Well, they finally did it… but is it too late?
The WSL has just announced they'll recalibrate their 2021 Championship Tour season, starting it this year in December at Pipeline (for the men) and at Honolua in November (for the women), and finishing it with a one-day surf-off for the world title in September 2021. Somewhere.
This is not a new idea. The WSL already tried it back in 2018, ending in high farce, with Honolulu City Hall politely telling them what to do with their Pipe permit. It never got off the ground.
The move has been prompted by the pandemic. "Never waste a crisis" etc. It might also be ended by the pandemic. "Uncertain times" etc.
A warning: these announcements read in quick succession may trigger seizures.
The 2020 season is officially a write-off. The ‘21 Championship Tour will run December '20 to September ‘21. The women's tour will start at Honolua in November - this November - while the men's tour will start at Pipe in December. The Pipe Masters will start the season, not finish it. From that point, the men and women surf the same events. The women will surf Teahupoo. In September ‘21, the top five men and women will surf off for world titles in a single day. Five versus four. Winner takes on three. Winner of that takes on two etc. No location divulged but will need a Southern Hemi swell source. Distinct tour seasons will kick in. The ‘CT will run from December to August. The ‘QS from January to July. The Challenger Series August to December. Then there's the big one: halfway through the '22 season, they'll prune the fields. The men go from 36 to 24. The women from 18 to 12.
Much to process. Let's bring in Pat O'Connell.
Pat hasn't been surfing much lately. While most of us have been flaunting lockdowns to surf ourselves into a glorious ooze, the WSL's Senior Vice President of Tours and Competition and General Cheeriness has been locked away in WSL HQ at Santa Monica sketching out the future of the tour. As mentioned, these were changes that were going to happen anyway. The pandemic pause just gave them a chance to do it.
"When we entered the beginning of this situation it was a bit of like, okay, let's take a really bad situation and see what good could we can make of it," says Pat. "Are we ever going to get this time to focus on one thing and make some of the changes that need to be made? Why don't we take this time and actually make this happen now?"
Two moments drove these changes. The first was on December 19, 2017, when John John Florence won his second world title at Pipeline. The WSL's Golden Boy winning at Pipe would be the WSL's dream. The problem? He was up in the Johnson's backyard at the time. The gate was locked. The WSL couldn't get their roving camera into the party and the broadcast missed the world title moment. League owner Dirk Ziff watched on… blood pressure rising, a pencil snapping in his hand. He'd always wanted a playoff series. Instead, he got a drone shot of John John's world title party from 200 feet in the air.
Ziff got his moment at Pipeline in December last year. Gabby and Italo, surfing off in the Pipe Masters final for the world title. Pat was on the beach. "I think Gabriel was in the semi against Griffin when it dawned, like, holy shit, this is actually going to happen. The Gabriel and Italo final was the largest audience we'd ever had. This is what it can look like. That moment, walking off the beach with chills and then coming back and getting the analytics and going, ‘oh my god, everybody felt the same as I did on the beach'. So we sorta anchored on that, driving everybody toward this really amazing moment every year. Does that sound exciting? Everybody's like, ‘fuck yeah.'" The new tour was reverse-engineered back from this world title moment.
The finals series concept has been drawn up for a number of years now, but from the start, it's always been hitched to the idea of moving it away from Pipeline. A short history: every time the tour has moved away from Pipe it's been cursed, and has soon moved back. The Pipe Masters has been the tour's North Star, connecting it to the ancients and providing some kind of pure surfing compass amidst the attendant commercial junk of the tour.
Pat reasons Pipe is too special of a place to end the season. "Places have their own story and certainly Pipeline has its own story. If we want to create this final event, you start to compete with those. And it's kind of leaving the very best things that we have about the sport alone, letting that have its own life and letting us create something new."
There is, however, subtext to moving the tour finals away from Hawaii. The Islands have never been all that welcoming to the WSL as an organization. Sound familiar? From the early days of WSL houses needing security guards, to Honolulu City Hall taking great delight in publicly calling them out, to the Johnson's gate being closed, it's never been an easy relationship. The WSL, especially in the early days under Paul Speaker, liked to throw its weight around when it came to town. They liked to be in control. They quickly found out it couldn't do that in Hawaii.
When it came to reshuffling the tour and moving away from a season finale at Pipe, there were other broader issues to consider. The first of those was momentum.
Gabby and Italo at Pipe was a high watermark, but averaged out over two decades most world title wins have been fizzers. Who remembers Kelly winning in Mundaka in September? John John winning on a cold foggy morning in Portugal with nobody on the beach? Pipe often plays out as a dead rubber, the world title done and nothing to surf for.
