Stab Magazine | Renato Hickel Explains How The WSL's New Seeding System Actually Works

Renato Hickel Explains How The WSL’s New Seeding System Actually Works

Unbeknownst to most surf fans (including, until recently, us), there’s been a major change to CT events that goes far beyond the heat format.

news // Apr 25, 2019
Words by stab
Reading Time: 8 minutes

I had a royal fuck-up in my latest contest report.

Got a little cocky with my (assumed) knowledge of the WSL’s competition format and made a sloppy call about their new “Seeding Round.”

It went like this:

“Seeding Round” is the new name the WSL has bestowed upon Round 1. Joe Turpel must have said it 100 times today – Seeding Round, Seeding Round, Seeding Round – as if to subconsciously insert this arbitrary terminology into surfing’s common parlance. 

And it is arbitrary. The “Seeding Round” does absolutely nothing to affect your seed – it simply determines which Round 2 (which is now called “Elimination Round”) heat you’ll surf in.

ScaleWidthWyIxMjAwIl0 johnjohnBellsday2 19 dunbar 2019422175759

John’s seed is trending up, up, up.

And here’s the great/terrible thing about the internet. If, no, when you’re wrong about something, there’s a smarter and/or more knowledgable person out there who will fucking belt you for it. In this case it was a commenter called Bunbo, whose detraction of my flawed statement was so detailed and cunning that all I could do was applaud.

Bunbo wrote:

“And it is arbitrary. The Seeding Round does absolutely nothing to affect your seed.” — STAB’s award-winning surf journalists

Actually, Mike, it is not arbitrary at all anymore, and you got some research to do.

(Please excuse the long post, but this shit has been bugging me since the beginning of the season):

There is a brand new seeding system this year, one that the WSL bizarrely refuses to mention, and it’s radically different than anything we’ve ever seen.

Round 1 results now directly affect Round 3 seeds. Sometimes dramatically. Especially for lower seeds who win their Round 1 heats.

Jacob Wilcox, for example, jumped from 34 to 26 (!!) because he won his heat against Julian. And Julian, who placed second in that heat, dropped from a 2 seed to a 3.

It’s all based on a brand new tier system of some sort, whereby the heat winners and highest scoring surfers in any given tier are rewarded.

The idea seems to be to create more parity and opportunity (particularly for lower seeds) by rewarding good surfing and high heat scores. In short, dudes can improve their chances by taking risks early in the comp.

It’s actually pretty cool.

It’s also the most significant structural change in years. It’s a much more meaningful change than the new heat format itself.

Yet the WSL, true to its typically opaque form, has neither published nor posted nor tweeted a word about it.

So, like I said, maybe you could do some research on the subject and fill us all in?

Toledo F0578Bells19Dunbar

Considering Filipe’s outrageous margin of victory in Round 1, he must have been well aware of the new seeding system. 

Oh, he smashed me! And rightfully so. If what Bunbo said was true, I’d missed a major aspect of the WSL’s recent format change, which as a self-proclaimed surf nerd was downright embarrassing. 

So I sent texts and emails to everyone I knew at the WSL, trying to glean any possible info on the subject.

After half a day with no response, I grew anxious and depressed. I wondered, was the WSL really gonna ghost me like that? What did I do to deserve such treatment, beyond the thousands of micro- to occasionally macro-aggressions I’ve lobbed their way over the years?

Around 9 pm I received a response: “You’ve got a meeting with Renato tomorrow. 9 am at the contest site, right after The Call.”

The Deputy Commish? Bingo! 


Renato has been around the Tour for decades. Here he is in 2015, embracing Mick after the “incident.”

The next morning, I met with WSL Deputy Commissioner Renato Hickel in the competitors’ area of the Rip Curl Pro Bells. Due to an utter lack of swell, the comp was clearly off for the day, but Renato being Renato, he still had a million things to do.

“I’ve got 10 minutes,” he told me.

So I hit the red button and off we went.

Stab: On Day 2 of the Rip Curl Pro, you guys pushed the terms “Seeding Round” and “Elimination Round” pretty heavily, which referred to what had always been called Round 1 and Round 2. I wrongly assumed (and wrote) that this was just part of the WSL’s ongoing re-branding effort, and that there was no actual change that had been made to the heat system beyond the obvious format change. Turns out I was completely wrong, and there is, in fact, a new seeding system, however I can’t seem to find any info on the WSL site about it. So, would you please explain in excruciating detail?

Renato Hickel: Sure. There are two parts to the seeding. First of all, the base seeding points for the men and women are still the same as last year. For example, the men have a spread of 40,000 points. The World Champion starts with 60,000 and the 34th seed with 20,000. The other 32 surfers sit somewhere between those other 40,000 points.

