Reader Letter: Why You Should Support The Surfers, Not The WSL - Stab Mag

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Solidarity at its finest. Photo: WSL

Reader Letter: Why You Should Support The Surfers, Not The WSL

Everyone has an opinion on the mid-year cut.

news // Apr 17, 2022
Words by Zachary Ernst
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Editor’s note: Here at Stab, we support constructive free speech. With a topic as divisive as the mid-year cut (see who’s on the chopping block, here), we believe that opening our platform to different ideas and ways of thinking will only serve to elevate the conversation and open minds (perhaps even our own).

The following was written by Zachary Earnst, a healthcare attorney in Florida who works for a nonprofit (hence his direct and thorough writing style, with a penchant for protecting the little guy).

For a point of reference, we posted an IG story poll last week asking the gen pop how they feel about the mid-year cut. The results were as follows:
– 18% of respondents said they were in favor of the mid-year cut
– 56% of respondents said they were opposed to the mid-year cut
– 26% of respondents said they were undecided

All of which is to say, the majority of surf fans will probably agree with Zach’s argument below. Professional surfers defintiely will. Maybe we’re the ones who need to reassess our thinking.

Convince us, Zach.

Should surfers have their way? Photo: WSL

Before I read the April 14th letter from the World Surf League, which was written by the CEO of the WSL, I saw the general statements of support for the tone and content of the letter from surf media outlets. Over the past few days, the WSL’s letter has been described as a “masterfully crafted” message that was “so powerful” and “blend[ed] the perfect mix of empathy and cold hard facts.” 

If you are a supporter of the surfers involved and professional surfing in general, I think you should view the WSL’s letter in the exact opposite way and I think you should be supporting the surfers. 

For background, the WSL’s letter was drafted in response to a letter signed by a majority of the CT surfers. In my opinion, The WSL’s letter was a dismissive lecture padded with hollow paragraphs that seemed to obscure the letter’s issue-dodging. To be clear, I have nothing against Erik Logan, know absolutely nothing about his abilities as a CEO, and the same goes for the operations of the WSL. But I would suggest that it is a bad sign for the future of surfing when, as I will explain below, the WSL unnecessarily and, based on all available information, unjustifiably portrayed the majority of the CT surfers as ungrateful betrayers without responding to the key issues presented in the letter from the surfers. 

Before examining The WSL’s response, it is worth acknowledging a few aspects of this topic that are relevant but do not provide absolution for the content of the WSL’s letter: 1. the WSL is commonly understood to operate at a loss; 2. the relationship between the CT surfers and the WSL is likely more complex than a straightforward worker-owner dynamic; and 3. the surfers agreed to the midyear cut at some point before the start of this season.

In the letter from the surfers, there is an explicit request for the WSL to prevent the midyear cut from happening this year. But this request is not made without — their request is based on a collection of issues that the surfers use to explain why the midyear cut should be reconsidered by the WSL and disregarded this year.

By my estimation, every single major issue outlined by the surfers is an issue that would not have been reasonable to expect them to have been able to predict at the time the midyear cut was agreed to. Let’s take a look. 

Despite being a top-ranked surfer, FIlipe Toledo put his name on the anti-mid-year-cut petition. Photo: WSL

Key issues raised by the surfers: 

  • Income-related issue. The surfers raised a specific concern regarding how sponsorship contracts would be adjusted based on the midyear cut. This is out of the WSL’s control but still seems hard to predict at the time of agreement. 
  • Income-related issue. Per the surfers’ letter, “[t]he level of prize money on Challenger Series events is much below the levels expected when the Special Committee approved the new CT format.” This seems to be entirely within the control of the WSL and is certainly a newly developing cause for concern for the surfers. 
  • Requalification-related issue & increased injury risk. The surfers “were told that the calendars of CT and CS wouldn’t have any conflicts.” The surfers note that the calendars are creating “event congestion.” Additionally, the surfers explain that having to compete in back-to-back CT and CS events has reduced their ability to prepare properly, has increased the number of injuries sustained, and has increased the amount of surfers that feel compelled to surf injured. 
  • Injury wild card-related issue. Per the letter, there “has been no transparency regarding the future of the Surfers that got injured during/before Pipe and are unable to make the cut, with only 2 injury wildcards available.”

The letter concludes with the surfers noting that they “do not see [the midyear cut] as a sustainable path forward.” 

If you have not read the WSL’s letter yet, then I invite you to consider for a few moments how you would expect the WSL to respond to this letter of concern from the majority of the CT surfers. Personally, I would have expected the WSL’s response to contain a few statements explaining that there are too many contracts signed based on the midyear cut to reconsider at this moment, a few comments regarding WSL’s love for their surfers and their disappointment that the surfers felt that they needed to draft the letter, and a signoff saying that the WSL plans to address these newly developed concerns in the offseason together with the surfers. However, this was not the path the WSL chose. 

