Luckily the Mongrel snuck back in for a sniff. Photo: WSL
The WSL Is Formalizing Its Qualification Tyranny In 2020
New year, same dictators!
Recently, the WSL announced its dissemination plan for the two "Season Wildcard" slots on the Men's 2020 Championship Tour.
Of the three injured surfers who applied for these wildcards, Adriano de Souza will retain full rights to one (as he is a former World Champ) while Mikey Wright and Leo Fioravanti (who are both relative newcomers to the Tour) will each compete in the first three events of the 2020 season, after which the surfer placed higher in the rankings will retain the second wildcard for the remainder of the year.
A simple, and most would say fair, plan for all surfers involved.
But as we learned from the Medina/Ibelli/Article 171.11 dilemma at Pipe, the WSL's MO is to preserve ultimate decision-making power in every aspect of their operation, so that they can, well... script this.
Need proof? Stab was recently leaked an image of a message sent by the WSL to its 2020 Championship Tour surfers. You can read it here:
In the first episode of CUSP (recorded prior to the WSL's decision on the Mikey/Leo situation), Stace Galbraith and I chatted about the potential 2020 wildcard outcomes, coming to the conclusion that Mikey would likely be given the second wildcard over Leo on account of the intrigue he brings to the Tour. We were, ultimately, wrong in this micro-assumption, but the broader implication of our claim was correct: the WSL will make whatever decision is best for them (they went with the three-event surf-off to appease both surfers while also creating a unique storyline around the Australian leg—genius!).
The new wildcard rule, which will come into effect for the 2021 Championship Tour, formalizes the WSL's tyranny around qualification.
Here are the implications:
Eliminating the double-qualifier-beneficiaries is basically saying that if you can't beat 'em, you can't join 'em. Fair enough. In the past very many years, no backdoor qualifier has made a big impact in their following year on Tour, so why should the WSL give them special treatment? Either make the QS top-10 or get to the back of the line (Prove me wrong, Cibilic.)
However, the WSL started to lose me when they talked about not (necessarily) supporting injured surfers. Mikey Wright clearly deserves to be on Tour, and a bad back (injured at one of their events, no less) shouldn't strip him of his true Rookie year.
Plus, the WSL's qualifying phrase "best interest of the sport" is even more subjective and vague than the "unsportsmanlike" and "of a serious nature" clauses that acquitted Medina in his clear infraction of 171.11. So, if the WSL believed the sport of surfing would benefit from having Zoltan Torkos on Tour—just kickflippin' his way to two-point heat totals all year—could they wave their magic wand and make it so?
Methinks yes. But it doesn't stop there.
Lest we forget that one male and one female slot for the 2021 Tour will come from Ultimate Surfer*, the WSL's rip-off reality show that will see wannabe Tour-sters (all American, I might add) dueling in synthetic surf for the most unwarranted ascension since Trump came to office (note: that's not a political statement, but a direct comparison of reality stars leveraging their celebrity to assume lofty titles beyond their skillset).
Just this week, Ultimate Surfer applicants were interviewed by the WSL, who will compile a personalized casting video for each surfer and present them to ABC, who will then make the final decision on which applicants appear on the show (or so we hear).
So what does all of this mean?
From where I'm standing, it's clear that all of these changes come back to the same, simple principle: the WSL's competition model is commercially broken, so it's within their best interest (and, frankly, their rights) to control the narrative and thus undam the CT revenue stream.
While this all might feel a little skeevy on the surface, if you take a second to consider the implications, it's really not that bad.
Worst case scenario, we end up with a few quirky, vlog-centric, and otherwise inert surfers on the 2021 Tour. They'll lose second round and we'll hardly remember they were there, like Soli Bailey in 2019.
Best case scenario, the WSL (and ABC) will promote surfers who bring both entertainment and performance to CT, like Mason Ho, Clay Marzo, and Bethany Hamilton. We won't miss the journey(wo)men for a second when these freaks are scalping the Medinas and Moores of the world.
With a clear need to increase Tour-based revenue, I back the WSL's decision to mix up their qualification process. If they want more viewers, they need to provide more entertainment. And a fresh cast of characters is a decent start.
Next step: cutting the men's Tour in half.
*Quick question: if the WSL is saying that 10 surfers will still be coming up from the Men's 2020 QS (assuming there are no double-qualifiers), does this mean that the Ultimate Surfer winner's slot will come from their now-totally-autonomous "Season Wildcard", or would they dare knock off the 22nd ranked CT surfer? Definitely the former, right?