Is the point gap between each surfer the same?
No. We calculate the gap based on the exact percentage of the gap they had in the rankings. For example: If Gabe has 60,000 points and Julian was 10% behind him in last year’s rankings, Julian will have 10% less seeding points than Gabe coming into the season. So the base seeding mirrors your achievements from the prior year. You carry that seeding into Snapper, and then throughout the year, we deduct 16.66% of last year’s seeding points across the first six events of the season.

The standard deduction used to be 20%, right?
It’s 20% for the women because they have one event less. But for the men, it’s spread across six events, so 16.66% is the per-contest deduction. This gives us a protection net, if you will, but it also rewards performance in the current year. For instance, if you have a higher seed, then you have a higher deduction – 16.66% of 60,000 (9,996 points) is way more than 16.66% of 20,000 (3,332 points). So if you’re taking bad results, you’re gonna drop quickly, because people earning good results are gonna be doing the opposite. But this has existed for around the last 10 years.

caroline marks bellsday1 19 cestari 2019422175628

What’s seeding matter when you’ve got a bottom turn like this?

So what is the new system?
The system we’re introducing this year, is that in Round 1 – what we’re now calling the “Seeding Round” – we have a reward system. Because first and second now advance to Round 3, we thought that we need to reward winning, to make it more exciting and dynamic.

Before each event, we seed the surfers between 1 and 36. Then we take those 36 guys – that’s including the wildcards – and we put them into four brackets. The first bracket is 1-4, the second bracket is 5-12, the next is 13 to 20-something*, then the last one is 20-something* to 36. So whatever bracket a certain surfer is in, he can only move inside that bracket.

Ahhh, okay. Could you give us an example?
Sure. In this event, Peterson Crisanto and Zeke Lau were in the third bracket. They were the only two surfers in their bracket to win the first round heat, so Peterson moved from 23 to 14 (nine spots) and Zeke moved from 21 to 13 (8 spots) – so, massive moves, right? And then Owen Wright… he was sixth, but he lost his first heat, so now he’s number nine.

This allows wildcards and replacements to have a chance to not draw the top guys again in Round 3, which was the case in the past. Last year, a wildcard could win his first heat against a top-ranked guy, then he’d have to beat him again in Round 3. In this event, we have Jacob Wilcox, who won his first heat as a wildcard, which means he’s not against one of the top four guys in Round 3. So it’s much more dynamic, because you can control your own fate to a larger degree.

Slater K0722Bells19Dunbar

Slater lost in Round 1. Does that mean he’s screwed? 

So is the re-seeding within each bracket based off some sort of algorithm?
No. We thought about that, but there is no formula for this. All we’re doing is moving people in relation to their success compared to the other people in their bracket.

Ohhhh! So, if you’re the lowest seed within your bracket, and you’re the only person in your bracket to win Round 1, then you instantly become the highest seed in your bracket in Round 3?
Exactly. It’s all relational. Peterson, for example, was I think second-to-last in his group. But because he and Zeke were the only two surfers in their bracket to win Round 1 (and Zeke had a slightly higher base seed than Peterson), Peterson earned the second highest seed in their bracket in Round 3.

Why haven’t you guys publicized this yet? I know it’s a lot of numbers stuff and most people won’t follow, but it does actually affect the way surfers compete, so I think it’s worth sharing.
Our plan is to publish a comprehensive seeding explanation after Bells. We’ll have specific athlete examples from the first two events. There are a lot of fans with questions like yours, but I think once you see it on paper, it will make a lot more sense.


Screen Shot 2019 04 24 at 11.36.32 PM

The WSL will release a detailed breakdown of the new system following the Bells event. But for now, who’s the maths wizard that’s gonna solve this puzzle?

Definitely. I’d even love to see when you get to the Round of 32 (AKA Round 3), which slots align with which seeding.
Yeah, we actually re-shuffled the matches there. We didn’t change the heats – number one still meets number 32, number two versus 31, etc. – but we shuffled the order of heats.

There are two reasons for this:

1. Seed three is now on top of the bracket – it used to be five – because we have to wait for the completion of Round 2 to have that first heat done.

2. Because the first seed used to be on the top of the draw, but now he’s on the bottom of the draw, and one and three are always on opposite sides. This helps us ensure that when we’re doing overlapping heats, the first, second, and third seed will never be in the water at the same time so that they can’t affect the Title Race against one another.

You guys have put a lot of thought into this.
Yes, there was a lot of thought that went into this. We’ve been working on this for two years now.

There was a meeting back in October of last year, and we heard the Surfers’ Union proposed a few of these ideas. Is that right?
No. At this meeting, we presented the idea to them. It came from us – the WSL, the Commissioners – and like we usually do when we have a drastic change, we went to their meeting and we presented. So the surfers back there had an idea of the new system, and that’s why it probably leaked and you heard it was changing.

But it was actually our idea to change the format to a more linear system without having to go back to three-man heats in the middle of the event, etc., and then we talked about the reward seeding too. But it was in that meeting last year, and we proposed it to them.

*more precise numbers coming soon


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