf 2023A