One conundrum the WSL face each season is how to allocate the two Injury Wildcard positions. There are often multiple surfers vying for the two spots. In 2019, the WSL opted in favour of John John Florence and Kelly Slater, much to the chagrin of Caio Ibelli who had been sidelined with a broken leg while freesurfing during the Margaret River event.

Kelly missed 8 of the 11 events that year but was criticised for surfing his Surf Ranch event (where he placed 3rd) and chasing a Cloudbreak swell despite withdrawing from events citing the foot injury he sustained at the 2017 J-Bay Open. The WSL obviously took into consideration Kelly’s legacy and influence and went with the 11x world champ. The subjective nature of the WSL’s ruling isn’t the first time they have bent the rules and made decisions that are “in the best interests of the sport”. 

In 2015 it was Dane Reynolds who the WSL favoured. Dane was gifted a Wildcard into the Fiji event without explanation. It was rumoured that Dane’s virtuous popularity ensured his inclusion. That year he was gifted four Wildcard spots. Two via his then sponsor Quiksilver at Gold Coast and France events, one in Fiji as we mentioned and one for J-Bay.

Whether the WSL had an agenda to fast-track Dane’s qualification into the CT by way of Wildcard entries and relying upon results at Tour stops rather than the traditional QS route is just one conspiracy theory. Regardless, for then 2015 CT reserve Garrett Parkes, Dane’s inclusion rather than he getting the call up would have been a bitter pill to swallow. In total Dane was gifted 11 Wildcards in his competitive career. His best result being a second-place finish at the Quiksilver Pro France in 2012. 

What’s clear is this. The WSL will always shift the goalposts and contort the criteria to suit the sport. 

Now ahead of the 2020 season a leaked email that went out to 2020 Championship Tour surfers addresses changes to the allocation of Injury Wildcard positions. The email also explains changes to the QS Qualification rule in 2020, with surfers on the CT needing to re-qualify in the Top 10 on the QS in order to secure a spot on the CT. In short—no more double qualifiers who scrape into the bottom of the QS (outside the Top 10) and fail to perform on the CT and stay in the Top 22.

Below is the full email transcript: 

"Dear Surfers, As most of you are aware, there has been an increase in requests for WSL Season Wildcards, including as a result of an increase in the number of injuries at the CT level over the last few years and, with it, the need for the Tours & Competition Office to allocate WSL Season Wildcards for deserving CT surfers for the following season. Moving forward, we will continue to consider injury wildcard requests but we will also take into account other reasons that are in the “best interest of the sport” when deciding how to allocate wildcards. While the final decision will be WSL’s, we will be putting an advisory panel in place to assist in reviewing all requests. With that in mind, we are changing the QS Qualification Rule in 2020 to stop at Top 10 for the men and Top 6 for the women, regardless of whether there has been a Double Qualification (i.e., a CT surfer that qualifies for the following year’s CT season as (i) one of the top 22 men from the current CT rankings at the end of the current season and the top 10 men from the QS Ranking at the end of the current surfing season or (ii) one of the top 10 women from the current CT rankings at the end of the current season and the top 6 women from the QS ranking at the end of the season). These spots on the CT will come back to the WSL Tours & Competition Office. We believe this rule adjustment will allow us flexibility in allocating Season Wildcards. This rule change will also enable us to address situations, such as where a CT surfer has withdrawn from competition during the season due to a pregnancy. Full detail will be shared when we meet in March before Snapper."

The change to double qualifiers on the QS makes sense. No surfer that has scraped through the QS to hold onto their CT spot has ever made a lasting impact on the CT. There have been perennial journeymen that exercised this loophole throughout their career. Think Adam Melling, Jadson Andre, Tom Whitakar and Joan Duru as a few examples. None threatened on the CT which also backs up an argument for cutting the number of surfers on Tour down to a 16 man field

The news also comes off the back of the WSL announcing a unique solution to allocating the Injury Wildcard this season. With Adriano de Souza, Leo Fioravanti and Mikey Wright all staking a claim the WSL guaranteed Adriano given he is a former world champ. That left Mikey and Leo to make cases for the remaining spot. Rather than crush either surfers’ dreams, the Wozzle will give both the opportunity to surf the first three events of the year in 2020. By the end of the Australian leg, the higher-ranked surfer of the two will be allowed to surf on for the remainder of the season.

Beyond 2020 the WSL has now re-branded the Injury Wildcard positions to “Season Wildcards”. It will follow similar selection criteria such as time sidelined with injury but also allow the WSL to exercise the murky “best interests in the sport” clause. Or ‘Dane clause’ if you believe in conspiracy theories and that the WSL will always lean towards a surfer with more star power or mainstream appeal. The latter opens the possibility of Kelly surfing into the next decade given his GOAT status and symbiotic relationship he has with the WSL which is a win-win for both parties. 

The WSL has a huge opportunity to attract marquee surfers outside the confines of competition into the competitive realm. Maybe even injecting a bit more excitement into events along the way. Who wouldn’t want to see a Tahitian prodigy at maxing Chopes, soulful free surfing at J-Bay from Torren Martyn or Mason Ho into the main event at Pipeline? Or will it devolve into a popularity contest based on KPIs on Instagram, the hottest Vlog or an avenue for the WSL to parachute a competitor from their reality show ‘Ultimate Surfer’ competition

The next decade spells some diversification and disruption to the WSL’s Championship Tour matrix.