Dude, where’s my Power Rankings?

by stab March 08, 2016 6 min read

Story by Jed Smith

It was the mother of world number eight, Nat Young, who first alerted the world to the disappearance of the Power Rankings from the ASP’s website. It was Sunday night when, via Instagram, she contacted Lewis Samuels, the guy who’d written a series of scathing mini-profiles on World Tour surfers. The pieces had only been up two days. Lewis was surprised by the ASP’s decision to kill their own idea so quickly, though no more surprised than when they asked him to do it in the first place. Lewis, of course, is famous in surfing for his edgy and articulate commentary, much of which is published to the chagrin of the surf industry. His original Power Rankings column, run by Surfline, had to be forcibly discontinued by the site’s editors after Lewis attacked Billabong CEO Paule Naude in a scathing expose on his personal blog, Post-Surf.com. Not to be deterred, Lewis, who makes a living as a Google employee, continued publishing the Power Rankings on his website, only now, without the editorial constraints of an industry-funded media agency, he got real dirt nasty. He pulled the pin on that too eventually (mostly out of disinterest,) before, in what amounts to one of the stranger pieces of media strategy in the history of the ASP, the sport’s governing body decided to revive the infamous column on their own website. We spoke to Lewis about what’s happened so far.

Stab: So dude, where’s our power rankings?
Lewis: Lost in the digital ether, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone. When the ASP first approached me about doing Power Rankings for them, I was definitely caught off guard; it wasn’t something I’d expect from them, but at the same time it seemed like a neat opportunity to see the sport change a little bit. Personally, I liked the irony of returning on the ASP site. It’s easy to focus on the negative, I do it all the time, but at the same time I wanted to give the ASP a chance to change things for the better. Change is good.

Having your work published and paid for by the sport’s governing body, did it change the way you wrote the pieces? I approached it the same way as when I used to do Power Rankings for Surfline, where obviously there were limits to what I could and couldn’t say. The natural place for the power rankings is right on the edge of what’s appropriate. I feel like if I don’t get edited at all then I’m probably not pushing it far enough. When I did Power Rankings on my own blog, PostSurf, it was almost more challenging because I had to define that line myself. It can be good to have some limitations in place whenever you’re doing a project. It helps give structure to it. If there’s no boundaries in any creative enterprise you don’t ever know when to stop. So when it came to the ASP I thought I might get started without digging the knife in too far. I thought I could warm up, you know, try to let everyone get comfortable with the idea and take it from there. But obviously it didn’t work out like that.

I noticed you were critical in your assessment of the judges last year and also pointed to the fact that surfing is very subjective and as such it can be very difficult to judge who the winner is. Is that where you stuck the knife in too far? I don’t know. I think it’s healthy to discuss the judging criteria. With that first instalment of Power Rankings I really looked back with a critical eye on what happened holistically on tour last year. One of the things that struck me as a roadblock for progress in the sport was judging, and it’s always been the case. It’s a subjective sport; I’m very sympathetic to the role the judges are in. It’s not an easy job and I don’t think it’s a matter of the conspiracies, or judges doing the job poorly or not knowing how to surf well themselves. But what they were focusing on in 2013 just felt skewed – the emphasis seemed to be on wave selection as much as on turns, whether traditional or progressive. We had guys waiting for the single best wave of the heat to win, and that’s what it came down to, not who surfed best. A great example was Parko in Bali with a perfect 20 for two barrels. Realistically, he got those scores before he even stood up. All the hard work was in the positioning, getting priority, and where he took off. The judging last year rewarded that situation where we watch 29 minutes of dead air and one minute of surfing, cause only a handful of set waves are gonna get scored high. So guys like Medina and John John stop going for broke, even without priority, and Mick wins a title. It felt like surfers were being forced to surf safe in order to make heats and win titles. I think the fans would rather see the sport progress, or see the best lay it all on the line in heavy waves.

Do you think the Power Rankings belong on the ASP site? Well, it’s not for me to say in the end. I think some people enjoy reading them, and it was a punk rock move by the ASP to put ’em up in the first place. I think it’s really healthy for the ASP to turn a critical eye on itself and the surfers, because that leads to progress. I’ve had surfers on tour tell me that straight up. Guys like CJ and Slater have read harsh things I wrote about them, and used my critique as fuel. It helped them win events. But other guys are really used to getting their ass kissed and are too insecure to tolerate criticism. From a fan perspective, sport usually inspires argument. You argue with your friends about who’s cutting it and who isn’t, and it’s fun to watch pundits do the same thing.
But in order to have a discussion you need multiple voices weighing in; diversity of opinion. It can’t be just one person saying this is what is wrong with the ASP or with this guy’s surfing. I can see how it was jarring for one voice to be suddenly given a platform by the ASP, without hearing from any other voices.

As the Samsung Galaxy ASP World Tour continues it’s big-roll out – now with J-Bay being added back to the Tour, The Big Wave World Tour, The ZoSea agreement, the make-over of the ASP’s image, and your own presence in the establishment – what’s your view on the stronger and weak points of the new look ASP? I think everyone can agree that the ASP was ready for change. If you go back and read interviews I did with Kelly Slater in 2008, he really wanted to see structural changes, shift the balance of power away from the brands who sponsor events. A lot of those changes have been implemented – the league controls the media rights and commentators now. I think a lot of people have glossed over how important those changes are for the sport to have room to growth. It also allows things like the Power Rankings to run on the ASP’s site…at least hypothetically.
It’s hard to argue with J-Bay returning, and the Big Wave World Tour could be more interesting than all but a handful of WCT events if they do it right. It has the potential to appeal to the mythical white whale – non-surfers – as the Maverick’s event proves. That’s still the biggest weakness of the ASP – no matter how progressive the surfing, small wave events are inherently boring for non-surfers. It’s too hard for them to understand why one wave scores higher than another, yet even landlubbers get an adrenaline rush watching Jaws. But I’d be surprised to see many WCT guys in the Big Wave events, even though they can enter them now. If the ASP wants to appeal to a mass-market, they should force the super stars to surf those events. Make it part of the WCT, with the best big wave guys as wild cards. Put Kelly out at Jaws. Hell, put Alana out there if you want to sell surfing. – Jed Smith

Follow Jed on Twitter, here.

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