Everything We Know About The Growing Fractures Within The WSL’s Ranks

by stab September 19, 2017 5 min read

Let’s face it: Lowers was about as exciting as it could have been. And isn’t that always the case? A few technicalities, some pomp and posturing, a couple firecracker moments from John John, Kanoa—even Evan Geiselman turned some heads. But watching Jordy Smith sit, patiently, for the lion’s share of his meager final against an all-systems-firing Filipe Toledo, the whole thing felt a little underwhelming, Jordy’s table-scrap 9 a sad attempt to keep the blood flowing through the corpse-grey Southern California afternoon scene.

But for the surfers enjoying Final’s Day, the silver lining on the gutless, slow Lowers rights was the full knowledge their next few days would be spent getting spit out of deep-brown machinated double-ups.

As we speak, the WSL’s  hand-selected pack are in Lemoore or headed that way. Despite misreporting that the event happened Sunday, it will in fact happen Tuesday, allowing a few days for Filipe, Jordy and the like to recharge before what might be their first Prime Time event. Today’s an all-day freesurf, and one for the books, certainly. We hear Vice will be there. Maybe some major networks, too. Having sat in on a few star-studded sessions at the Wavegarden’s Basque Country amphitheater, I can only imagine the Harris Ranch hype reel that’ll result from the next 24 hours.

Last Friday‚ we reported on the closed-door meeting held at the Dana Point Ritz Carlton on Tuesday September 5th, where all WCT athletes—as well as their handlers, managers, life coaches, etc.—were gathered for a full come-to-Jesus talk. Along with a proposal for an entirely reconceived Championship Tour, the WSL’s longtime sugar daddy, Dirk Ziff, had come to deliver a message: the business model wasn’t working. For years now, the WSL has enjoyed Ziff’s generosity—but, according to those in attendance, operating at a $30-million-a-year loss wasn’t going to cut it any longer.

A few days after we published the leak, I chatted with Dave Prodan, who has handled WSL communications for as long as I’ve been in the game. Dave is a good and decent man. Handsome and quotably intelligent, I’ve enjoyed Dave’s professionalism over the years, and can testify to his smooth rail game on the inside bowl at Sunset. Dave had been kind enough to go on record for my feature, which he pointed out, was more than the “anonymous warriors” who had opened up to us. After the fallout from the piece, he wanted to enlighten me a touch, and I certainly owed him as much. Some of my reporting, he felt, was misleading, or at the very least mischaracterized the majority opinion of the surfers in attendance.

My piece’s claim that the proposals were “met with resistance from a respectable portion of the tour,” was an exaggeration, he assured me. Much of the feedback they’d received had been positive. The surfers had had the chance to voice their opinions and they had listened to everything they had to say.

Prodan and I have always had good relations, non-combative at the very least, and I respect the man’s talents for doing what is a very hard job keeping a lid on things. He’s great at implementing the WSL’s Trumpian media approach, but he’ll level with you, at the very least. He understands that, in digging in on this, publishing the leak and stirring up chaos within the organization, I was honestly doing my job. Dave congratulated me on the scoops, and offered the same sentiment from his boss, Mr. Ziff. My piece had caused quite a stir; in hotel rooms and residences all over San Clemente, angry men yelled into iPhones. Fingers were pointed this way and that.

With suspicions running wild, the collective conclusions most arrived at spoke volumes, knowing the information we knew and who we knew it from. That night, we were informed that Jordy Smith had been copping heat following the piece’s publication. Everyone knew he was the leak. Apparently Kelly had lit him up in a late night Instagram DM, saying as much. And though Jordy wasn’t the leak, pinky promise, the suspicion that he was, and Kelly’s frustration directed towards him—it was telling. The current World #1 has ideological disagreements with proposals that ensure not just his livelihood, but his career’s legitimacy. 

Reinvigorated by news of the witch hunt, we prodded the hive for more. What were Jordy’s concerns? Was he the only one to speak up? What the actual fuck was going on?

Here’s what we can gather: after the proposal was laid out, both Jordy Smith and Josh Kerr voiced dissenting opinions. For the most part, the other surfers twiddled their thumbs. After the meeting closed, the seeds of discontent began to be sown. While Smith and Kerr might have been the only ones to speak out during the session, a healthy portion of the meeting left feeling less than inspired with the new vision, and said as much outside the closed-door session. In reports coming in from the Lowers Pro, chatter around the proposed changes and their implications littered the beach like so many slippery cobblestones.

If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s the true fragility of our institutions. While the WSL’s enjoyed a patronized period of growth, with competitive surfing enjoying its most elevated coverage and broadest accessibility in history, even the deepest pockets sometimes come up empty. The WSL’s commercial reinvention, and its benefactor’s insistence on its operating on a cash-positive model, will be a very serious stress-test on the mainstream viability of professional surfing. And I have no doubt the changes proposed reflect that vulnerability.

Hearing of Jordy’s flack-catching, I reached out through his handlers to see if he would sit down with Kelly to discuss the proposals. I’d been assured by Prodan that the WSL had never silenced anyone—that none of their athletes had been intimidated or reprimanded for speaking their minds.

We heard from Jordy’s people: if Kelly was down, Jordy was, too.

Yesterday, I reached out to all parties, Prodan and Kelly included. I didn’t need much, just fifteen, twenty minutes. Surely details were hazy, certainly things needed to be worked out. But could they just shine a little light? On the eve of what by all means will be one of the historic moments in competitive surfing history, and as the schedule for the 2018 World Tour begins to solidify, there’s like 1,800 athletes and countless tangentially employed individuals who deserve to know what their lives are going to look like next year.

“I can appreciate the enthusiasm with which STAB wants to cover the continued evolution of the sport, but as we discussed on the phone, the WSL is a ways away from confirming anything publicly,” Dave responded to my request. “As far as Kelly and Jordy and the reported changes are concerned, I can reiterate that the two of them are (no offense boys) just two of 51 CT surfers who are regularly engaged when evolutions to the sport are discussed. And both, not that they owe me anything, have candidly expressed enthusiasm for the direction of where the sport is headed – Kelly in Fiji and Jordy in the Lowers lineup. As with any change, the opinions of all surfers carry considerable and equal weight, but you’re correct in implying that the opinions of the WSL No. 1 and GOAT matter significantly.”

Kelly, Jordy and the WSL will have plenty on their hands the next two days, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed for the conversation to happen in due time. Until then, I keep having to remind myself just how incredible it is to be alive to witness, in whatever way I’m lucky to, the first event at Kelly’s Wave. And I’ve told Kelly and the rest as much. Luddites be damned, the Lemoore invitational is the shit of absolute childhood fantasy, an NBA All-Star game on the moon. Like so many we know, we’ve considered blasting north, see if we can’t charm our way in.

It’s 199 miles from Los Angeles to Lemoore, we’ve got a full tank of gas…



Ashton GBoggans

Editor in Chief


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