I think in the perfect WSL world the Margaret River contest would be stuffed and mounted inside a glass case in the Museum of Old World Surf Contests. If it weren't for a pipeline of government money – and John Florence proving you can make a performance wave out of it – the red pen would have gone through Margaret River years ago.
And that would have been wrong.
To their credit, the crew on the ground over there, the crew actually running the event, have demonstrated a willingness to move the event to the best waves in the area. No event on tour is more mobile and closer to the actual experience of going surfing than this one. You got more swell than you know what to do with, reefs and points and options coming out the wazoo, and the guys running it are willing to jump in the car to find the best of it. It's a real surf contest… and that makes it a royal pain in the ass for the marketing department.
I've had to laugh. In a backwater timezone, and with Santa Monica HQ squarely focused on upcoming pool events while trying to cobble together their revamped 2019 tour, it feels like they've handed this event off to the marketing interns, who are marketing an event being run on a neighboring planet to Santa Monica HQ.
The ad inventory for the broadcast here in Australia features some low budget regional gems. Still frames of the local real estate agent smiling in front of a for sale sign. Still frames selling kids footy jumpers. In between all this are endless loops of WSL staff quaffing pinot noir over long-table lunches. I've seen so much wine drinking this week I feel hungover. And memo to whoever came up with the WSL house ad that states, and I paraphrase – "We are the brave. We are the powerful. We are the World Surf league" – please delete the master file and walk away from surfing. But it seems like this thing is being sold extra hard this week. Even the commentary guys have had some extra voltage running through their chairs, unnaturally excited by two guys sitting there with no waves coming.
It feels like it's been over-marketed, and none of it needs to happen. It's a real surfing contest held in real surf and that's enough marketing right there… provided, of course, you're pitching to real surfers.
This is also the first event in about a million years without Mick Fanning here. Hell, without Mick Fanning and Kelly here. Mick's gone for good, Kelly's not far off, and there will be a huge power vacuum opening for control of the tour with these two benevolent dictators out of the frame. Competing factions will fight it out this year to stake a claim for leadership. This will be the storyline on tour this year, not just the ratings lead, the battle for leadership.
You saw it at Bells. On surfing chops alone that guy should be John Florence, but he gets hassled by Zeke Lau and suddenly you're wondering if John even wants to be that guy. He remains a reluctant messiah.
But Mick's departure has also opened up a position for the spirit animal for the Aussie guys on tour, the guy everyone marches into battle behind. And again there's no succession plan here. Well, if we've learned anything from the opening days of the event is that Australian surfing now has its spirit animal.
Yesterday, Mikey Wright got the wave of the morning at North Point in the free surf. He then came in, jumped off the rocks, and got the next one… the same wave Brazilian rookie Jesse Mendes had been waiting an hour for. Mikey sailed on past, screaming, as Jesse fell from lip in front of him. You might have seen the clip from the car park later; Jesse pushing Mikey, Mikey telling Jesse to f–k off, Mikey chasing Jesse as he walked off to his car. It was the closest thing to actual confrontation the tour has seen since Slater high-fived Machado, and after what we saw at Bells, maybe it's a sign we're entering a new, combative era. They may need to change the tour's slogan from "It's on", to, "It's f–king on all right!" Former air tour surfer Luke Weinert has opened an online market on which two tour surfers will throw the first knuckles this year.
We can live in hope. But it seems that Mikey is shaping up as the spirit animal for the Aussie guys on tour. He's just got to get on tour first.
Mikey went a step closer to that this morning when he took down Ace Buchan. "Pup," as Mick calls Ace, might now be the senior statesman for the Aussie guys on tour, but Mikey might be the future leader of a ragtag bunch of mongrels. Back on the Margie's right-hander this morning; Mikey did what he did best – surfed uncomplicated, mad dog intent, until he ran into a rock. The stink in the car park never got mentioned on the broadcast.
Young Kael Walsh, the Yallingup local, followed Mikey's lead. He didn't over surf his heat with Wilko, he didn't overthink his heat with Wilko, the big kid just surfed hard. I did a surf trip last year with Kael and Matt Hoy last year down on the NSW south coast. Our route to the local reef we were scouting took us past McDonald's. Hoy looked at Walsh. "Cheeseburger?" It was 10.35am. "F–king oath," came the reply. Kael is no bullshit.
Kael now finds himself in round three, along with Mikey Wright and along with Jack Robinson. They're all surfing animals. None of them will be out there to have fun. Mikey gets John John again. There's swell coming. There's trouble brewing. It might be very difficult to market in a WSL sense… or it might be the best marketing they ever had.