A simple concept that cuts to the chase and delivers guaranteed entertainment.
While the mixed doubles ‘Rumble at the Ranch’ may not have been embraced by the media and the surfing masses, it does at least indicate that the WSL is willing to experiment with new contest concepts.
Certainly, the WSL think tank has been working overtime in the Covid downtime to come up with various ways to engage fans and court sponsors, when some kind of normality is restored. We’ve already been briefed on the changes to the tour structure and the controversial world title surf off.
Putting all that aside, what if the WSL had a spin-off series that really cut to the chase when it came to delivering the kind of action fans and sponsors want to see. A concept that more closely mirrored the structure of a title bout in boxing or UFC, complete with pre-event hype and a little banter between contenders. I’m not suggesting we put gloves on the surfers and toss them in the ring – although that might be fun. However, I would like to see a best of five heats match-up between two surfers, in blue-ribbon conditions, at a wave that showcased their specific suite of skills. Just two surfers, waxed-toe-to- waxed-toe in guaranteed good waves.
Let’s say Slater and John John at Teahupoo. Remember the immortal 2014 semi-final clash. Picture that piece of history recreated over five sets in flawless, eight-ten foot Teahupoo. No waiting around for early rounds, quarters, and semis. No sub-par conditions – just straight to the two surfers we really want to see at a particular location. Slater may never make another CT final but put him out at Chopes against John John in a head to head barrel duel and he might just be a chance. It would certainly be a fitting way for Kelly to go out – win or lose. Like watching an aging Ali fight a much younger George Foreman in the famed Rumble in the Jungle bout. We know who got that one.
If you wanted to add another dimension you could have an undercard featuring two, hand-selected wildcard specialists – perhaps Matahi Drollet vs Nathan Florence at Teahupoo. If you wanted to really ramp up the underdog factor why not have another surf off between the wildcard winner and the CT victor. That could hypothetically result in John John vs brother Nathan in all-time Teahupoo conditions – surely you’d tune in to see that?
With the right configuration, the whole thing could be pulled off in a single day of glorious waves. Throw in a little pre-bout hype, and banter between surfers and you have a package to please fans and prospective sponsors. You would probably pay to watch such a reliably entertaining fixture, the same way fans pay to stream title bouts in boxing and UFC.
There are other obvious match-ups (and probably a few others that you could think of) that would work as a spin-off to the main tour. What about Jordy Smith and Julian Wilson at J- Bay ? or Italo Ferreira and Filipe at Keramas over five sets? Of course, you would have to bring John John back against Gabriel for the Pipeline clash. Let’s just get down to business and put Carissa Moore and Steph Gilmore in the water at Honolua Bay for a battle of the champions. A men’s bout at Honolua would also produce rapturous viewing. And maybe Caroline Marks and Tyler Wright in the Bells bowl for a classic goofy vs natural battle.
All the locations also have interesting wildcard dimensions. Perhaps there could be two to four specialty bouts a year in the men’s and women’s divisions – each one hosted between or around traditional events. The more hallowed waves like Pipe and Chopes are probably best suited to the concept but one location could be rotated every year to keep things interesting.
To ensure fans are fore-warned the WSL could apply the same waiting period, yellow alert, green alert (it's on!) system it formerly used for the Big Wave Tour. The forecasting and scheduling structure is already in place; only this time the focus is on really good waves rather than massive ones. There are obviously practical issues like timing and the completely arbitrary nature of who is initially selected to partake. However, you have to revert back to two simple questions. Who do you want to see in a clash and in what kind of waves? The concept puts entertainment before tour points but it doesn’t decide a world title. Like the FA cup final in soccer or the State of Origin in Rugby League, it’s a highly watchable spin-off from the main event. Prize money would be up for grabs but to stop it leaving a sour taste in the mouths of the other CT surfers, they may still get a cut of the sponsorship dollars flowing in for such an event.
In the initial year, the match-ups might be selected by a respected panel. Whoever wins retains their title at Teahupoo or Pipe or J-Bay until the following year where they meet another contender. The new contenders might, once again, be selected by a panel, or a fan vote could be introduced into the equation. The fine detail needs to be worked out, but the basic premise is simple and reflects what we all know about surfing – some surfers thrive at certain waves and these are the ones we really want to see matched up. Sometimes a traditional event, for various reasons, doesn't bring the two best or most engaging surfers into a head-to-head situation. So let's manufacture that and make it exciting.
In a nutshell – it’s two surfers at a wave where they are specialists, in flawless conditions, over three-five heats. Now that’s a rumble we’d all like to see.