Sean Doherty: This Might Be the Crisis the WSL Needed

29 Apr 2020 10 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Two-time WSL World Champion John John Florence at Bells in 2019. Reckon we'll see this in November? Like this? Maybe? Photo: WSL/Cestari

Two-time WSL World Champion John John Florence at Bells in 2019. Reckon we'll see this in November? Like this? Maybe? Photo: WSL/Cestari

COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY

The $10 Million Free Hit

During the lockdown I’ve been keeping a close eye on the Belarusian Premier League, one of only three sporting leagues still running anywhere in the world at this point in time. It’s developed a cult following here in Australia, if for no other reason than it’s about the only sport in the world you can currently bet on. The big Australian sports betting agencies, which would usually be wall-to-wall with local football odds, are literally running TV ads with the odds for this weekend’s heavyweight Belarusian clash between FC Slutsk and Dynamo Minsk. For the record, Slutsk are on top of the league and are red hot favourites.

Is anyone missing the pro tour? By May most years I’m already jaded and over the drawn-out non-elimination heats in waist-high offal, but right now I’d take just about anything. If Belarus had a coastline and a tour surfing event I’d be up at 3am watching.

It’s now over four months since Italo dusted Gabby to win the World Title in the final of the Pipe Masters. Pro surfing at the gold standard. It was however the last tour heat we saw… and might be the last one we see in a while. At the very moment Italo was being mobbed on the beach at Pipeline, in a back lane behind the Wuhan wet markets a guy tucked into a dish of bat soup… the bat still twitching. As the meme said, “If you don’t think one man can make a difference, try eating an undercooked bat.”

Today the World Surf League announced their plans for what’s left of their 2020 season. In true WSL fashion, it said plenty and nothing at the same time. It signalled the WSL’s intent to try and salvage the season somehow, most tantalisingly with a “surf-off” for a World Title some time later this year. Details of this surf-off were unsurprisingly non-existent in the press release. They don’t know themselves. Like everyone else in the world, the WSL are flying blind about when they’ll be able to resume normal transmission.

Can we just put this out there straight up… it’s going to take more than a shot of bleach to the neck to save the tour in 2020. The scheduled events remaining – plus the events listed as “postponed” by the WSL – are all still in play, and the WSL is adamant they’re going to try and make them happen. WSL CEO Erik Logan even offhandedly flagged the idea of coming back to Australia to hold Bells in November. In spring. When it’s flat. The last guy to flag the idea of a November tour event at Bells was rebel tour promoter Matt Tinley back in 2009, and he was duly laughed out of the room by the surfers.

Trying to map a tour 2020 schedule through virus zones presents a bleak outlook. The tour should be in Margaret River right now. It’s clearly not. It should be going to G-Land after that, but the jungle camp is a ghost town. Brazil is still on the upslope of the curve. Cyril Ramaphosa is doing an admirable job in South Africa but the virus isn’t expected to peak in his country until August. Tahiti like all Polynesian Islands is locked down tight. The American mainland is currently the worst hit area in the world; continental Europe a close second. Lemoore, Hossegor and Peniche follow in order. It’s hard to see any of them happening.

While domestic sport leagues around the world hustle and posture to resume as early as next month, the WSL runs a global sport… and running it without planes or open borders will prove problematic. The Australian public has been told not to expect the borders here to be fully open before the end of the year.

So where does that leave the Wozzle?

E-Lo is pretty quick to draw on the word “opportunity”, and while failing organisations the world over are reassuring themselves by using the term to describe their current predicament, for the WSL this might just be the crisis they needed.

Ever since they privatised the ASP back in 2013, most expected the WSL would completely re-engineer the tour to make it more fan-friendly, shortening the season so it didn’t run all goddamn year long. That’s never happened, and the tour today looks pretty much identical to what it did back then. The one time they tried to pull the trigger they shot themselves in the foot… screwing up the paperwork on their Pipeline permit in Hawaii. They’d planned to start – not end – the tour at Pipe in February and finish with their Mentawai boat trip surf-off in September. It never happened of course, and the idea has gathered dust ever since… despite the idea originally coming from league owner Dirk Ziff himself.

This year they’ll get a free shot at it. Well, not exactly free – it will cost Ziff millions  – but the lost season hasn’t financially hurt the WSL as badly as most other sports. There are no broadcast rights to consider, and the organisations running costs accrue largely around events. And since most of the people who work on events are contracted labour without the benefit of full time employment, those costs are, as they say, amortised.

So what do they do?

From the language being used it still feels like the WSL hope to run some kind of season per the tour schedule, part of it anyway. It’s hard to see it happening, and any World Title won this way would come with a giant asterisk next to it. Lemoore, Peniche, November Bells and Pipe? The asterisk could be seen from space.

Or they could get fruity and roll the dice.

In world sport right now “hub” is the buzzword. In Australia the three major football leagues are all currently creating quarantine hubs in various locations around the country where they can play football. They’re all being forced to creatively schedule their seasons in ways they never thought possible. The NRL at one stage was going to have every team living over on Moreton Island, being boated to Brisbane for games, then boated back to the island. Necessity the mother of invention.

So here’s the Wozzle’s chance. All the criticism levelled at their tour schedule and tour formats for so long – too long, too bloated, too conservative and stripped of all dramatic moments – could be countered just like that. Between wavepool malaise, a surf industry on life support, failed broadcast deals stagnant viewer numbers, what have they got to lose? Swing for the fences.

My CW comrade, Mike Jennings has been a strong advocate of WSL Island, a made-for-TV concept that incorporates a dating show, survival elements, drunken MMA… and a world title surf-off. He’s onto something. I can see E-Lo‘s eyebrow raise in the meeting as Mikey pitches it, before he tells everyone else in the room to stop laughing. “Let him speak… this guy might have something.” But in all seriousness, the surf-off needs to happen.

So where would WSL Island be? Fiji still has late season waves in October. So do the Mentawais. Hawaii would be the obvious choice, but you’re going to have to dance around permits and the locals. A month-long permit across the whole North Shore to decide the men’s and women’s World Champions? In normal times you’d be laughed out the door, but these aren’t normal times. Plus it’s got precedent. The old Billabong Pros in the ‘80s ran on a floating permit… and they went down as historic high points for pro surfing. The next few months will be fascinating, and I’m sure E-Lo has already got the cameras rolling for the WSL Island behind the scenes special.

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