The Western Australia Margaret River Pro concluded last week with Gabriel Medina and Carissa Moore claiming their shiny trophies. It was Gabriel’s first event win since his world title run in 2021.
Medina missed the first five events of the following 2022 season for personal reasons. The three-time world champ was then awarded the mysterious wildcard spot for the second half of the season, returning to competition at G-Land in Indonesia where he placed third.
This year Gabby is back on tour full time, but G-Land isn’t on the schedule.
It would have been our next event had it remained, but it was cut for time. A new and recurring theme of the WSL’s.
The exotic macking left-hander was replaced by Kelly Slater’s artificial wave in Lemoore, California. Nicknamed The Stink by fans and journalists alike, the Surf Ranch Pro disappeared from the schedule last year after a wildly unpopular two-year stint.
But now, The Stink is back with a vengeance. It’ll waft through Memorial Day Weekend later this month.
In pockets of a theoretical world, the idea of an artificial wave as the setting for a surf competition makes sense.
It takes much of Mother Nature’s guesswork out of the equation, while (scientifically, at least) evening the playing field by decreasing abstract variables.
In practice, however, it’s proven to be stinking boring. It breeds a competition of homogenous surfing. It turns out, by subtracting natural variables this leads to diminished creativity and a reduced number of approaches applicable to a wave that churns out such perfect sameness.
It’s amazing, but it does not promote heterogeneity in surfing.
There’s a very distinct formula to surfing The Stink, and veering away from said formula will usually end in an early exit from competition.
As I reflect on this, it’s not difficult to realize that the beauty of surfing lies in the unique ways to attack the innumerable waves on tour, as well at the competition itself.
No one approach is alike.
That’s the variance that fans crave. It’s what we need to form our opinions and align our loyalties.
John John does not approach waves like Gabriel. Gabriel does things differently than Italo. Italo is not Filipe!
They’re all different.
Just like the waves they surf on tour each year.
At the Surf Ranch, their different set of skills all feel muted. It’s like a clone war out there. Difficult to stand out.
This leads to frustration, which boils over, compelling the surfers to try to inject some spontaneity into a wave that is fit for the opposite.
Even Kelly, the wave’s creator, is exposed to this impulsive urge.
The judging is difficult, while the live broadcast is fly-ridden and staler than usual.
I must say, though, it is both interesting and impressive to witness in person. I went to the Surf Ranch back in 2018 for the Founders Cup, which was a team-based competition clumping surfers from the USA, Australia, and the rest of the World onto teams and pitting them against one another.
The atmosphere was light and friendly inside the Surf Ranch arena.
The jovial Australian team donned white cowboy hats as they rooted each other on.
Music played alongside the roaring of the wave train.
Beer was drunk and churros were eaten.
Outside the Ranch walls, it was a different scene. It’s not a nice area filled with nice things.
As my associate and I pulled into the parking lot of our drabby motel, someone immediately approached and tried to sell us crack.
No, thank you. We’re good.
A short walk down the dusty road in 100-degree inland heat lies the Tachi Palace. Arguably the crown jewel of Lemoore, the Tachi is where all of the surfers, fans, journalists, WSL employees, and locals congregate each night to converse and gossip and gamble.
At one point, we found ourselves at a blackjack table with Josh Kerr, Parko, and Evan Slater. Kerrzy and Parko were on one and so were we.
When the drinks stopped flowing for one casino reason or another, Kerrzy recruited us and the rest of the table to his worthy cause. As a united front we refused to put one more chip down on that table until the drink faucet was turned back on.
While we waited, Kerrzy and I took to wagering on matches of rock-paper-scissors. Best 2 out of 3.
It was a wonderful time gambling and drinking and rubbing elbows with some of our favorite surfers in the world, which is why I think there is a place in surfing for the Surf Ranch and Lemoore, California.
Is it on the CT for points that decide who will be crowned world champion?
I don’t think so. I think it’s more akin to that of an exhibition rodeo. It’s a chance to show-off your skills and get amongst the community of surf nerds who will travel 100 miles away from the coast on the edge of summer to come see their favorite surfers in a pool originally intended for water-skiers.
Last week, I was a guest on the Frothcast with Hendo and Surfival League founder Taylor Lobdell. Inspired by the mid-season cut and feeling particularly critical, we decided to rank the stops on the 2023 Championship Tour.
Here’s what we came up with (Best to Worst):
- El Salvador
- Margaret River
- Bells Beach
- Surf Ranch
Looking at this list it feels, I don’t know, inadequate?
The top 3 are wonderful. There’s no debate there.
4 and 5 are solid. They’re okay to stay in my book, but the remaining 5 are underwhelming in my humble opinion.
Portugal is a disappointment because of the time of year they’ve been running it. Move it back to the Fall and it gets a big fat OKAY from me.
I’ve already said my peace on the Surf Ranch Pro, but it’s clearly inferior to a destination like G-Land, which it replaced this year.
Rio, from what I hear, is a great scene while there, but for me it’s never been a great watch. It’s just another wave that I would surf.
I do understand the need financially to have an event in a market like Brazil, though, so for that reason alone we’ve missed on our ranking there.
