Debate: Is the World Surf League Stifling Creativity?

To see the World Surf League’s version of pro surfing up close is really something else.

Since taking control of our beloved sport just on two years ago, it’s hard to argue against the fact the WSL has done more to introduce surfing to the far flung corners of the world than any other version since Fred Hemmings and Randy Rarick put a ring on it back in 1976.

In the flesh, it’s a sleek, well-rounded machine driven by a small army of worker ants running to and fro lugging bulky camera equipment and boom mics pointed at the commentary team and the awkward still dripping wet pro.

Then there’s the emotion, displayed best just yesterday upon the uncomfortably hot steps (using a dark reconstituted plastic in place of timber was not a good idea) at the Margaret River Pro.

To see the look in John John Florence’s eyes as he hurriedly departed the scene after being dispatched by Caio Ibelli or Jeremy Flores fume his way past the media scrum after his loss was quite the sight to see.

But oh, how we like to dig in, mostly at the commentary, sometimes the waves and most pointedly at the judging.

Of late, such a debate is being waged in cyberspace. On the offensive is Rory Parker of multi national “Anti-Depressive” surf website Beach Grit, who’s labelled the whole show as “A Dead Ball Era”. (Read here)

I never quite grasped my adulation of pro surfing until I ingested that little label, and, I gotta be honest, it irked me a little.

Because it’s 2016, I fired off an email asking Mr Parker to explain himself. Because Mr Parker is a pro, and possibly a good guy, he replied.

Tracks: Am I accurate in saying you’ve described the current state of pro surfing as a “Dead Ball Era?”

Rory Parker: Absolutely, the solely in the context of competitive surfing. The current level of free surfing is unreal, never been better.

Tracks: What led you to that assumption?

Rory Parker: Low risk/medium reward surfing is what wins events, and I’m not a fan of that approach. Not that I don’t think everyone on tour is an amazing surfer, or appreciate the difficulty of consistently stringing together turns all the way to the beach. But I think we can all agree, hell, Pottz points it out often enough, that trying your hardest is the best way to lose.

A competitor’s job is to win, not entertain. Which means that the judging criteria needs to be constantly evolving, challenging surfers to perform to their full potential. I’m so over end section reos and bonks. Ideally they wouldn’t help a score, encourage guys to wind up and blast off instead. If a safety turn earned the same reward as trying something amazing and failing I think we’d see magic happen. Because you don’t get to the ‘CT if you aren’t committed to progressive surfing.

ADS [Adriano de Souza] might be an exception, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him attempt anything other than solid safety surfing. But I can’t help but love the guy. Ability aside, I just adore his whole underdog working class vibe. I don’t particularly enjoy his surfing, but I still cheer for him, want him to win. Despite the implications it has for the tour as a whole.

Tracks: If this is indeed a “Dead Ball Era” what are you comparing it to…when was pro surfing last an active, bouncy ball?

Rory Parker: I couldn’t tell you a year. I think the dance ebbs and flows, some years are better than others. Definitely pre-WSL, though I’ll admit I’m pretty biased. I can’t stand the push toward “legitimate sport” or whatever you want to call it. I mean, come one, numbered fucking jerseys? Really? This isn’t a team deal, numbers are fucking stupid.

Tracks: Finally…in your opinion, what would it take to right the ship, are there any sports in 2016 that have got it right at the moment?

Rory Parker: The judging criteria needs to be constantly changing. If a certain maneuver is winning heats, and all of a sudden everyone gets it on lock and is tossing them left and right, stop scoring it so high. Make the surfers evolve their game, change up the approach.

As far as other “sports,” I’ve gotta point to skateboarding and its constant progression. Especially now that it’s backed off the jump off a building deal somewhat and people are appreciating creative approaches that don’t necessarily risk life and limb.

Obviously surfing and skating are different. The fluid aspect of surfing means it’ll never really achieve the same technical possibilities. But I think there’s a middle ground. Guys like Mason Ho show that there are vast amounts of untapped creative potential.

Then there’s the Ying to Parker’s Yang, Matt Warshaw, the man who has dedicated his life to curating the Encyclopaedia of Surfing and elected to go into bat in defence.

Tracks: Pro surfing is a in a Dead Ball Era…yay or nay and how so either way?

Matt Warshaw: Big giant “nay” though I love how “Dead Ball Era” drips off the tongue. My head often spins at the WSL’s stupidity, but by and large we are at the moment living in pro surfing’s best period ever, by far.

Man-on-man heats, best two waves scored, longer waiting periods, the priority system and the near elimination of the Op Pro-style parking-lot-centric surf contest (Rio is the exception though; Rio is the incurable herpes simplex of the CT schedule).

Pro surfing has improved itself in so many ways over the years…live streaming paired with Twitter for example is huge and beyond anyone’s wildest dreams of just 20 years ago.

Digital live surfing is better than being there on the beach. Replays, retweets, slo-mo, trash talk, mute, drone view, real time outage and cheers, all of it

Sure, the judging goes sideways now and then, but it always has and always will. Nikki Van Dijk for example, got so poleaxed by the judges at Bells last week as Gabriel in the 2012 Rip Curl at Portugal.

But then again, so did Shaun Tomson in the ’87 Hard Rock, round three. Losers in Polynesia were throwing chunks of lava at the judges 2,000 years ago.

Tracks: So, you’re calling a bouncy ball? A big, juicy, active bouncy ball?

Matt Warshaw: Indeed, more active, more bouncy that it’s ever been

Tracks: Even so, there’s always room for improvement, how can pro surfing being improved under the current control of the WSL? Ditch the no-loser rounds, reduce the starting field by a third, separate tours for men and women?

Matt Warshaw: Technically, the WSL’s camera work, editing and graphics get better year by year, but the commentary needs a total reboot. Unload the whole crew, from Strider to Ronnie to Rosie, pay Barton whatever he asks for to work the mic and to hand select and train a new team. Good commentary will lift an average event and no matter the improvements, there will be average bits, or worse, over the course of a year, just as the shit commentary we get now drags down good events. Make the commentary equal to the camera work and who knows, maybe we’d even tune in for Rounds One and Four.

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