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Finals Fiasco


The abbreviated 2021 World Surf League regular season is now over, and the rankings have been solidified as we head into the postseason. There is a new "playoff" format this year that now requires championships be determined in the water. This change in crowning a WSL Champion hasn't come without a fair amount of criticism from both fans and industry folks. To be fair, I feel like a lot of that criticism comes from grumpy old purists who don't like change. But no matter your opinion, there will be plenty to watch and argue about for the next few weeks. And when you really start to wrap your brain around the new "Final 5" concept, you realize that the WSL is trying something really different here. Like really different. EXPLANATION: The 2021 Rip Curl WSL Finals Format

The concept they're trying to sell is this... the five highest ranked surfers would face off, at the end of the season, in a championship surf-off event, avoiding an anti-climatic title clinch before the last few events even take place. The Final 5 championship contest is scheduled to be held at Lower Trestles in Southern California, in early September. A bracket system will be used to determine the WSL World Champion, with a grand finale "title match" that will require a surfer to win the best of three heats. The world number one skips straight to the final round while numbers two through five battle it out for the honor of facing them. The Women's Tour is the same. WSL Bracket

I see what the WSL is doing here, trying to create a more reliable media product so they can grow the fan base. More fans = More dollars. This makes sense when you look at who currently works for the WSL, with former big brand and big media executives now steering the ship. A playoff system that decides a final winner, or champion, seems to work really well for the big-ball team sports. But is it right for surfing? Why do we even have a World Champion? Bustin' Down the Door, 2008

In other individual sports, such as tennis or golf, there is never an overall world champion declared for a particular year, or season. They don't do it. The PGA does recognize the golfer who was the "biggest money winner", but that person is not considered the world champ golfer that year. Of course there's the prestige that comes with a high ranking, or the winning of a "Major" contest, but no tennis or golf player has ever been given an ATP or PGA world champion crown. Outside of the traditional sports, you'd be hard-pressed to find any individual sports that crown an annual world champion, and that includes Snowboarding, Skateboarding, and BMX.

But the real issue here is philosophical, and it boils down to what you think is fair. A lot of folks would argue that a professional surfer now has to win the world title twice... once by being the points leader, and another in a head-to-head competition. And while it does seem logical that you'd want a champion to win a title in a head-to-head battle, with a worthy opponent, that's not really what happened this year. The reality is that Gabriel Medina ran away with the title at 43,400 points, and nobody is really close. Former Champs, Italo Ferreira and Felipe Toledo are more than 10,000 points behind Gabe, with fourth and fifth places even farther out. An argument could be made that there was still one event remaining, and that if the Teahupoo event had been a GO, the results could have been different. This is true for the second through fifth ranked surfers, but since the maximum points given to an individual for an event is 10,000, nobody would've caught Gabe, even if they managed a first place finish. So the question is... is it fair to make Medina compete for the crown in a new finals format when he would have already won it in previous years?

Personally I say no. It's not fair. Earning the world champ crown should be based on so much more than what happens in a heat. It's more about everything else... the grueling nature of the world tour, the grind of traveling, staying healthy and fit, and competing against the elite of the elite on a day-to-day basis. There are a lot of talented surfers out there, but surfing talent alone shouldn't make you a world-champ contender. Being tough enough to handle the process, and then thrive in it, is what separates the true greats from the simply talented. Gabriel Medina showed that he was doing this better than everyone else this year.

Now we could argue about the state of judging, how aerial surfing is more often scored higher than rail surfing, and that the aggressive style of Brazillian surfers like Gabriel Medina has no soul. And while I tend to agree with that, to a certain extent, it has nothing to do with the finals format. Scoring is what it is, and it seems to be applied pretty evenly by my estimation. If you bust a technical air, with size and speed, then you're going to get a decent score. Gabriel mastered this formula, found the best ramps, and flew his way onto the podium more times than anyone else. And his point totals are so far ahead of all other competitors, that it does seem unfair that he now has to win a playoff tournament.

