In just a few days, pro surf fans will be tuning into chlorinated history in the making (if they’re not watching the NFL’s season openers or traveling for Labor Day, that is) with the World Tour debut of the Surf Ranch Pro in sunny Lemoore, California. The inclusion of an artificial wave on the Tour schedule was always going to ruffle a few feathers among surfing purists, but with the additional announcement of an entirely different, leaderboard-style format for the new event, it begs the question: should this alternative event really help decide this year’s world champion? SURFER editor Todd Prodanovich and features editor Justin Housman discuss.
Todd Prodanovich: So we’re fast approaching the christening of Surf Ranch as a World Tour venue, and it’s going to be, well, weird as hell. Obviously it’s a very different format, with surfers earning scores for “runs” rather than heats, and those scores are ranked against the whole field rather than a single opponent in your heat—basically it’s a different sport. With that in mind, do you think the points earned at the Ranch should really count toward the title, considering how much of a departure it is from the rest of the Tour?
Justin Housman: The bearded, flannel-wearing, mid-length riding purist in me really, really wants to say, “Hell no it shouldn't count, wave pools are an abomination against nature or god or both.” But, it looks like we're rushing headlong into a future increasingly marked by artificial waves, so being able to rip in a wave pool should probably be part of the criteria for crowning the overall best competitive surfer in the world, which, in theory, a WSL title signifies.
TP: Yeah, wave pools are definitely more prominent now than ever, and I agree that they should have a place in competitive surfing, I just don’t think that place is next to Teahupoo and J-Bay and Pipe, deciding the World Title. To me, the Title signifies a massive achievement in a specific framework of surfing and competition, and the Surf Ranch pro is very much outside that framework. Whether we’re talking about Bells Beach or Peniche, Tour competitors surf against an opponent in their same heat, using heat strategy to try to put themselves in the right position for the best waves, and the element of chance—the randomness of the ocean—is what, for better or worse, allows for heat strategy and defines pro surfing as we know it. I think wave pool contests have a ton of potential for specialty events, for air shows, for the Olympics, etc., but as a one-off Tour event, it just seems super incongruous. And if that was actually the whole goal—to open the Tour up and let the Title be decided by a wider-range of waves and contest formats—you might as well throw Jaws, that river wave in Germany and a boat wake in the mix.
JH: I'd watch the living hell out of a Tour that included river waves, boat wakes and Jaws. Brad Domke would obliterate every single Slater-held record. It'd be a bloodbath. I'd love it. Are you reading this, WSL? This is a fantastic idea. I just copyrighted it, actually. Have your lawyers contact me. Anyway, personally, I feel like competitive pro surfing is far enough outside the zone of "real surfing" that I have a hard time being sanctimonious about it. I'm not at all interested in fake wave surfing—I surf because I want to be in the amazing, beautiful ocean, not a piss-warm tub in an inland town—but I don't think there's anything wrong with demanding paid pros to change up the format for a single event. I'm not sure it's a whole lot different than granting the same points for a contest at Teahupoo as a contest at a dribbly Rio beachie.
TP: Yeah, my issue is not so much that its a different type of wave, it’s that it’s a completely different format—its so different that it makes the makeup of the entire Tour suddenly feel much more arbitrary. It would be like if NFL players had to randomly play one rugby game during their season, and it counted as a regular season game. Including a wave pool event with a completely different format opens the door for other modes of competition, and if you’re going to do that, why not go all in? Why not incorporate a big-wave break into the regular Tour schedule, or invite the whole Tour roster to do the air show events and put those points toward the World Title, or hold events where competitors have to ride twin fins or longboards or something that, in the end, shows that the World Champ is in fact the most well-rounded surfer in the world? If we’re not married to man-on-man heats in the ocean, what else is open to debate, revision and evolution?
JH: You afraid they’re opening a pandora’s box here? You might be getting a bit ahead of yourself. There’s every reason to think the contest will be mind-numbingly boring and they’ll decide to never host one at a pool again. I’m curious, have you heard any surfers complain about the format being different?
TP: I’ve heard of surfers complaining about the wave itself, not so much the format. And I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of change on the Tour—in fact, I’d argue that it needs a good shakeup. I just think that if you’re going to have 11 contests in a season with equal points for each, 10 of those are one type of competition and one of them is not, then that single odd duck should be a specialty event and not count toward the title. But if you flipped the whole WSL machine on its head, with other outside-the-box venues and formats sprinkled throughout the year, then you’ve got a whole new sport on your hands—not just a one-off sideshow. And that sounds very interesting to me.
JH: Yeah, you’re probably right. After all, there’s every possibility that by the end of the year, a World Tour surfer will find themselves on the wrong side of the requalification bubble thanks in part to a bad result in a contest with an alien format held in a wave tank in Lemoore—god, how much would it hurt to know that was your undoing?
TP: Dreams dissolved in the chlorine? Yeah, that would sting a little.