Instead of addressing the surfers’ concerns related to their personal health and livelihood, the WSL’s letter reads as patronizing scolding that spans two full pages but does not find the time to address the unreasonable-to-predict issues outlined by the surfers – not even one core issue from the surfers’ letter is addressed in the WSL’s letter

The other current number one in the world, Carissa Moore, also signed the petition in solidarity with lower-ranked CT surfers. Photo: WSL

WSL’s response:

  • The WSL explains that the redesigned tour has increased excitement and engagement and that the sport is growing. The WSL notes that “[w]e are within sight of having a healthy, long-term sustainable tour for the CT.” This discussion does not address the issues flagged by the surfers and does not explain why the surfers are wrong in their assessment as to the unsustainability of the current model from a personal health perspective. The implication seems to be that the WSL sees financial stability for the tour as a possibility with no comment as to the sustainability for the surfers’ health. 
  • The WSL then notes that they are not open to considering the request for no midyear cut this year, which seems reasonable to me from a business perspective given the many contractual obligations that are likely involved. But the WSL goes further. The WSL states that “a group of surfers are trying to disrupt the tour and everything that we have worked so hard to build together.” To me, this reads as condescending and passive aggressive — the surfers explained their reasons for asking to scrap the midyear cut and the characterization of their letter as akin to sabotage does not seem justifiable. Importantly, at this point in the letter, there still has been no response to the surfers’ list of issues. 
  • The WSL continues by adding further support for the claim that the midyear cut has been good for business. Again, it is worth reiterating that the letter from the surfers did not claim the midyear cut should be scrapped because it was bad for the financials of the WSL in the short term — the letter from the surfers argues that there have been serious, unpredicted issues experienced by the surfers that rise to the level of justifying a reconsideration of the midyear cut this year. 
  • The WSL notes that they “feel obligated to say that the petition was painfully untrue in many respects – and wrongly attempted to portray an adversarial relationship.” Look, I have no clue if this is true and how could I know? I am just a below-average surfer from the US in my late 20’s with no connection to professional surfing. Given the WSL’s inclusion of this claim, it is worth considering that this may be true. But, from my perspective, the surfers letter came across as a heartfelt plea for change due to a specific list of unexpected issues and the WSL responded by ignoring each of the core issues presented by the surfers – instead the WSL has now spent nearly two pages on their business-is-booming-focused response. 
  • The WSL then leaves some final comments that seem genuine and positive. But I was perplexed by their choice for the last sentence of the letter. To close out the letter, the WSL notes that they “want to reiterate that we are in the best position that we have ever been in – now is not the time to change course.” It strikes me as odd that the WSL would respond to a letter filled with the surfers’ concerns for their health and wellbeing with the claim that “we” are in the best position ever for the tour. 
Steph Gilmore, who currently sits just two spots above the cut-line, did not sign the surfers’ petition. Photo: WSL

After reviewing the WSL’s letter, the WSL seemed to decline to directly respond to a single issue of great concern outlined by the surfers — it stood out like a flashing red light that the WSL’s letter did not contain direct responses to the surfers’ issues related to the changes in sponsorship contracts, the unpredicted reduction in prize money on the CS, the unexpected conflicts and event congestion based on CT and CS scheduling, the increased number of injuries on tour, the increased risk of injuries based on increased pressure to surf through pain, and the lack of transparency regarding the future of the surfers that are currently injured. 

The WSL’s letter also declines to address the previous discussions alleged by the surfers that were focused on developing an alternative path forward. But I did learn from the WSL’s letter that the business side of the tour is strengthened by the current tour format — my question is how does this resolve any of the issues presented by the surfers?

The surfers clearly felt compelled to write a letter based on serious issues they have been experiencing — the vast majority of which were not reasonable to assume they could have forecasted when they agreed to the midyear cut. What harm does it do for them to explain their issues and ask for the midyear cut to be reconsidered and disregarded by the WSL this year? The issues outlined by the surfers pertained to their ability to stay healthy, their ability to have enough time to recover between events, and their ability to make a living by remaining on tour — these are not throwaway issues, they are core to surfing. 

Without more information, I humbly suggest that we support the surfers in their struggle to mold the surf league into a format that is both sustainable for the health of the surfers competing in professional surfing events and the financial health of the corporation organizing the professional surfing events.

In practice, I think this means that we should be paying attention when the majority of CT surfers raise the flag to say that the current model is not sustainable for them, regardless of any agreement made months ago. From my perspective, the health and wellbeing of the surfers should receive priority over the profitability of the WSL.

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