If you ask the WSL, they will claim they are doing what the athletes asked for. If you listen to Dave Prodan's podcast The Lineup, the topic comes up often. There have even been a few panel discussions with WSL employees attempting to be transparent about how they came up with the new contest and event structure. But there really isn't any unbiassed media scrutinizing these decisions. There are a few digital publications, such as Stab the Mag, but they do no real journalism. No quotes from stakeholders, no digging around or research, they're just commentaries, opinion pieces, which are fine, but that's not journalism. Stab is no different than this blog. It's just editorial. So while I enjoy some of the digital platforms that point out the hypocrisies of the WSL, if they're not giving me real information in the form of quotes from stakeholders, as well as facts and figures, they are nothing more than commentary.

A lot of the surf-viewing public is under the age of 35 so their concept of journalism is vacant of any real substance. Younger generations take opinion from talking heads and pundits on cable news and social media, and they treat it as fact. While often compelling and well-presented, commentary should not be treated like news, but it is. WSL is so young, they don't face a ton of scrutiny. They are smart enough to know this, so they fill-in that gap with their own news programming, so they can control the message. They basically cover themselves. This allows them to fly under the radar and not be held accountable for their actions.

If you've been paying attention to what's been going on in College Football, you'd know how dangerous it is to let the competitive entities themselves strike deals with the media companies covering them, and then control and govern the sport with impunity. There is a huge conflict of interest when a governing body also serves in the role of the press that covers them. So no check and balance there. If you can't understand why this is bad, I honestly don't have time to teach you anymore fundamental journalism. But here's an example...

When WSL first announced their plans for the Final 5, there was no media there to ask any tough questions. And when there was an article addressing the change, it was an editorial, filled with opinion. Yes, there was a little bit of the who, what, where, and when information out there, but again, no expert opinions from stakeholders, no in-depth features, nothing. The one real article that I found that had an actual quote went like this:

Two-time world champion Tyler Wright backed the new format, saying it will raise the intensity of the showdown for the crown.
“The difference is that you get to win in the water, which is huge,” the Australian told the WSL. “It comes down to nobody else, and that kind of intensity, that kind of competitive pressure, raises the bar. It’s pretty exciting.”

Notice the quote credit... the Austrailian told the WSL. Why wasn't Tyler Wright quoted directly? So when interviewing for this story, the author only spoke with WSL officials. Then, the story used a second hand quote. Like the WSL was basically saying, trust us the pros like this new format, Tyler Wright told us so. Yeah. That's not a real quote. Where are the real quotes? Can you find one anywhere from a pro surfer on this new Final 5 issue? I can't. There were a few mumbles on social media from industry folks, but nothing totally on the record.

So a major sport entity makes major changes to how their champions are crowned and there was no outside scrutiny, and no quotes from people who would be directly impacted from those changes? Again, imagine if this were the NFL. If the NFL made a major change to the playoffs would they be able to do that without scrutiny from the press? I mean, does anything happen in the NFL where Adam Schefter doesn't have a scoop or a source? No real watchdogging is done to keep the WSL honest. And you cannot depend on them to be forthcoming because they firmly believe that "we know what's best, so just take our word for it".

In response to a recent WSL Instagram post, shaper Matt Biolos shared his sentiments about the new finals format as it pertains to his team rider (and recent Olympic Gold Medalist) Carissa Moore...

"Essentially, She already did. You're making her win this years twice"

I tend to agree, so while I don't think that the new format is exactly fair, I do believe it will create some exciting viewing. I think the WSL will have accomplished its goal of creating a dynamic finish for the season, and it will have been done so in the water, like they wanted. The finals event should be fun to watch, and there is no guarantee that Gabriel Medina runs away with it, as he did the regular season. My prediction is for the Brazilian dominance to continue still. But it's going to be Italo Ferreria that repeats as World Champion, after dominating Felipe in the semifinals, and sweeping Gabe in the best of three finale. Let me know what you think.


The Lineup

There is a lot of great content in Dave Prodan's podcast. You can't really argue against WSL policy unless you have a full understanding of their position and platform. On top of all of the WSL info packed into his show, he does a nice job of interviewing surfers and industry insiders. I appreciate Dave's intellect and his willingness to interview folks that he may not be popular with. I also happen to agree with a lot of his politics, and similar to him, find myself face-palming while reading the comments section from industry articles and social media publications. That doesn't mean I simply side with WSL, and in the case of the new Rip Curl Final 5, I think he and the rest of the organization missed the mark. Just my humble opinion. Tell me I'm wrong.


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