By Andrew Oliver
Forces much larger than surfing have shaped 2021 to be a transformative moment in the sports history – the pandemic, surfing’s debut in the Olympic games, and the WSL’s organizational recalibration – which was in no small part an adaptive response to the former – have steered the sport into an uncharted competitive landscape. Both aspiring pros and industry veterans alike are navigating this new world with an outlook that could be best described as skeptical optimism. It has been a balancing act to say the least. On one hand you have the unprecedented excitement for the sport being thrust into the largest showcase in its history at the Tokyo Olympics, and on the other, the evolving logistical challenges of running international events during a pandemic, which have been further burdened by increasingly elusive corporate sponsorships that are needed to pull it all off.
As endless as the possibilities in surfing are, oddly, when it comes to the competitive realm, it’s remarkable how cripplingly conservative the framework of competitive surfing can be. And, this isn’t limited to the organizers of surf events. As much as fans like to complain about a whole litany of things about surf events, the judging, the venues, the commentators, the schedule, and on and on, even the slightest changes set forward, in hopes to improve on things, are generally met with incredible resistance from the crowd. Three time World Champion Mick Fanning spent 17 years on tour and has as detailed of an understanding of the intricacies of professional surfing as anyone on the planet, he’s been firsthand to the evolution of the tour and the inherent struggles attached to change. “If you throw out little changes to the rules here and there you’re gonna watch the masses just blow up, it’s like we want change, but what we’re scared to change,” said Fanning. “You’re never going to please everyone.”
Mahina Maeda is a competitive surfer from Hawai’i, who represented Japan in the 2020 Olympics. Maeda is hoping to build on her competitive momentum and eventually achieve her ultimate goal of qualifying for the WSL Championship Tour.
“Obviously everyone’s goal is to be on the Championship Tour (CT), but the Olympics gave an opportunity to a lot of people, some of whom are just outside the same names you would normally see on the CT. Hopefully, the WSL gains some inspiration from the Games to open up the tour a bit more. I’m hoping to see more diversity of surfers on the tour.
Honestly, with the current changes to the WSL, a lot of the athletes have been saying that the new Challenger Series (CS) is basically the new Championship Tour. And, I think that’s how a lot of people feel about the Olympics. Next year will be the first full year where the major changes on the WSL will come into play, and I feel like a lot of the focus will be on the CS. Events are going to be held in more quality waves at places where they originally had CT events, like Snapper Rocks for example. We’re gonna see a diverse field of athletes attending the CS, and with the quality of waves changing, we’re gonna be seeing different people rise to the occasion. Not just the normal countries like the USA, Australia, and Brazil. So, it’s going to turn the whole situation around.”
While the framework of a professional surf contest, or the tour, at times can seem like the laws of the natural world, and will endure unchanged indefinitely. The very idea of organized professional surfing was a radical notion set into place just over 50 years ago. One man who had his hand in the very inception of what was to eventually become the WSL is Sunset Beach local Randy Rarick. In 1976, Rarick, along with fellow surfing champion Fred Hemmings, set out to bring the independent surfing events that were already taking place and give them some structure, a framework which has endured and evolved into the WSL World Tour as we know it today. A true surfer at heart, Rarick is sensitive to the fact that surfing, for the vast majority of us, is a lifestyle and pursuit, first and foremost. But, competition has its place, and Rarick and Hemmings set out to make the best of it. “The good thing about competitive surfing, and what I like about it, is it allows you to bring the best competitive surfers, who are generally the best surfers anyway, together in one venue and put on a show,” said Rarick. “And, I always say, good surf makes for a good surf contest.”
The two events of the 2021 that set out to make the biggest changes to the sport in decades, and also drew the most skepticism, the Olympics and the WSL Finals, were by most measures labelled successes. This was achieved in no small part by the fact that they were able to tap into the simple formula Rarick espoused, – the right collection of surfers in contestable waves – and, critically important, there was no disputing the eventual winners. In the WSL Finals, Carissa Moore and Gabriel Medina dominated their respective competitive years and carried that momentum on to winning their World Titles in absolutely pumping Lower Trestles. Beforehand, many questioned the format, including Medina. How could someone who led the ratings all year possibly lose the World Title in one day, they asked? Such a bold departure from World Tour norms was a serious gamble. Luckily, the ocean provided, and in terms of avoiding extended controversy, the right surfers won.
Mick Fanning is a three time WSL World Champion and one of the most dominant competitors of all time. While retired from competition, Fanning is still deeply attuned to the workings of the sport, including regularly offering his insight on the WSL’s Getting Heated show.
