U.S. Open of Surfing scaled down for peace’s sake

A vandal smashes the window of a Main Street bike shop with a stop sign after last year's U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach.
A vandal smashes the window of a Main Street bike shop with a stop sign after last year’s U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The executive producer of the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach stuck to his word and presented to city officials last week a plan for a considerably smaller event this summer.

The July surfing competition would do away with the live-music stage, significantly limit the number of vendors and disallow alcohol in the VIP areas, said James Leitz, IMG Action Sports vice president and executive producer.

During a meeting April 3 of the city’s Specific Events Committee, its members — from various departments including police, fire, business development, public works and community services — provided suggestions for how to make this summer’s surfing competition tamer than last year’s. Then, rowdy guests created havoc in the city after the event’s close, and several people were arrested.

“Coming here today wasn’t about deviating from the plan or trying to push something new,” said Leitz, who has produced the event for 15 years. “It’s really about showing that we told the public we were going to do a certain thing, and we’re going to do that.”

The city has yet to approve the permit application for the event and will hold several meetings to fine-tune the details, said Chris Cole, specific events supervisor.

The plan described during the meeting stayed true to Leitz’s ideas shared during a Huntington Beach Downtown Task Force meeting in October, but they were illustrated in greater detail.

Shoe and skateboard apparel company Vans, the event’s main sponsor, will have a retail center of more than 2,000 square feet on the beach as well as perhaps three kiosks around the area.

More open space was created by eliminating the festival village, which was a large portion of the event’s footprint last year.

“You’re not going to have a hundred 10-by-10 tents with people giving away Cracker Jacks, Hi-Chews and all the other crud that just makes our lives a living hell,” Leitz said. “We think that by removing that aspect of it, it might slow down the [crowds] a little bit ... on the beach.”

Instead, Vans will have a much smaller village area, where families can play bean-bag toss, design their own shoe box and take pictures in a photo booth.

City officials said they were worried that more guerrilla marketing groups could pop up because of the lack space devoted to vendors.

Cole said he would organize a meeting to address the rogue tactic.

Despite Pacifico returning as a sponsor of the event, Leitz said neither he nor the beer company has interest in serving alcohol during the event.

The public skateboard bowl has also been removed from the plans, leaving only a facility for competitors.

The live-music stage was removed as well, and the only performances at the event will be a family movie night at Pier Plaza, Leitz said.

“If there is music, it’ll be off-site as far away as Orange or the Irvine Amphitheater or Las Vegas,” he said. “It’s a casualty of what happened last year after the event. It’s a shame, but it’s OK. We’ll get over it, and maybe someday we’ll have music back at the beach when things right themselves.”

After last year’s chaos, police arrested 20 people on various vandalism charges, and the city was left with a $31,000 bill, a large portion of it going toward police overtime.

In addition to the physical changes being made at the U.S. Open, organizers are looking to take a different approach to how they market the event.

Leitz said he is cutting back considerably on social media marketing and being mindful of what kind of message is being sent to the public.

Capt. Russell Reinhart said the Huntington Beach Police Department will use social media to promote a positive message to teens and young adults on how they should behave during the event.

“We think that we can help start a change in behavior with how we message them,” he said. “You live by the sword, and you die by the sword when it comes to social media, so it’s going to be interesting to see how this experiment goes.”