Imagine this, for a moment: flawless, eight-foot Honolua Bay, turquoise barrels spinning off down the point, just four surfers in the water, all of ’em in contest jerseys. It’s a Senior WSL heat featuring Taylor Knox, Shane Dorian, Pancho Sullivan, and Luke Egan, all of them translating decades of surf experience into swooping down carves, expertly traveled tubes, and old school, vertical power-surfing.
Now imagine those same conditions, but the contestants are Kolohe Andino, Miguel Pupo, Conner Coffin, and Leo Fioravanti. Which of those heats would you rather watch? There’s not really a right answer here, but I’d choose the first one, no question. I suspect that a huge portion of the WSL audience would too.
There’s nothing wrong with the performance-level of the WSL right now. It’s the best it’s ever been when it comes to technical difficulty level. But it’s also about as far from relatable as pro surfing has ever been. Hard-training surf athletes on equipment most regular surfers would struggle to ride, doing things almost none of us can do. Cool to watch, sure.
But there’s something…I don’t know…sophisticated about how an older surfer approaches a wave. Less flitting about getting from one power section to the next. More confidence and assuredness leading into driving turns. Anytime I’m surfing a long, lined-up wave like Rincon or maybe one of the points in Santa Cruz, I’ll give a brief glance when a 20-year-old ripper gets to their feet and starts hacking around on the face, but I’ll stop paddling and sit up on my board in awe when a 45-year-old power surfer who’s been around the block a few hundred times paddles into a bigger set wave and starts swooping around the wave like royalty. Maybe that surfer isn’t blasting their fins out or throwing multiple alley-oops on one wave, but the decades of experience shows, and, frankly, is more enjoyable—for me—to watch.
A Senior WSL Tour—with the likes of, let’s say, Slater, Dorian, Taj, the Hobgoods, Parko and Mick (soon enough) as the “young bloods” and a middle tier of Shane Powell, Luke Egan, Danny Wills, then maybe a Master’s class with Curren, Occy, MR, Shaun Tomson—would probably make more money and have more viewers than the standard format WSL.
You’d have the immense star power of world-famous icons and all the branding possibilities that would present, plus, the events could be held at tropical resort dream locations that would probably pony up the event costs for the exposure.
There’d need to be some kind of age-leveling of the playing field, of course. Maybe everybody rides the same board, or judging is based on how well somebody surfed for an entire heat, relative to their age, I don’t know, I’m just spitballing here. But without actual World Titles on the line, we might see the kind of free and easy competitive surfing that’s often missing from an often freneticly-surfed WSL Tour.
One of the attractions of the Senior PGA Tour, so I’m told, is that the golf, while still world-class, more closely resembles the kind of good golf that your average duffer can still aspire to play. I imagine that it’s a little more inspiring for your game when you see somebody on TV, especially when it’s a golf legend, making shots that you yourself would actually attempt, rather than watching a weight-lifting 25-year-old kid hit 250-yard draws around trees with a four-iron.
Same could probably be said about Filipe Toledo’s double alley-oop at J-Bay earlier this month. Exciting, sure. Important for competitive surfing, of course. I’m not taking anything away from that. But there’s also room for watching surfing masters, who would approach a wave totally differently than Toledo—more like you and me, actually—go at the J-Bay canvas with a different set of brushes and artistic instinct.
Sure, the ISA has masters divisions, but the real surf legends aren’t entering those events. Put the full attention and pageantry of the WSL behind them though, and I think we’d have a winner.
[Featured Image: Luke Egan. Photo by Ellis]