Stab Magazine | Imagine A World Without The WSL

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Imagine A World Without The WSL

A hypothetical evaluation of the good, bad and the downright ugly.

style // Mar 24, 2018
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 5 minutes

The World Surf League’s approach to international competition is nothing new.

While the WSL has only existed in its current state since the start of 2015, the Association of Surfing Professionals carried forth from 1983 to 2014. Before that, there were multiple incarnations ranging from IFS, to the IPS, the Bud Tour and the Smirnoff World Pro-Am Surfing Championships.

Whichever way you look at it, global competitive surfing formats aren’t anything new. But are they here to stay?

It’s no secret that the WSL currently haemorrhages large amounts of coin each and every event; the WSL hasn’t seen a net profit since its 2015 birth and the ASP suffered the same financial woes for more than two decades prior. 

This begs the question as to the WSL’s and international competitive surfing’s longevity, because at the end of the day, if they’re not turning a buck, there won’t always be an investor willing to prop it up.

While there are no signs of dissolution at the current moment, rumours of paid webcasts and the WSL’s restructuring lend themselves to questions of financial security and, most importantly, the organisation’s longevity.

So let’s get hypothetical here. What would surfing look like without the WSL?

Kelly chopes

Similar to claiming an obvious 10, like Kelly here.



Stating The Obvious

There would be no World Tour. No World Champion. No online webcast. And no judges to abuse when they make a fucking bullshit decision against your fantasy team.

I guess there’s the ISA, but honestly, it’s unlikely the masses of surfing professionals will be shuffling over to join their ‘tour’ if the WSL flopped.  

And maybe you think this isn’t such a bad idea; perhaps surfers would have to return to their roots of travelling, compiling footage and driving fantasia in the heavy anticipation of a proper surf film. My grommethood was littered with local and not-so-local movie premieres, yet today, even in this line of work, they’re few and far between.

I believe there would be both an abundance of pros and cons – as with most things in life – if the WSL fell. So let’s pretend we’re in a chick flick and compile a list, just in case the WSL does lay down and die in the coming years.


A return to films

A modern day competitive surfer doesn’t need to rely on obtaining the best footage to accrue an income, as sponsors are typically satisfied with the exposure their surfers receive from the WSL webcast and subsequent highlights. While many surfers (e.g. Gabriel Medina, John Florence, and Mick Fanning) infrequently release long films or web-edits showcasing their out-of-jersey endeavours, this is not a prerequisite of their success.

If anything, the better they perform on Tour, the less likely they are to provide additional content.  

And while competitive surfing provides us with strong bursts of surf-centric entertainment over the Tour’s 11 stops, it’s debatable whether those moments compare to a full-length film brimming with incredible turns, pits, and punts.

A progressive push

This point is somewhat congruent with the above, yet important enough to be emphasised.

Would progression in surfing ripen if competitive surfing lightened?

As Albee Layer has pointed out on countless occasions, the conservative nature of competitive surfing has stripped the sport of its ability to evolve at the same rate of other board sports. Unlike in snowboarding and skateboarding, which by the very nature of their competitions push athletes to the brink of their physical abilities, surf competitions can be won with the same type of performances seen in the late 20th century.

The WSL judges occasionally award what could be deemed ‘progressive surfing’ – full rotors, club sandwiches and corked flips. The reward, however, does not outweigh the risk in a jersey, and as a result we rarely witness any airs or turns which would be deemed film worthy.

Without a head-to-head format, surfers’ competitive drive would instead be directed towards the best manoeuvres they could capture. Just imagine the material John, Gabriel and Filipe would dish up without the constant worry of injuring themselves before an all important contest. 

A shift from sterility

Perhaps in line with the PC trends of modern-day culture, surfing, once considered an iconoclastic pastime, has been utterly sterilized in recent times.

Today’s surfers have traded drugs and barmaids for veganism and wives. They hire managers and coaches, the former explaining where and how to place their stickers, the latter teaching hand-placement on cutbacks. Even the post-heat interviews lack any vibrancy (with certain exceptions). Most of the time you can guess what the heat winner is going to say before the questions are even posed.  

“Yeah, just wanted to get a couple waves early to build pressure, then keep building house.”

Et cetera.


Competition ain’t all bad news

Competitive surfing is often criticised, particularly when competitions are held in the least ‘World Class’ conditions imaginable.

“Some sports are inherently competitive, in the sense that players cannot exhibit the full range of their skills without being pushed by a strong opponent. Surfing is different: the challenges are intrinsic to the activity and do not involve beating anyone.” The late stage surfer and Australia’s best regarded philosopher, Peter Singer once penned.

Despite this arguable truism, competitive surfing is damn fun to watch. And while they’d probably deny it, I’m sure that those core anti-comp surfers dabble on the WSL webcam too. Honestly, who doesn’t want to see John John vs. Kelly in a final at Chopes? Regardless of how anti-establishment you want to be, there’s an undeniable buzz you get from watching surfing go down live whether it’s in front of your eyes or on a stream.

The WSL social entity

Some of their content straight out sucks. No surfer I know wants to watch dolphins parade through a lineup or drone footage of some yahoo surfing ankle high rollers on a log, but outside of their occasionally average socials lies an informative and often exclusive look into the top surfers on tour.

When there’s news involving an event, a tour related wave or one of the world’s top competitive surfers, more often than not the initial information is disseminated via the WSL. Yes, their releases occasionally stink of sterility, but news is news and in the past years there’s been a noticeable quality increase in the media released from the WSL.

From the taking over of TourNotes to the addition of Athlete Profiles, the WSL has drastically improved its content. And if it ceased, then a noticeable hole would be left in surf media.

A career for professional surfers

Not all surfers are able to make careers from launching low-percentage airs in front of a camera. Due to factors like style (in and out of the water) and the particular skill set required to nail a film part, many of the world’s best surfers don’t fit the “freesurfer” mold.

Wade Carmichael, Matt Banting, and Mitch Crews are all individuals who are currently or who have previously been on the tour and are now with little or no sponsor support. This isn’t to say that they don’t rip, because all of them can certainly sear a section, but it does highlight the difficult market of maintaining a surfing lifestyle when you don’t match the idealisations of brands at a specific moment in time.

The WSL provides those who thrive in a competitive format with a solid income – result depending – and also provide them with an exposure platform which entices the wandering eyes of potential sponsors. The marketing value of a sticker-laden nose on the podium is higher than you might expect.

Therefore, without the WSL, many of these surfers would be left to frolic amongst those who steer clear of anything points and jersey related; The Noa Deanes, Creed McTaggarts and Harry Bryants manage it, but could you see Willian Cardoso, Ace Buchan or Caio Ibelli conquering the sponsorship-centric world of surfing off the tour?

Probably not.

Lettuce know your thoughts…

What would you do if the WSL hit the shit?

Cry yourself to sleep? Or start trawling Vimeo with the keyword “surf” to gain your daily dose?

Would surfing gain some livelihood or would it flail around without an overall binding?

Personally, I think it would be fine and perhaps even benefit in the short term, however, no part of me wants to see it crumble because there’s nothing I enjoy more than detesting the judges scores after seeing my fantasy team turn to shit.


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