How the professional surfing tour looks to ride the Olympic wave

·6 min read

It was during Tuesday’s championship match between world No 1 Gabriel Medina and fellow Brazilian Filipe Toledo that a six to eight foot shark was spotted breaching the competition area.

“A shark has breached the side of the line-up and it’s about six to eight foot so we’re going to search the line-up and make sure it’s gone,” World Surf League (WSL) head of competition Jessie Miley-Dyer said during the live broadcast of the WSL Rip Curl Finals at Lower Trestles, California.

The event was put on hold with 18 minutes left in the match as tour officials scrambled to clear the line-up and ensure that athletes were out of harm’s way. Mick Fanning, the retired Australian three-time world champion, happened to be in the commentary booth alongside Kelly Slater at the time and jokingly recalled his own harrowing encounter with shark during a 2015 tour competition at Jeffreys Bay in South Africa. “They’re probably looking for my phone number just to light me up,” Fanning said of the finalists as they were lifted out of the water.

The shark sighting added to the intensity of what was already a historic day in the world of surfing. Under a new format introduced several months ago, the men and women ranked in the top five at the end of the WSL season qualified for the one-day tournament at San Clemente’s Lower Trestles, a popular west coast surfing destination where high-performance waves break over a cobblestone bottom, to decide the world champions. And while the exciting new format was part of the WSL’s attempt to capitalize on the post-Olympic swell of fan interest in the sport, it is not without its controversies.

Filipe Toledo
Brazilian surfer Filipe Toledo competes during the Rip Curl World Surf League Final at Lower Trestles in San Clemente, California. Photograph: Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images

In previous years, WSL champions were decided on points accumulated at tour events throughout the season. It is how Kelly Slater claimed his record 11 world titles and how Medina had claimed his previous two championships in 2014 and 2018. By all accounts, both Medina and fellow world No 1 Carissa Moore, would have both been crowned champions already under the old format. Medina, in particular, had a phenomenal season, reaching event finals in the opening three stops on the men’s Championship Tour. He then went on to win the Rip Curl Narrabeen Classic and the Rip Curl Rottnest Search in Australia to take an insurmountable lead over his competition in the rankings.

Speaking to the New York Times earlier this week, Medina questioned the legitimacy of the new one-day format for the WSL finals. “I don’t like it because I don’t think it’s fair. You spend your life, a year long, and now the last event in September, you’re gonna decide all your year?” he said.

Medina went on to win his third world title on Tuesday, defeating Toledo in the best-of-three match-up using an arsenal of progressive aerial maneuvers that included a stunning backflip that secured him the second heat when the judges awarded it a 9.03 (out of a possible 10). Shortly thereafter, Hawaii’s Carissa Moore won her fifth world title over Brazil’s Tatiana Weston-Webb in the women’s final to close out one of the most impressive seasons in professional surfing history – a season that also saw her win the first ever Olympic gold medal for surfing at Tokyo 2020.

“I don’t think I could have asked for anything more or written it any better,” Moore said during her post match interview.

Beyond the changes in how the organization crowns champions, the WSL has also redesigned its tours by combining men’s and women’s events for the first time and expanding its league to a three-tier competition designed to funnel surfers from regional qualifying tours onto the newly-formed challengers series, where surfers then can qualify for a spot on the championship tour. The WSL also made changes to the venues on the championship tour schedule, including the introduction of a mid-season cut that will reduce the field to 24 men and 12 women (down from 36 and 18 respectively). By overhauling its tour structure to emphasize suspense and excitement, the WSL is hoping to attract a wider audience that can generate millions of dollars in sales and sponsorship revenue and save it from potentially facing a similar fate as its predecessors.

Much like the ocean, surfing’s popularity has ebbed and flowed over the past few decades. The International Professional Surfers (IPS) was the original world governing body of professional surfing between 1976 and 1982, replaced by The Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) in 1983. With the help of surf brands such as Billabong and Quicksilver, the ASP cemented surfing’s competitive structure and world tour. However, as board shorts and surf brands fell out of favor as fashion statements and filed for bankruptcy, the ASP faced impending doom.

In 2010, an investor group backed by billionaire Dirk Ziff took over the ASP and gave it a necessary infusion, reportedly in the $25m range. In 2015, the ASP rebranded as the WSL, implemented equal pay for men and women in 2019, and underwent several hiring rounds over the years until it settled on current CEO Erik Logan, the former president of the Oprah Winfrey Network, who joined the WSL that same year. During the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced the cancelation of the 2020 season, Logan had the opportunity to reshape the tour, which he took full advantage of. The WSL combined the men’s and women’s tours, moved the season-ending Banzai Pipeline event on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, to the beginning of the season, added a play-off style tour final, and even introduced a reality show inspired by the UFC called ‘The Ultimate Surfer’.

“I’ve known [UFC president] Dana White for some time,” Logan said during an appearance on The Lineup surfing podcast. “Dana has had this job of taking this sports league, if you will, and trying to get notoriety and recognition.”

White joined the series as an executive producer and has been promoting the show since it debuted on ABC on 23 August. Logan is hoping that ‘The Ultimate Surfer’ becomes as pivotal for the WSL as it was for the UFC’s success in 2005, though is worth noting that ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ continues to face declining ratings and has not produced a championship-level fighter since UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman won in 2015. Therefore, the WSL is unlikely to garner a new audience or enter the mainstream by aspiring to imitate an irrelevant, reality-TV relic such as ‘The Ultimate Fighter’. In fact, sideshow projects such as this may arguably alienate the WSL’s core surfing community.

While the WSL will continue to ride the swell of inspiration, securing deals such as Apple TV+’s six-part documentary series on the 2021 WSL championship tour along the way, the organization will also have to navigate the potentially choppy waters ahead.

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