Fri, 17 July 2020

Covid-19 has jump-started a new normal. Now with the WSL 2020 season officially cancelled, Spike spoke to WSL commissioner Pat O' Connell about what lies in their immediate future.


Travel has always been a part of surfing. We knew that carbon emissions are a problem. Now that a virus has trumped our lifestyle - more like trampled - in ways few could have imagined, we realise that too much travel is not ideal in a world with a climate change comorbidity.

And while travel will come back, and surviving airlines are returning, the new normal will not be the one we knew. For one thing, surfing is headed for a much more regional setup, and the touring is much more focused on the Championship Tour, with fewer events, and even less in the QS.

Chatting to Pat O'Connell, former pro surfer turned WSL commissioner who took over from Kieren Perrow, I learned two things. A raging storm outside is not great for conversations on the Internet, and professional surfing is set to change forever.

For a start, obviously one might say, the 2020 season of the Championship Tour and Qualifying Series are officially kaput, canned, and kapped - consigned to the funeral pyre of Coronavirus casualties.

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OZZIE OZZIE OZZIE: Australia gets no fewer than three of 10 events on the CT. Photo WSL / Cestari

However, that weird sense of unease that competitive surfing and all the razzmatazz that goes with it is dead, or dying, was put to the sword by the infectious enthusiasm of O'Connell, who comes across as the fun-loving, sandy-haired kid who lives next door. You might remember him alongside Robert "Wingnut" Weaver in Bruce Brown's The Endless Summer II back in 1994.

To business, so to speak. Surfing may not be dead, but it has taken a knock, and that knock has led to major change, although O'Connell said the changes had been discussed for some years. Covid-19 had merely expedited the change.

For 2020, there will be a empty space in the historical record. I wonder what will go in there? Perhaps INJ, N/A, RET HURT, CV-19, although - it seems - not RIP.

The 2021 world title will be decided in one day at the end of the CT with a surf-off between the top five surfers - men and woman - who dual it out in one day in epic surf at a predetermined world-class location. As O'Connell puts it, its like a "knockout brawl among the top 5". No 5 surfs No 4; winner takes on No 3; winner takes on No 2; and the world title is decided between the last two standing in a best of three heat tussle.


FINALS DAY: Literally. Finals Day is a brawl between the top five men and women. Image WSL

Another innovation is around what O'Connell calls "holistic surfing" and "seasonality" in putting events in prime season for each location. The talk of swapping Hawaii from the end to the beginning will define the 2021 season, which will start with a bang during Hawaii's 2020/21 winter season: Honolua Bay for the women this November and Pipeline in December, permissions and Covid-19 depending.

For the first time there will equal men's and women's events (10), and the women are back at Teahupoo for the first time since 2006. JBay is back as well, which is a relief. The season comprises Hawaii (Dec), Portugal (Feb), Gold Coast (March), Bells Beach (April), Margaret River (April), Rio (May), Surf Ranch (June), G-Land (June), J-Bay (July), and Tahiti (Aug). The WSL Finals take place in September.

"We wanted to create a clear path for pro surfers, and it starts in their region," O'Connell said, which is good news for over-travelled South Africans shunting back and forth around the world seeking QS points.

The main point of the seasonality of the tour is that two distinct seasons between the CT and what they're calling the Challenger Series (CS). Starting in 2021, the CS will run from August through to December. The QS will run through to the end of June 2021 and determine who has qualified for the Challenger Series. Points from QS events that were completed in 2020 will carry over into 2021.

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PIPE MASTER: John John Florence pulls in for another epic barrel at Pipeline. Photo WSL / Cestari

O'Connell said this evolution had been part of a multi-year discussion, and the final design is a collaboration between the athletes, partners, and the WSL.

“I’m really excited about these new format changes,” said two-time WSL Champion Tyler Wright. “As someone that has spent a lot of time out with injury and on the couch in the last few years as a professional spectator, I feel that change is good and needed. Having Tahiti come back on the schedule will be interesting and challenging. It will take us a few years to get our feet and positioning in. However, with the next generation of strong and talented women coming through I think we’ll soon have Tahiti specialists.”

"The WSL format, timeline and location updates will make for a very exciting and intense 2021 tour and World Title chase,” said two-time WSL Champion John Florence. “It’s great being a part of the WSL, especially as we evolve and adapt to new challenges. I look forward to competing in this new era.”

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HONOLUA BAY: Stef Gilmour pulls into a gaping tube at Stop #1 of 2021 tour. Photo WSL / Cestari

2021 Championship Tour Season*

* All events and dates subject to change due to applicable COVID-19 related restrictions, including global travel restrictions

Shiseido Maui Pro presented by ROXY: Maui, Hawaii
November 25-December 6, 2020

Billabong Pipe Masters: Oahu, Hawaii
December 8-20, 2020

MEO Pro Portugal: Peniche, Portugal
February 18-28, 2021

Corona Open Gold Coast presented by Billabong: Queensland, Australia
March 18-28, 2021

Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach: Victoria, Australia
April 1-11, 2021

Margaret River Pro: Western Australia, Australia
April 16-26, 2021

Oi Rio Pro presented by Corona: Saquarema, Brasil
May 20-29, 2021

Surf Ranch Pro: California, USA
June 10-13, 2021

Quiksilver Pro G-Land: Indonesia
June 20-29, 2021

Corona Open J-Bay: South Africa
July 7-19, 2021

Outerknown Tahiti Pro: Teahupo’o, Tahiti
August 26-September 6, 2021

The WSL Finals: Location TBD
September 8-16, 2021

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TAHITI BONUS: The women return to Chopes for the first time since 2006. Photo WSL / Cestari

The tweaks in 2021 lay the platform for another major innovation in 2022 - a mid-season cut after the first five events. By reducing the men from 36 to 24 (by a third), and the women from 18 to 12, events can run in optimal swell cycles at spots like G-Land and J-Bay, as well as ensure that the stars of the sport meet head to head more frequently. Given the challenges around COVID-19 and the transition year in 2021, this will not be implemented until the 2022 season. This means all qualifiers for the 2020 CT season will get to surf a full season when competition returns later this year.

To bring us world-class competitive surfing while we wait, and during restricted international travel, the WSL will host a series of regional, pre-season exhibition events featuring CT surfers in the USA, Australia, France, and Portugal called The WSL Countdown.

In the US, Surf Ranch will host Rumble at the Ranch, a special mixed-gender team format event in August. In Australia, the Australian Grand Slam will feature strike mission events at the Gold Coast The Australian Grand Slam will feature strike mission events at the Gold Coast and Margaret River over the months of September and Octoberand Margaret River over the months of September and October. In France and Portugal, the Euro Surf Cup will feature regional CT stars in late September and early October. The WSL's stringent health and safety procedures for these local events, which were developed through consultation with public health, local and state officials, have been informed by guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, and emerging best practices established by other sports leagues and broadcast-only live sports events.

These preseason exhibition events will utilise a variety of formats, and will feature some of the world’s best surfers, and will be broadcast on WorldSurfLeague.com. More details on the WSL Countdown will be available soon. More information on the other tours - including the Challenger Series, Qualifying Series, Big Wave, Longboard, Pro Junior - will be made available on the event pages on WorldSurfLeague.com. For more information, please visit www.worldsurfleague.com/2021.

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