The same applies to the guys in the middle of the ratings. "I'll use me as an example," says Pat. "I would get to Hawaii every year and I was never going to win a world title - my job was just staying on tour - but by the time I got to Pipe I had already done enough and it was basically a free surf for me. There was really nothing on the line. What I like about what has been engineered here is that every heat becomes really important."
This isn't a new issue. The back end of the season has always run out of steam. Half the crew don't have anything to surf for, they've been away from home for months. They're over it. Remember when Brazil was the penultimate event on tour and half the field wouldn't even turn up? And then there's the surf. Finishing the year in the Northern Hemisphere gives you Pipe, but you also roll the dice on Europe's beachies. It also puts you in a shitty timezone for big broadcast markets in the US and Australia.
Moving the tour to a Southern Hemi finish in September creates a wild run home. G-Land, J-Bay, Teahupo'o… before the final series, wherever that ends up. We asked Pat if they had a location. "We don't. We don't have anything locked in yet. I think there's a couple of different conversations we're having. You know, ultimately I think there's probably about five locations we could use, and any surfer can kind of put their head, their brain around where they would be."
There'd be a couple of criteria. Southern Hemi swell. Something world-class but with back-up options nearby. Exclusivity, maybe. The original WSL plan was to take the finals to the Mentawais, put the surfers on boats, keep the public away and make it pay per view. Indo immediately comes to mind. Ments? Bali? Fiji? Mexico?
Lemoore? Who swore?
Maybe the biggest change however dropped last, almost in fine print. Halfway through the '22 season, the ‘CT fields will be cut back. On the men's side, 36 will be culled down to 24. On the women's, 18 will become 12. It's a bloodbath. This is a huge shift not only for the events themselves, but of the power dynamic within the sport.
When the WSL took over in 2013, the surfers seemed to be running the sport. The power shift began in the late ‘90s when the surfers unionized and pushed back against the surf brands. The surfers owned half the sport, but gave up their share when the WSL took over.
When the WSL first took over - as the outright owners of the league - most expected the first thing they'd do was reduce the fields. They'd inherited a bloated system. They were simply too big for the swell windows. Five days of surfing into three days of swell just didn't go. There were multiple rounds with nobody losing. Events forced to run in marginal surf. The same guys being recycled through the qualifying series instead of new talent. The fans were the losers. The whole thing needed to be pruned. Almost a decade later it will happen. "You could say it's fan-driven," says Pat of the more elite field, "but it really is sport driven as well. It's kind of like, ‘hey, we've upped the stakes'. And I think it's going to be, you know… I think the support from the surfers has been interesting." Interesting is code. We don't know what the WSL had to put on the table to get the surfers to agree. Maybe nothing - just the promise of keeping them in a job.
"I think truly if we were to go straight down the fan route," says Pat, "some people have suggested even going deeper than the numbers that we've cut, which I don't think is probably good for the sport. I think that ultimately we have run a very interesting sort of balance, creating the best environment for professional surfing."
"The key thing that kept coming up in this was performance. Performance is going to dictate everything. You're on the clock from the first event, which is very different. This is a little bit more cut-throat. It's a little bit more sport. I think by focusing it into a tighter group and fewer days, I think we'll get to something that's actually really special."
A lot of this all seems like common sense and yet it's taken 20 years to get here. That's the nature of pro surfing. You've had so many competing interests for decades it's been hard to get it into a format that makes sense as a sport. Pat, who's been on both sides of the fence as a surfer and now the guy running the tour, agrees. "Yeah, that's true, but there are still things that will need to evolve. It's a brand new world."
True, that… and an uncertain one.
There is of course a good chance none of these changes will ever happen… at least not on the timeline that's been announced. Nobody knows where this pandemic is going.
To get this thing started again, they need to get everyone to Hawaii in December. With the benefit of a thousand-kilometer saltwater moat around it, the islands have kept the virus under reasonable check. They're going to be ultra-cautious as corona surges through the US mainland and Brazil. Almost half the field will come from there. Portugal would be next in Feb ‘21, and then Australia in March… which is currently on the verge of a second wave lockdown and not taking tourists. If these first five events of the '21 don't happen you're almost cutting the season loose for a second year running.
This new show at first glance looks a far better deal for surf fans… it's just a matter of how many surf fans will be left. A whole year without pro surfing has recalibrated their surfing compass. They've just gone surfing. No tour, but plenty of waves. Have they even missed the tour? Do they feel differently about it? If that one year becomes two it will be a real test of the commitment of surf fans… and a real test of commitment for the WSL, which is quietly on the market with no sign of a buyer.
Pat shrugs. "It's something that only time will tell."