Will the new 2019 schedule turn around the WSL’s fortune?
Have you been watching Teahupoo? You’re forgiven if you haven’t. With a disturbingly poor forecast, no John John or Jimmy Slade and a lukewarm world title race it has been hard to feel a pulse. After Julian bowed out in Round 2 it’s now a forgone conclusion that the title will be heading back to the Brazil. Nothing against the Brazilians, right now they are the superior surf nation on the planet. You can’t argue with five out of six wins on the CT this season. And there will be more to come before the year is out.
Dreary surfing and sloppy Chopes aside we were given a seat at the table with WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt on opening day. It took me by surprise to see her in the channel addressing the much anticipated 2019 schedule. Goldschmidt has been in the job a year and has had a helluva lot of heat thrown at her. However, most frustrating for her must be the work behind the scenes designing a new tour format which keeps everyone happy.
We first heard about the facelift when Goldschmidt was only a couple of months into the job. Renato Hickel spilled the beans to Portuguese media in a video that has since been pulled. But it goes something like this: In 2019 the Tour would start at Pipeline in February and end in Tahiti in September. Then, there would be a special event in which the five or six best in the men’s ranking and three of four in the women’s ranking will compete in a playoff for their respective world titles somewhere in Indonesia. The QS would also have a shake-up. Those outside the top 22 will be relegated but have a dedicated QS Tour in addition to some events in the first half of the year, to concentrate on to requalify for the CT.
At the time 1978 World Champ and former ASP CEO Wayne ‘Rabbit’ Bartholomew told the Gold Coast Bulletin the proposed playoff scenario was the biggest game changer in the history of the sport.
However, Goldschmidt’s failed attempt to secure permits to run both the Pipe Masters in December 2018 and in February 2019 threw a spanner in the works. Since then we’ve heard rumours about Soup Bowl in the Caribbean replacing the opening event at Pipe. P-Pass has been floated as an option as has Puerto Rico.
With three months left in the 2018 season and no clear picture of what the Tour looks like next year the clock is ticking. Add the drama of the failed Facebook stream, Kelly wagging half the year with an injured foot but mysteriously being healthy for his wave pool events, the defending world champ sidelined with injury, a billionaire named Waterman of the Year and Surf Ranch becoming one of the WSL’s main focus… It feels like pro surfing is in a weird place.
“We want to be very thoughtful about the schedule,” said a candid Goldschmidt in Tahiti. “It’s obviously super important for the surfers in particular, but the fans as well.”
Goldschmidt went on to discuss the importance of the tour needing to be commercially viable. With brands sponsoring less and less events (notice Billabong is no longer the title sponsor for Chopes?) those licencing deals have obviously become harder to secure. If more fans lose interest too, then the WSL are really in trouble.
“I’ve been doing a lot of these [events] things where I can get feedback and learn where we can improve. But we remain having the best and most iconic locations on Tour wherever possible. But there are commercial considerations we need to take into account as well. We want to make sure that these events are absolutely sustainable and properly viable for the long term.”
“We’re going through the final tweaks at the moment,” said the WSL CEO. “I expect there will be a couple of changes but it’s shaping up really well. We’re also testing out for the first time this year a CT event at Surf Ranch. So we’re going to learn a lot about that in the next month or so and see how that features in the future. But for us it’s about getting enough variety so we can showcase the best athletes in the best surf spots around the world.”
Here’s hoping that the WSL can straighten out the kinks under Sophie’s reign and put pro surfing back on course to delivering the best surfing in the best waves with a nip and tuck next season.
Skip to the 58 min mark on the vid below to listen to the exchange.