A perspective from a four-time world champion
It would be interesting to know how many former world champions the WSL spoke to before announcing their plans to have world titles decided by a single day surf-off.
Forty-four times the surfing world title (43 for women) has been awarded to the surfer who finished first in the rankings based on their accumulated results over the course of the year. While the points system may have been tweaked a couple of times, essentially it has always been about rewarding the number one ranked surfer after a set number of events. Under such a system Mark Richards held the world title trophy aloft on four occasions, making him the second most successful surfer in men’s surfing history. We caught up with Mark to gauge his thoughts on the WSL’s recently announced plans to award the men's and women's world titles on the basis of a surf-off.
I assume you’ve read the announcement about the WSL’s plans to decide the world title by a surf off?
MR: Well, what is it that they say about idle minds making trouble, it seems like that’s what’s happening with the WSL right now.
For someone like yourself, who's got four world titles. Does it in any way make you feel like your titles are cheapened?
Yeah, I read the blurb I saw the, you know, the stuff they came out with, and I read a little bit about it on some of the surf sites and everything. I understand their enthusiasm that the world title showdown last year between number one and number two created a lot of excitement. But I think – and I won't go into it – you could dream up 10 reasons why that created so much excitement and it wasn't just the fact that it was number one going up against number two.
The examples that I saw it on their website that you know the Superbowl finishes on a day and you know the NBA Finals finish on a day, which they don't you know, they have about seven different play-offs,
It seemed to me and I may be wrong, but my reading of it was that everything that they said goes down on a day of excitement were more team sports. They didn't mention Grande Prix pro motor racing. You know, like I can’t imagine the drivers who drive in Formula One, and especially the guy who has driven the best at a number of circuits in a number of different conditions for the year and was leading in the world championship race would be happy to go, ‘Oh, yeah, great. Let's just have one race on the final day, and that decides the champion’ – everything that went down during the year doesn't count.
So I think my main concern is that the whole idea of the tour is that you have a points system for every event and let's say you have, you know, X amount of events a year in different conditions from reefs to beaches, you know, to points, from lefts to rights. And you end up with a guy that performed best in a variety of conditions over a whole year of surfing. I think that’s what should actually determine the world champion each year. If you're going to throw it all in and it's going to be decided on one day, then why even have a tour? You know, let’s just have a one day, winner takes all and walks away with $5 million.
Yeah, I guess what it really becomes is just a race for the top six or eight depending on what number they go with, and, like the rugby league format, if you make the top six, you're still in it with a chance?
I guess my overall concern, Luke, is that if I was on the tour, and I had an unbelievable year where I won three or four events, and I was leading the ratings, and it all came down to a surf-off on the final day. And by the sound of it, you know, there'll be eight people in the surf-off. To lose the world title to number eight, I think it would be a hollow victory (for the winner).
You know, if I was in that situation and someone had been killing it all year, and was like a mile ahead and had won four or five events, and I scooted in at number eight, and on that day everything went right and I ended up winning the world title, I think it would be a really hollow feeling because everyone would think no, that guy should have won he won four or five events that year. Personally I just don't think it's a great idea. Due to that fact someone can be on for the year and you know, if you get a mile ahead, it's not by luck or design. It's by good surfing and good strategy.
The idea of a fan watching a final day of competition, there's no doubt that they will be intrigued on that final day. And the WSL may well get a broader audience than they otherwise would to watch that. But does following the world title race event-to-event lose a little bit of interest, because it doesn't necessarily mean anything anyway?
It could, it certainly could. So, yeah, that's a valid point … But is the tour catered towards the fans, or is it designed to create fairness in deciding a world champion? I think the current system is, you know, slanted in fairness towards deciding a world champ.
And the other question is, if it’s all decided on one day, where do you have it?
That's been raised. And is that location decision made on the basis of fairness. Or is it about a location that’s going to appeal to fans?
Yeah, I think they’d be making the decision on what appeals to the fans and I don't know how you decide which wave is fair, Luke?
The original talk was around a mobile boat in Indonesia – possibly the Mentawai Islands, which makes it a bit of a lottery. That could still land on a given day at a wave that suits a particular surfer.
I think it's pretty obvious if you watch the tour that certain spots definitely favour certain surfers – without question. There are some spots where you just know that, Okay, there are those two guys from Hawaii and those two guys from Australia and there's only one guy from somewhere else who is gonna feature in this one. You nearly know prior to an event who's gonna shine at that spot and who is intimidated by that spot?
Yeah, I think that's gonna be pretty evident. I mean, it looks like it's happening though. So that's the reality of it. I can't imagine the WSL taking a backward step. I feel like you were right in your initial comment. With the crisis that has taken place, they haven't had a WCT contest all year and they're announcing they're not going to have a contest for at least another couple of months. So they certainly felt compelled to say something to generate some interest. And they've set their sights on this new criteria.
I read on their site that this decision was made in conjunction with all the surfers. I think it would be interesting if you could poll all the surfers to see what they think about this?
Yeah, I’d be curious to know what sort of correspondence transpired. But I think the way the WSL is selling it to the surfers is by saying this is what we need to do to make your sport bigger and more popular. This is what we need to do to get more money into the sport, which means more money for you. Which you can understand has appeal to a surfer?
Um, yeah, but where does that leave the tour events? But Luke, why would you want to sponsor a Tour event? If you know it all goes down on the final day you'd go ‘I want to sponsor the final day’.
Yeah, that's true. I guess they're going to have to find a way to make those tour events bigger entities in and of themselves – like winning a golf major or winning a Grand Slam in tennis. That's what they will have to do or as you say, the prestige associated with them is taken away.
I think with surfing you know, unfortunately, we're probably just preaching to the converted.
I think everyone who has been watching is going to watch it whatever happens. But what they're shooting for… and the other big question is … what sort of latent audience is out there for surfing? I can sort of accept the idea that there might be a percentage of additional people that might watch surfing if it was presented in a certain way, but I still don't think it's ever going to be a mass audience sport… All those comparisons they made with NBA and NFL. I don't think it's ever going to be on that scale.
No, I don't think people understand it properly for it to ever get to that stage. You know, they don't understand the athleticism and the skills of the male and female surfers. If they understood it better... You know, the skill level that they operate at and the danger associate with some places, I think more people would watch it. But it's so hard to get people to understand it and it just looks like they're riding across the wave and to most people it all just looks a bit the same.
So was there ever a stage in the late 70s or early 80s where you started to feel kind of like, with all due respect, like you were being treated on par by media as say the best rugby league player and the top cricketer at the time? Did you ever have that sense that was sort of happening?
No, we didn't exist in comparison. Surfing didn't exist in comparison to those other sports. Yeah, we'd like to think it did but it didn't in the general public's eyes.
I know I get frustrated with the Australian media in general. You know if one of the tennis players get through a round at Wimbledon or the US Open it’s front-page news? Yeah, you know, Steph or Sally winning an event in Indonesia or South Africa and or, you know, Julian, and you've got to go searching for a tiny little column buried in the sports brief.
That's the reality of what the sports editors think of surfing, unfortunately.
But back to the surf-off concept. I guess my main concern is that if you finish number eight in the world, you don't deserve to win the World Title, after a year of surfing at various spots in various events. If you finish up number eight, and then on that final day, everything goes right for you, I don't think you deserve the world title. I think you’re stealing it from the guy that was leading the ratings. I just hope the number eight surfer doesn’t win it… I hope the guy leading the ratings does.