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U.S. Open of Surfing a no-go this summer in Huntington Beach

One of the largest action sports competition and festivals in the world, which happens on the sand and in the surf in Huntington Beach, has been canceled this year.

The announcement to cancel the Vans US Open of Surfing, made on Monday, June 15, cites the “continued health concerns and current guidelines surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.”  The event will return in 2021, event organizers said.

Courtney Conlogue surfs during her heat at the U.S. Open of Surfing on Tuesday, July 30, 2019 in Huntington Beach. Organizers have canceled the 2020 event. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

“The decision to cancel was made after careful consideration, with the health and safety of fans, athletes, staff, and the local community remaining the top priority,”  the announcement from sponsor Vans said.

The mini city on the sand is a summertime staple in Orange County, one of the largest events that draws hundreds of thousands of people to the south side of the famed Huntington Beach Pier for the nine-day festival.

“The Vans US Open of Surfing has always been about bringing people together in a healthy, fun and interactive environment, and given the size and scale of the event, we can’t see a way to do that this year without sacrificing the very thing that makes it so special,” said Jennifer Lau, vice president of action sports at IMG, which owns the US Open of Surfing.

Surfing fans pass by the skate park grandstand at the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach on Friday, August 3, 2018. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Each year at the end of July and early August, beachgoers flock to the sand to be immersed in action sports, watching world-class skateboarding, BMX riders and pro surfers who push the limits in front of a live audience during the free event.

In recent years, after Vans took over sponsorship in 2013, the event has been more family-focused, offering movie nights and games for youngsters on the sand, enticing them to win free gear. Artist do live workshops on the beach and other events are hosted throughout the downtown area, including inductions into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame and the Surfing Walk of Fame, draw surfing icons to the area to be recognized.

“Our mission is to provide an authentic action sports community experience at the Vans US Open of Surfing. It’s a unique environment that showcases our incredible network of athletes, artists and brand collaborators, who all represent creativity,” said Carly Gomez, vice president of marketing, Americas at Vans. “We look forward to bringing the evolution of this event to life in 2021 when the event returns to Huntington Beach.”

For pro surfers who come from around the world to compete, it’s a chance to earn big points as they try and move up the rankings on the mens, womens and juniors qualifying series. It can also mean big bucks, with past winners earning up to $100,000, though last year’s top prize was dropped to $30,000.

Big names have shown up at past events, including 11-time World Champion Kelly Slater and other top surfers, but the local surf fans go especially wild when surfers like Brett Simpson, Kanoa Igarashi or Courtney Conlogue take home the coveted title. All have won two U.S. Open of Surfing titles in their backyard in front of a hometown crowd in recent years.

Major surf contests at the pier have always been a part of the summertime schedule in Surf City, dating back to 1959 when the West Coast Surfing Championships were held at the pier.

The U.S. Open of Surfing launched in 1994, following the OP Pro surf contest that had financial troubles in the early 1990s and never rebounded from a tarnished past charred by images of a beach riot in the mid-1980s that broke out during a bikini contest.

The U.S. Open has had its wilder years, at one time hosting a freestyle motocross contest on the sand, poker in the festival area, and even 100 steer and 25 horses on the sand in 2007 to promote the OC Fair.

In 2013, the event took a blow after a riot broke out in Huntington Beach’s downtown after the surfing finals, causing police and officials to clamp down in years to follow, nixing music concerts on the sand, prompting bag checks as beachgoers entered the venue and adding security and video cameras watching over attendees.

Mounted patrol officers keep things safe on the sand during the US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, CA on Sunday, August 4, 2019. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

But this is the first time the entire event will be wiped out from the sand and surf, this time for fear that the crowds it draws will add to the spread of the coronavirus.

The event isn’t big just because of the points surfers can earn or the vast imprint on the sand, but also because of its economic value to the city.

In 2018, Visit Huntington Beach teamed up with a group called Destination Analysis to study the local impact of the U.S. Open, finding direct visitor spending jumped from $21.5 million in 2010, the last time a study on the event’s economic impact was done, to $55.8 million in 2018, more than doubling in less than a decade.

The event draws international visitors, who make up 8 percent of the attendees, and out-of-state visitors, with a jump from 9 percent in 2010 to 21 percent in 2018.

“Everything was clicking on all cylinders in terms of our marquee event in Huntington Beach and we were on track to have an even better year this year, until the pandemic hit the world,” said Susan Thomas, chief marketing officer for Visit HB. “This event is going to make a come back in the future, it’s an integral part of the culture and the community in Huntington Beach. And we are going to be so ecstatic and look forward to having it back. It’s not just the economic impact, but the cultural impact it has on the region and Southern California.”

The study showed an estimated 375,000 people attended over the course of the event, adding 25,285 room nights for people specifically staying in town for the activities. Those people dine in restaurants, sight see in nearby towns and go to local performances or concerts, also spending money on local transportation and parking.

“All of that collectively has a big impact on the community at large, and businesses within the community,” Thomas said.

But “health and safety are critically important right now,” she said. And “difficult decisions” had to be made.

Aaron Pai, owner of Huntington Surf and Sport, said the US Open of Surfing is one of the biggest weeks for business all year. The longtime shop owner always looks forward to the annual event.

“That’s the line this summer, everything is canceled,” he said. “We’re going to miss the US Open, not just because of the business, but because of the surfing. We love watching the heats and all the people.

“We’re going to miss it, all the energy,” he said. “It’s just part of what it is right now, just as long as everyone stays healthy and well, that’s what’s important this summer. Everyone has to be safe.”

Pai, who puts on the Surfers’ Hall of Fame each year in front of his shop at Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway, said he is also canceling the event where surfers put their hands and feet in cement near a statue of famed surfer Duke Kahanamoku.

“We say that we’ve seen it all, until this … this is all new,” Pai said. “Vans did a great job, they had a lot of momentum and energy. I know they’ll come back big time in 2021.”

The National Scholastic Surfing Association will fill in the dates planned for the US Open of Surfing, which was scheduled for Aug. 3-9.

Source: Orange County Register

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