Nick Carroll: The New WSL Tour – Killer or Weird?

20 Jul 2020 2 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Photo: Jeremiah Klein

Photo: Jeremiah Klein


It may never happen, but it may save the whole thing

It’s not the World Surf League’s fault.

The COVID, I mean.

Not even the most feverish Internet click-baiter or commentary super-nerd has managed to come up with a way to sheet home the propagation of the world’s most famous virus on to professional surfing’s governing body.

Nah…the WSL’s been lumped with it, like everyone else.

Coastalwatch has been watching from a distance for months, as the League crew has wrestled a plan for its future into shape — a plan, as it turns out, that markedly resembles the one former CEO Sophie Goldschmidt was tasked with rolling on three years back.

Namely, a February-September CT, starting, not finishing, at Pipe, with a limited edition world title finale at the end.

While they sent out pressers saying “We’ll try to be back by July!” and “Just hold on, we’ll be right back with you!”, they were meeting their heads off, trying to broker out all the deals involved in such a scenario.

The way people talk about this stuff, you’d think changing a world tour was cake. The WSL’s got the money, right? They’re the only game in town. Just do it and tell everyone to toe the line.

It’s so not like that. There are partners involved. There are governments, local authorities, regional offices trying to make the QS happen, and corporations both surf and not. There are media deals and schedules to re-arrange. All these people want to be involved in pro surfing, but in the middle of a global pandemic, do any of them really NEED it? Everyone has their own agendas on board.

And there’s the surfers, which means another 54 agendas all by themselves.

The surfers are the power in the room. They’re also the most vulnerable. THEY need pro surfing. But Dirk Ziff had specifically instructed Pat O’Connell and his team not to point the money gun at them. Rather than coerce, Ziff wanted the surfers to see the opportunity for change, in a moment when big change was not only possible, but necessary. The world itself is changing; no pro sport can afford to sit on its hands, least of all our dicey little darling.


As Pat laid out the options before the talent, he found them split on a range of issues. One option — favoured by Kelly Slater, by the way — was a continuous Cut throughout the season, a whittling at every event, so each CT featured fewer surfers than the one before it. Another involved dropping any non-elimination rounds — lose a heat, any heat, you were done. Neither of these got a lot of backing.

Instead, the process turned into a slow nursing of opinions and details, giving something here, asking for something there. The Cut was set two seasons down the track, instead of straight up. The non-elimination rounds were left intact. Both spared the concerns of the pros, who didn’t like the idea of travelling halfway around the world for one heat, or getting slung off tour after five such heats.

In return, the WSL was able to get a working version of that 2017 idea in place, along with what sounds like a QS of real power. While some of the surfers still remain uncertain, by and large they accepted this new game — even the finish away from Pipe, the thing they didn’t quite trust coming from Goldschmidt.

Yet so much was in play, it all only came together in the past two weeks. Indeed, the WSL was still queueing in naming rights deals at the last minute. It took till the week before the announcement before Corona, Outerknown and Roxy had their names on their various events.

So, is the new format killer, or weird, or something in between? I don’t know. I could make some educated guesses, but really, they’d just be air swings right now. The COVID’s still running everything. International travel is so far away, the idea that you’ll be able to get a CT up in Hawaii in December just seems like cloud cuckoo land. For all we know today, the whole front half of 2021 might be cloud cuckoo land.

But this weird downtime may already have done something valuable: re-focussed the WSL on its core mission.

There’s been a deal of rumoring about the WSL being for sale. Well, rumors, eh? You can chase them through the fog all day and night and never see a thing. But at least three sources, two of them outside the surf world, have told me the League was being quietly presented around the US pro sporting scene as a buy prospect. $100-150 million was the airy figure. Value based on its much-talked-up content and media platform.

The key word here? “Was”. This was all going on back in early 2020, before you-know-what got a hold on us all — and before the WSL was effectively turned into a replay channel.

That sell talk isn’t out there any more. What price content when you can’t run contests?

There’s only been one mega sporting hit of the COVID: that Netflix NBA thing, The Last Dance. Its big lesson: Content arises from Events.

This re-set is a clear acknowledgement of that fact. It puts the CT at the centre of everything. It could just save their whole act.

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