“You have to remember at the end of the day, the WSL is a media company. Like any company, they’re interested in making money. And because they’re not making dollars off their major product right now, which is the World Tour, they are gonna explore new avenues, but also try to reach out to new audiences. So, even though this Ultimate Surfer could be cringy for the core surfers, it’s putting eyeballs on the sport where we’ve struggled to get them. I can’t actually comment on the show because I haven’t watched it. But, it’s the same as the Olympics, more eyeballs means more money for the people that are actually surfing.
To be really honest, I think surfing’s sort of been stagnant for a while now. In the early 2000s, surfing and the surf industry as a whole was on the rise. Everyone wanted to be a surfer and to wear surf gear. Where now, you’re watching guys and girls that are incredible surfers, lose their jobs because these companies don’t have that money. So, as hard as it is for some people to accept, we’re going to have to go through some different worlds to actually get those glory days of the early 2000s. And, I think all sports go through peaks and valleys. And, at the moment I think surfing is probably in a bit of a valley, just the industry as a whole.
I mean, if I came to you in the early 2000s and said that Billabong and Quiksilver we’re gonna be one company, you’d tell me to f–k off. It goes to show you a bit of the times where surfing’s at. I think people are gonna have to take chances for the sport to grow again. I think taking a risk and, and having a go, I think we probably need more of that. It’s tough out there right now.”
The drive to have surfing’s inclusion in the Olympic Games had been decades in the making, led in no small part by the President of the International Surfing Association (ISA) Fernando Aguerre. With the Olympics being the ultimate goal for Aguerre, the ISA’s World Championship events mirrored the Olympics in terms of striving for as diverse of international participation as possible. As a result, the ISA is largely responsible for kickstarting competitive surfing programs around the world in countries that haven’t been traditionally thought of as being tied to the sport. While inclusiveness is a worthy goal, it doesn’t always make for the most exciting surf event. On the WSL, while diversity has been a challenge, with some surfing nations being heavily represented, with others not having a single surfer on the World Tour, the caliber of talent on the WSL can’t be argued. In the WSL men’s finals for example, three Brazilian surfers, Italo Ferreira, Gabriel Medina, and Filipe Toledo, rightfully competed for the World Title. At the Olympics, due to the limit of two surfers for each qualified nation, Toledo wasn’t even in the event. Added to the fact, it was being held midsummer, in Japan, as unlikely a place to find quality surf as you could choose. Based on some of these concerns about the sport’s Olympic debut, it was widely expected for the event to land somewhere between underwhelming and embarrassing.
The stakes were high, for the first time surfing would be included in the world’s largest platform for sport, and surfing had the odds working against it to really shine. But, while the waves were by no means epic, and not every surfing megastar made the cut, the event far exceeded most expectations. And, rather than being a detriment, the diversity of the surfers, in sticking with the spirit of the Games, was one of the great undercurrents of the event. Sport, as much as it is tied to victory and defeat, at its best, is also about the inspiration that can be drawn from individuals pushing themselves to their personal limits. And, these surfers lived up to that sporting ideal as they fulfilled their unlikely Olympic dream. Fanning for one became a fan, “you have a look at someone like Bianca Buitendag, who has been on and off the World Tour. And, then for her to go on to get a silver medal, that’s massive. She went home as a huge star in South Africa. So, I think it’s great that these opportunities are out there now.”
As the event progressed into the final day, you’d have been hard pressed to find a viewer who did not get swept up in the emotions of seeing Carissa Moore and Italo Ferreira claiming the inaugural gold medals. But, beyond the eventual champions, all of those who participated shared in a proud moment in surfing history. This is something that Mahina Maeda, who surfed for Japan in the Olympics, only began to realize after the games concluded. “Sometimes you hear people say that no one remembers second, third, or fourth,” said Maeda. “And, obviously I didn’t win the Olympics, but people remember that I am an Olympian. So, that’s the cool part, to be acknowledged for something like that.”
Randy Rarick has an unrivaled involvement with professional surfing administration. Rarick, along with Fred Hemmings, is one of the founding organizers of the International Professional Surfers (IPS), the forerunner to what eventually became the WSL. He was also the executive director of the Triple Crown of Surfing for nearly 30 years.
“I think the WSL were really hoping the Olympics was going to be the jumpstart to get sponsorship and support, and it hasn’t really happened. My prediction is that you’re going to see the WSL pull way back and the regional tours will become the focus again rather than international tours.