Sunset and Bells are so pumped full of history that I’m sure there would be pushback to removing them from the list, but is that to the detriment of the product as a whole when locations like Fiji and Indonesia are being cut?
It would seem that way.
I think Sunset is important and I actually enjoy the contest, but I’m in the minority on that view. Though, Sunset becomes exponentially more important and entertaining when it is part of the trio of jewels decorating the Triple Crown.
There are things that can be done to make these events more interesting without sacrificing the quality of the CT.
Bring back the Triple Crown. Simple as salad.
Neither Sunset or Haleiwa need to be permanent destinations on CT, but packaged together with Pipeline and the prestigious title as Triple Crown winner and you have yourself some weight.
Or there’s the much talked about (by this writer, at least) Strike Tour. Sunset is a wonderful addition to the roll-a-dex of locations that might make up the ingredients of a Strike Tour component.
Seeing Teahupo’o absolutely reeling with terrifying waves last week reignited a longing for a one-day contest with the world’s best surfers on the best waves on the planet.
Although, those waves were likely too big and fierce to run the kind of contest I’m talking about.
Would you have watched it? I know I would have.
Quick Note: The floods that followed in the area are horrible and we wish everyone the best. If you’d like to donate to the clean-up efforts please visit here.
Let’s remind ourselves of the goal of the tour as said by Kelly Slater in an interview with SURFER Magazine from 2010:
“…the goal is to create something that is better for the sport as a whole. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be surfing as a pro, but I’d definitely like to see it become more beneficial for the surfers and the fans when it’s done.”
If you recall in 2009/10 Kelly was very vocal about a break-away tour referred to at the time as the Rebel Tour. It was a serious push to change the way professional surfing was organized and viewed.
The inherent problem with the ASP then, in Kelly’s eyes, was that it did not own the full media rights, which he felt created a fragmented and unreliable product.
They wanted to create a tour that not only owned full media rights to its product, but was structured properly financially (meaning one primary investor) so that changes and adjustments could be made in a quicker and more unilateral fashion.
At the time, the ASP was a slow-moving machine because of the votes required from the board (comprising the different brands invested).
The ASP also had a monopoly on professional surfing. There was no competition, so it never had much reason to change.
The other proposed change of the Rebel Tour was to reduce the amount of surfers, while creating a more fair and progressive system to decide which surfers would qualify for the tour.
Much like my half-baked but entirely brilliant Strike Tour idea, Kelly suggested that the field at the highest -level events be reduced to the 16 best surfers in the world.
Another suggestion was to reduce the number of events in total at the highest level, favoring wave quality over quantity.
It’s difficult to find a whole lot of information on the exact thinking behind these proposed changes from nearly 15 years ago, but I can’t help but wonder if the reasons are very similar to those behind the fantastical, yet-to-be-realized Strike Tour.
“The ASP was blowing it, they said, splitting the broadcast rights among event sponsors was killing its chances at scoring lucrative non endemic sponsors. The tour needed an umbrella owner and a slimmed down schedule. Sixteen surfers over eight events. Only the best riders, only the best waves.”– Rory Parker, Beach Grit 2015
Yes, a smaller field and less events, but each event an explosive spectacle of the world’s most elite surfers on the world’s most elite waves.
For argument’s sake, I’m going to say TO HELL with my Strike Tour idea. Perhaps, that kind of shootout is best suited for cash money anyhow.
Still, there are ways to make the tour leaner, cleaner, and more competitive. I understand the need and desire to have a schedule, and having a schedule defeats the purpose of the Strike Tour component.
Roger that. I’m down, but not out.
The problem then becomes the ranking system of the WSL.
Right now, the WSL operates on a tiered ranking system.
It starts with the Regional Qualifying Series, in which surfers compete at regional events closer to home.
The highest ranked surfers from each of the seven regions (Africa, Asia, Australia/Oceania, Europe, Hawaii, North America, and South America) will qualify for the Challenger Series.
The Challenger Series had 8 scheduled events in 2022 after the mid-season cut. In 2023 that has been reduced to 6 events. Not one of those events is in Hawaii. Shame shame.
At the end of the Challenger Series, the top 10 male surfers and top 5 female surfers will qualify for the Championship Tour.
The first half of the Championship Tour features 36 men and 18 women. At the half-way point, that field is reduced to 24 men and 12 women.
Surfers who make the cut automatically requalify for the next CT season. Those who miss the cut are relegated to the Challenger Series.
The rankings are capped in each tier. For the Championship Tour post-cut on the men’s side there are only 24 surfers. The rankings stop after that and begin anew in the Challenger Series.
Theoretically, the first ranked surfer on the Challenger Series is 25th in the world.
The tiered events are perfectly fine for a world tour with less competitors and less CT events.
However, the CT events need to be worth more.
Then, there needs to be more Challenger Series/Regional (which needs a name change and marketing revamp) events throughout the year and they need to be at some of the best locations in the world.
That is what creates the opportunity to advance through the rankings to qualify for the most coveted events where only the top 16 surfers in the world are invited.
