This month, dozens of industry leaders, surfers and investors met in Laguna Beach in Southern California for the first annual Surf Park Summit to spark interest in a business proposition that could breathe life into a sport that struggled during the recession.
About 50 percent of independent, mom-and-pop surf retailers — the heart and soul of surf culture — shut down worldwide during the recession and those that survived face an increasingly saturated market that is limited by geography.
Enter the dream surf park, a 2-acre wave pool capable of generating anything from tiny beginner ripples to 10-foot barrels every minute, with every wave the same. Customers would pay by the number of waves to learn the sport or refine their technique and learn new tricks.
The prospect has surf board manufacturers and apparel retailers salivating at the thought of new markets for surf gear and clothing in land-locked places like Kansas or Nebraska. But parks would also be prime real estate for sponsored surfing competitions that would draw both eyeballs and dollars.
At the summit, speakers tossed out tantalizing what-ifs: A national surfing league, much like the NBA, with feeder teams and city affiliations. Live, televised surfing competitions staged with predictable waves in a massive surf arena.
Some even believe surf parks could propel the sport into the Olympics, a dream that has so far proven elusive.
"Without man-made waves, there will not be Olympic surfing," said Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association. "It's the ultimate wave-sharing that you can imagine."
Olympics aside, everyday surfers who already live near the beach say even they would use the parks as a supplement to the ocean, to refine their skills on a consistent wave or get in a few rides when the natural surf is bad.
"In a park, you can always get in a perfect position, the wave will always be perfect and you can really work on your surfing," said Cliff Char, 54, who's been surfing 15 years near his hometown of Seal Beach.
Detractors, however, worry that in the rush to surf parks, the sport will lose its soul.
Betting on artificial waves, they say, will sanitize and commercialize a pastime the most passionate surfers describe as a solitary, rugged pursuit where athletes and nature commune. They say the sport will lose sight of its culture and history if the next generation learns to rip on chlorinated water.
"The problem is, 'surf culture' is about so much more than just riding a wave. It is about having a genuine respect and connection with the ocean," said Zac Heisey, a surfer and freelance writer who addressed the debate on his blog, In The Name of Surfing.
Others are concerned that the energy required to power waves big enough for surf parks will contribute to global warming.
Momentum around surf parks has been growing since the 1960s, but fewer than a dozen serious parks currently exist in locations from Florida to Malaysia — and cost and wave technology have always been stumbling blocks.
That technology has now advanced enough to make parks economically viable, but operators will need to build near large population centers and make the pool the centerpiece of a larger development to make a profit, said Tom Lochtefeld, owner of Wave Loch, a wave technology company.