It will go back to regionalization. We had really strong regions and the ASP (the precursor to the WSL) brought those regions all together and did a good job of it. Then the economy of the surf industry took its toll. The surf industry guys through the 80’s through to the 2000’s built the tour. They were pouring money into professional surfing and it was self-serving because that was their market. And then, the surf industry took a hit and they basically just handed off the events to the WSL. And, the WSL had a vision that they thought could grow surfing’s interest worldwide. And I think it’s shown that it hasn’t worked. I’m sure there’s more surfers than ever, but in terms of interest in competitive surfing, not so much.
So, I think what’ll happen is the WSL will pull back, and it will be the regional people who will want to pick up the ball and run with it. I think the Australians always do a pretty good job. The Brazilians, regionally, have done a pretty good job. Here in Hawaii is a tough sell because of permits and, uh, and availability of sites to be able to run a tournament. It makes it really hard. But, When we ran the Triple Crown, we ran it as a positive, because of all our sponsorship support and local support.”
So, in the span of a couple of months we’ve had two massively audacious events, both executed to relative success, each with quite different visions for what elite surfing should be. The Olympics at its core is an international institution, and is bound to it’s staid norms of how sports should be regulated and presented. While there has been great excitement around surfing’s inclusion, surfing is just one of a long list of sports under Olympic jurisdiction. On the other hand you have the WSL, which is essentially a private enterprise, and is comparatively nimble in what it can attempt to do. And, while the WSL has only the sport of surfing to concern itself with, it has an arguably more consuming issue to contend with – a bottom line.
“You have to remember at the end of the day, the WSL is a media company,” said Fanning. “Like any company, they’re interested in making money. And because they’re not making dollars off their major product right now, which is the World Tour, they are gonna explore new avenues.” One of those very visible avenues is the reality show blunder The Ultimate Surfer, which has been universally excoriated, as it failed to be engaging reality TV or an exciting surf event. However, there may be TV redemption on the horizon, as it is rumored that the WSL has been working with the same production company that produced the fantastic Formula 1: Drive to Survive series on Netflix. Hollywood dreams aside, there have been structural changes by the WSL to its major product, its professional tours, that while less visible, will greatly alter the face of professional surfing for the foreseeable future. The WSL has unveiled a three-tier system for qualification, with seven Regional Qualifying Series’ feeding their top talent to the global Challenger Series, from there, the top 10 men and top 5 women will make it to their ultimate goal of qualifying for the Championship Tour.
It has been an open secret that the WSL has been struggling financially for some time, especially funding amorphous international Qualifying Series events, which are a much harder sell to sponsors than the elite Championship Tour events. Reflecting on his many decades of contest management, Randy Rarick is all too familiar with costs of running these events, “my budget when I was running the Triple Crown was about $2.3 million, and that covered everything from the security, to the lunches, to the scaffolding, all the nuts and bolts it takes to put an event on, and then you have a prize money on top of that,” said Rarick. “So, it’s not a cheap endeavor and you have a lot of moving parts. And now with Covid, trying to get people together and present a safe environment. It’s tough. And, I think we’re going to be stuck in this COVID thing for at least another year. So, I see the events being curtailed for another year.”
In these times, there’s no saying what the future may hold, and the WSL has already had to endure several event cancellations and last minute schedule changes. But, in terms of the very pinnacle of the sport, the WSL has made it clear that promoting a hyper-elite group of surfing superstars is their path forward. And, if the WSL Finals is any indication for what’s in store, from an entertainment and marketability standpoint they may have a winning strategy. On the other hand, for the hundreds of aspiring pros around the world, the Championship Tour is an ever shrinking target, which leaves a lot of global talent, and their respective stories and audiences looking for a home too.
Following a stellar junior career, with two ISA World Junior Titles and a WSL World Junior Title, Mahina Maeda had what looked like on paper to be the perfect pedigree for WSL success. But, the Qualifying Series has long been known to be a graveyard for many careers. “I really had a slump and I felt really depressed about my surfing and depressed with where my career was going with surfing,” said Maeda. Qualifying for the Olympics really turned the page for her, and breathed new life into her competitive drive. “The year I had the burnout, that’s when they announced that surfing was going to be a part of the Olympics,” said Maeda. “And, then I kinda started looking at life a bit differently.” Maeda for one is optimistic about the future and what challenges lay ahead. “A lot of the athletes have been saying that the new Challenger Series is basically the new Championship Tour,” said Maeda, who is qualified to compete on the Challenger Series. “Events are going to be held in more quality waves at places where they originally had CT events. We’re gonna be seeing different people rise to the occasion. I think that’s kind of similar to the Olympics.”
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