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Examining The Growth Of The World Freestyle Kayak Championships

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It’s been over 20 years since boaters started getting together on rivers like the Ottawa, Caney Fork and the Ocoee, queuing up to surf waves and ride holes, throwing spins, enders and pirouettes instead of running downriver. Volunteer judges—often paddlers themselves—kept score; spectators by the hundreds crowded the rocky shores to watch. In the early days it was called rodeo and similar to its Western namesake, the events were spectacles, equal parts party and friendly competition to assert bragging rights on and off the river.

As with any upstart sport and competition, a faction of paddlers wanted whitewater rodeo to go bigger. The very first world championship was held in 1993 on the Ocoee River in Tennessee; in 1997, the worlds came to McCoy’s rapid on the Ottawa River; and by 2001, the event engulfed the Pyrenees village of Sort, Spain, in a boisterous festival. Over time, competitors morphed from weekend warrior types, raft guides and paddling school instructors to elite professional athletes with sponsors, including kayak brands, energy drinks and automobile manufacturers. It seemed as though freestyle, as it later became known, was destined for mainstream success—some even dreamed of inclusion in the Olympics.

Inspiring the next generation

This September, the ICF World Freestyle Championships return to the Ottawa River for the third time. Two-time event organizer Matt McGuire says the $425,000 festival at Garburator will be a far cry from the previous Ottawa worlds, held in 1997 and 2007 and run by volunteers on shoestring budgets.

McGuire hopes Garburator’s dynamic, heaving foam pile and the Ottawa’s remote, rocky shores will exude a siren’s call to competitors and spectators, and in turn captivate a new generation of whitewater enthusiasts. Compared to the 2013 worlds, held on a diminutive, man-made hole on North Carolina’s Nantahala River, athlete registration is up. Although costly, McGuire insists broadcasting real-time video footage of the world’s best paddlers competing in the Canadian wilderness has the potential to inspire people around the globe.

Looking back

The whitewater industry blossomed in lockstep with the popularity of freestyle kayaking. Early world championships were as much a competition between boat manufacturers as paddlers.

“It was totally driven by the manufacturers,” recalls Joe Pulliam, the former president of Dagger Kayaks. “It was a battle between Wave Sport, Dagger and Perception. Teams were divided up according to brand of boats, not countries.”

There was big money to be made in producing a championship design because freestyle kayaks had not yet evolved into a separate genre, distinguished as they are today by their radical shapes and fragile composite construction, explains Pulliam. Boats like the Wave Sport X and Dagger RPM flowed out the doors of paddling shops into the hands of recreational paddlers. Athletes like Team Dagger’s Brad Ludden scored fully loaded Subarus (Wave Sport partnered with Chevy Trucks) and gas cards, with instructions to hit as many rodeos in the season as possible. In 2002, South African athlete Steve Fisher earned $25,000 from Riot Kayaks alone, according to Addison.

But then things began to change

Addison points to the early 2000s as a turning point. World championships held in Spain in 2001 and Austria in 2003 boasted far bigger budgets and carnival-like atmospheres, at the expense of the grassroots feel. The paddlesports industry played less of a role in supporting the European competitions. As freestyle competition evolved, a gulf widened between athletes and enthusiasts.

“The average punter could no longer do the moves the athletes were doing. Shit, they couldn’t even identify them,” says Addison. “Meanwhile, the Steve Fishers of the world realized there was more money in hucking waterfalls in Iceland than flopping around in some little hole.”

The green problem

Securing funding is a struggle for all whitewater festivals—freestyle, creek racing and otherwise. The financial travails of Patrick Camblin, organizer of the boundary-pushing Whitewater Grand Prix, included $80,000 of debt going into the 2014 event. This June, Idaho’s Payette River Games, whose $100,000 purse is the largest in paddling, dropped kayak events altogether in favor of standup paddleboarding.

“We have really enjoyed doing our best to promote and expand the sport of whitewater kayaking over the past four years through our competitions with record-setting purses,” said organizer Mark Pickard in a press release. “But we’ve decided not to underwrite the expense of hosting another kayak event.”

For host Wilderness Tours, the 2015 World Freestyle Kayak Championship is more about promoting the Ottawa River as a destination than turning a profit. Sponsors include Wilderness Tours’ partner Algonquin College, a local post-secondary institution with a renowned outdoor adventure program, energy giant TransCanada (which, incidentally, has plans to build a massive oil sands pipeline through the area), and Ontario Power Generation and Hydro-Quebec, whose support is more related to providing the appropriate water levels than injections of cold hard cash. At press time, apparel and accessory manufacturer NRS stands alone in representing the paddlesports industry amongst title sponsors.

The brands and sponsors

Marketing philosophies are changing, explains Deming. Companies are moving away from traditional athlete and event sponsorship to web-based platforms. “The brands that go big into events”—such as GoPro, which made a last-minute contribution to the 2014 Whitewater Grand Prix and helped salvage Camblin’s bottom line—“are able to roll them into online campaigns where they’re basically creating content,” continues Deming. “That content is more important than the event itself.”

Jackson insists that the paddlesports industry shouldn’t be responsible for bankrolling world-class events. European hosts have employed freestyle’s television-friendly format to gain the support of brands like Volkswagen and Keen Footwear. Coca-Cola and Subaru contributed to the 2013 world championships in North Carolina, as well as Confluence Outdoor (which owns the Wave Sport, Dagger, Bomber Gear and Adventure Technology Paddles brands).

Barriers… but not insurmountable ones

Whitewater kayaking is different from surfing or skiing in that the most appealing places to paddle are out of the way, far removed from beaches, resorts and urban areas. By dint of geography alone, whitewater can never be as popular as mountain biking and standup paddling. Some paddling evangelists believe urban whitewater parks are freestyle’s future. But the reality is, electrifying features like Garburator and Buseater only exist in the wild. As infrastructure demands for freestyle events grow, hosting them at the places that best define whitewater becomes more and more improbable.

Yet competitors are hopeful. As much as the British freestyle phenom raves about the Ottawa, O’Hara’s eyes are locked on the future. The 2017 worlds have been awarded to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and will take place at the newly constructed Olympic whitewater facility. Sort, Spain, will host the 2019 freestyle event alongside wildwater and slalom world championships.

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