Something in the Water
After a gripping 2018, the World Surf League is back. Here’s how to watch this year’s action.
Alliance Magazine - April/May 2019
Words by: Ben Smithurst | Illustrations: Strongpencil
It’s been a big few years in pro surfing. Facebook’s purchase of the broadcast rights annoyed lots of people (bad), but up to half a dozen excellent, different, competing wave-pool technologies have emerged (good!). Lots of heritage surf brands are struggling (bad!), but surfing itself has been accepted into the Olympics (Good! Or bad, depending on your perspective).
In the water, however, competition has rarely been closer. Women’s surfing has achieved prize-packet parity at the same time as taking a quantum leap in terms of both competition and performance. Both sexes are redefining what’s possible in big waves. There’s been a wild changing of the guard at the pointy end of men’s competition, where Brazil – formerly a competitive sleeping giant – has finally emerged as a legitimate superpower. Its jujitsu-adept, group-travelling surfers are no longer content to aggressively swarm the world’s reefs, beach breaks and points, but also the upper echelon of the World Surf League’s (WSL) rankings. Rejoice!
All of which makes the 2019 season, beginning on the Gold Coast in April and winding up in Hawaii in December, a very interesting one indeed. Considering the possibly dire, oft-rumoured administrative troubles of the WSL itself, maybe even a make-or-break year.
Here’s what to know to take it all in properly...
Men’s surfing has stacks of word title contenders, and they’re wildly multinational
The eternally shining light of the greatest surfer of all time, Kelly Slater, has finally begun to dim… aged 47. (Although he’s still on the WSL World Tour – and a contender – especially having convinced the WSL to hold an event in his personal wave pool). In the eight years since the king’s last world title, however, things have diversified. The Men’s Tour has seen an influx of new talent, with the retirement of shark-punching Australian Mick Fanning and the arrival of ‘the Brazilian Storm’, AKA half a dozen or more top-flight South Americans. Square-jawed Machiavellian Gabriel Medina has won two titles, bookending a pair of crowns by Hawaiian genius John John Florence… but they’re not alone. Medina’s hyper-progressive countryman, Filipe Toledo, is near unbeatable in small waves, Australian Julian Wilson almost won in 2018, and South African superstar Jordy Smith has more tricks than Jo’burg has carjackings. Plus, on their day, the single event winners might hail from a variety of beaches across the US, or Australia, or Tahiti, France, Japan…
Can Stephanie Gilmore become the official female GOAT?
Two Australians have won seven world surfing titles. One is increasingly iconic current world champion, Stephanie Gilmore, the perma-smiling personification of grace and style. The other is Layne Beachley OAM, who won six titles in a row, and who was forced to pour cold water on rumours of a rift with Gilmore over the latter’s success. (Shortly after Gilmore’s seventh win, Beachley – who’d admitted not wanting anyone to overtake her mark – updated her Insta bio to read “8x World Champion surfer”. She added a masters title.) But if Beachley is secretly irritated, it would make some sense. Women’s surfing is today on another plane than in Beachley’s era, with Gilmore in particular reaping the rewards (her sponsorship ‘partners’ include Audi, Nikon and Weet-Bix). In Layne’s day, the women struggled for respect and dollars against a background of paternalism (at best) and outright misogyny (at worst). Still just 31, Gilmore can put any rivalry forever to bed with a win in 2019 – albeit against a competitive field bristling with talent. Gilmore’s main rivals will come just as hard from all quarters – Hawaii, California, Australia and France. But having missed a world title after being bashed by a lunatic with a metal pole in a unit block stairwell in late 2010, you’d think Gilmore might deserve it.
The venues are often entertainingly dangerous
Live surfing intrinsically unsuited to broadcast. Heats go for 30 minutes, meaning viewers spend most of their time watching two surfers bob aimlessly in a listless ocean as commentators struggle to fill the dead air. But look away at your peril, because last year one event (Margaret River, WA) was called off when two recreational surfers were attacked in separate incidents nearby, just three years after Mick Fanning’s infamous great white incident during a heat at Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa. Meanwhile, the surf at Pipeline in Hawaii, and Teahupoo in Tahiti, kill professional and amateur surfers with grim regularity – but nobody wants to cancel those locations. Kelly Slater’s own wave pool, now co-owned by the WSL, is 160 kilometres inland in Lemoore, California is safe. But a competing pool in Texas was recently closed after the death of a surfer who contracted brain-eating bacteria from its water. Danger – replays don’t do it justice.
The WSL organisation itself is still working out the kinks
In 2013 the governing body for world professional surfing was bought by an entertainingly named American billionaire, Dirk Ziff. Ziff’s wife had reported enjoyed some surf lessons on a recent family trip to Hawaii. Once run (at a huge loss) by melanoma-riddled former surfers, Ziff over time parachuted in a bunch of experienced (non-surfing) sporting executives. These including a CEO from the WTA and NBA, and a Chief Commercial Officer who left the organisation shortly after being photographed lugging a beginner’s board across a Balinese beach with the fins in backward. (She was being corrected by an incredulous bystander.) Results were mixed and contentious. But in January 2018, the WSL announced a $30 million deal with Facebook to broadcast the sport for two years. Impressive.
Except that, among surfing’s core audience, almost every facet has been controversial, with gripes about (allegedly) inflated viewership, inflated potential fandom, scheduling screw-ups—reportedly almost costing the WSL its flagship Pipeline event in Hawaii. And cringe-worthy attempts to expand surfing’s viewership to non-surfers to the distain of its traditional audience. But that traditional audience is patently not what Ziff and Co are chasing. Ziff’s people don’t care if they’re alienated. But until they get traction elsewhere, their presence creates a palpable tension around every event.
Professional surfing is, to misquote Hunter S. Thompson, “a low-powered mutant of some kind—too weird to live, too cumbersome to die”. It lumbers on, seemingly unkillable, photogenic and haemorrhaging money.
But what will happen next?
… actually, the men’s world title race might not be that wide open
Australian surfers, many of them already bitter towards Brazilians due to the aforementioned swarming, and (maybe) racism, were forced to hate-watch the final event of 2018. Sao Paulo pantomime villain Medina dominated Pipeline last December to collect his second world title, ahead of blonde Australian dreamboat Julian Wilson. It was impressive and deserved. Medina – who once shaved his armpits in a weird Gilette commercial – celebrated on New Year’s with more than two dozen attractive lady friends, various members of Brazilian soccer royalty and jealousy-inducing Instagram posts. He is very good. “He is the most talented surfer I’ve ever seen stand on a surfboard,” says
Australian former world champion
Joel Parkinson. And yet…
The asterisk beside Medina’s second title is the competitive absence of John John Florence, whose tilt at a third straight championship was cruelled by injury. Florence, whose ’pits are gloriously untouched by razors of any kind, will return in 2019, thanks (like Kelly Slater) to an injury wild card. He’ll also be a favourite. Last September, even injured, SURFER Magazine called Florence “the best surfer in the world right now and the most important surfer of his generation.” Who’ll win? Probably one of those two. Find out in 2019!
To view the event schedule, visit worldsurfleague.com/events
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