That’s the other aspect to this. If we’re saying bye bye to my brilliant but under-appreciated schedule-less component then there has to be an emphasis on prestige.
Some contests have to be more desired than others. How do you achieve that?
For one, limit the invites to the contest.
And two, hold those contests at some of the most attractive waves in the world during their prime seasons.
This creates the ever-engaging, forever-dramatic domino effect. The pressure of each contest prior collapses on the next until the final brick has fallen and only one champion remains.
Here’s a situation that’s bound to happen:
A very recognizable surfer needs a result in France (during the Fall, though!), which is a top 32 contest – meaning the top 32 surfers in the world are invited to compete in it.
If said surfer, does not get the result he or she needs then they will not be invited to the following contest in Fiji – because that contest is a top-16 and, after France and their disappointing result, they’re sitting at 18th in the world.
They’re not cut, they’re just not invited to surf in Tahiti.
In this system all the points earned on any of the tiers need to apply to one single ranking system. A system where surfers can fall and rise.
Under the leadership of Brodie Carr, CEO of the ASP from 2006 to 2011, the ASP Dream Tour shifted to one ranking system.
“A true one ranking is the most exciting and dynamic kind of system for professional surfing. It allows everyone to compete against everyone with the cream rising to the top.”– Brodie Carr
They also implemented a mid-season cut!
After much moaning and groaning, it was quickly dissolved. I don’t like one swift cut. It just doesn’t work. Instead, the limited invite to select contests throughout the year works much better for me.
Carr was sacked in 2011 after falling on the sword for the miscalculation of points and premature inaccurate announcement of Kelly Slater as world champion.
Kelly would eventually and legitimately be crowned champion for the 11th time. Still, someone had to pay for the mishap and Carr felt it should be him.
Brodie Carr had this to say in a 2018 interview, only his second since his departure from the ASP:
“I just think it’s good for the CEO to change, to rotate, every so often, to bring new enthusiasm, to constantly evolve the tour and the ASP.”
Carr was brought up through the ASP under the tutelage of Rabbit Bartholomew and the ambitions of a Dream Tour.
Their whole motto was the best surfers on the best waves.
“…[we] believed that if we had pumping waves in idyllic locations with boardshorts and bikinis, the Dream Tour would sell itself to the broader market,” said Carr.
His model worked, taking an insolvent ASP when he arrived in 2005 to a positive balance sheet by the time of his departure in 2011.
He also navigated the treacherous waters of the Rebel tour and the possibility of losing Kelly Slater. Carr was determined to not be the CEO who lost Kelly Slater, so in a display of ballsy brinksmanship he acted unilaterally and promised Kelly a new contract – one different from the other surfers on tour and unapproved by the board.
Carr was willing to lose his job to keep Kelly Slater on tour.
From Carr’s 2011 interview with Derek Reilly, founder of Stab Mag and current writer for Beach Grit:
“The board immediately said, you don’t have the authority to do that by yourself. And, I said, well it’s done and told ’em I didn’t want to lose him off the tour while I was CEO. The board was willing to sack me over that. And, I was willing to go over it.”
Now, the tour is run by many non-surfers, but they too understand the importance of keeping Kelly Slater on tour. He was recently un-eliminated by the mid-season cut and awarded the mysterious wildcard spot for the second half of the season.
They understand Kelly’s importance, but Carr also believed as recently as 2018 that this shift in personnel is apparent in some of the changes that are being made – schedule included.
“I’d like to think that we were less vanilla back then. It seems more corporate now and less cool. In a way, it’s like a little kid that has grown up and matured, and this is his/her future now. But that doesn’t mean it needs to forget its past,” said Carr.
On the schedule: “I feel like I can see it in the way things are going with the waves that are chosen for events.”
During the first four years of the WSL’s reign, the tour still ended at Pipeline in December, as it should.
Since 2021, with a small hiccup in 2020 due to covid, the tour has begun in January at Pipeline and concluded at Trestles in September.
I like Trestles on the schedule, but in the summer.
Then from there onto Mexico. Where’s Barra de la Cruz? Then El Salvador or somewhere else in Central America.
From there we head to Europe in the Fall. Mundaka, Hossegor, Supertubos…take your pick. Mix and match. Change it up each year.
Historically, the tour has started in Australia in the Spring, gone through Europe during the Fall, then ended in Hawaii in December.
Nail those in place, stir in several other idyllic locations in between, and that’s the tour.
But if you won’t cement a proper schedule for the tour, then you must revert back to a one-ranking system.
Better still, add the invite component to it.
6 scheduled events for the top 32.
4 events for the top ranked 16.
The top 64 surfers qualify for events that currently would be deemed “Challenger Series” events.
No more heats where someone isn’t eliminated.
No mid-season cut, just one ranking system.
I know there are many details I have not mentioned here and it’s not as simple as it seems.
Or perhaps, I’m just some shlub spouting nonsense.
Then again, Kelly knew it back in 2010. Is this Kelly’s next great adventure? To take the tour onto its next stage like a butterfly. From pupa to larva? Larva to adult!?
I know it won’t happen overnight but until then, for the love of Poseidon, can we please end the tour at Pipeline once more?
That is the proving ground.