In anticipation of this weekend's Surf Ranch Pro, SURFER editor-in-chief Todd Prodanovich wrote that making a speciality event, like the World Tour's first wave pool contest in 30 years, count toward a world title was like telling an NFL team they had to play one rugby game as part of their regular season.
Todd knows a lot about a lot of things—twin fins and mustaches come to mind. But he wouldn't know a rugby ball from a ball of wax, which is why that is the wrong sport comparison when trying to figure out how the wave pool might (or might not) integrate into the World Tour. For better guidance, look to professional road cycling.
In multi-stage events like the Tour de France, there is at least one individual time trial included between the other stages. In a standard stage, competitors go head-to-head against the entire field, team tactics like drafting are enormously important, and there's a ton of chance involved (caught in a huge pile up? Merde difficile). In a time trial, each competitor goes one at a time, with two-minute gaps between them, and the guy with the fastest time at the end of the stage wins.
Taken as part of a performance venn diagram, along with the flat stages and mountain stages and hill stages, the time trial makes sense. It's a component in which certain elements of a cyclist's game—pure endurance, aerodynamics, gear—are elevated above all else; it ensures riders with particular strengths get a chance to expose other riders with particular weaknesses. And when the Tour champion is crowned, everyone agrees that rider proved himself in a comprehensive test of the sport. Also, he had the best drugs.
Competition at the Surf Ranch Pro aspires to function in a similar manner compared to the rest of the World Tour. The element of chance is all but removed. The tactics of head-to-head competition in erratic swells are set aside. Surfers are no longer scored against each other; they're scored against a wave that offers basically the same opportunity for turns, tubes, and airs. Every. Single. Time. It's as close as a judged competition can get to having a clock.
Reasonable people can debate if this is fun to watch or excruciating; we can compare it to gymnastics or halfpipe snowboarding, and mean that favorably or witheringly. But, from the perspective of a World Title race, I'd argue that there's some merit in a venue that allows everyone to see precisely how much more flawless one surfer's rail work or air game is to another's. And there's some merit to a format in which every competitor knows exactly what went into the top score on the board, so they can compose a "run" tailored specifically to best it (although Doherty has a point when he writes that the pool creates a steep learning curve for the judges and they have a long way to climb).
The World Tour doesn't need another test of courage, because it has Teahupoo and Pipe. Tactics are well challenged at Bells and Hossegor. We all want to see the world's best surfers on the world's best (for mortals) wave, which is why we have J-Bay. To have one venue out of 11 designed to give every surfer the exact same wave in an effort to expose pure technical ability doesn't strike me as wholly out of step with the other 10 venues; it seems like a reasonable part of the venn diagram.
Todd argues that, if the pool is supposed to make the Tour more well rounded, then why not work longboard or big wave stops into the mix? That's a bit disingenuous—since the beginning of the Dream Tour format, surf fans have had no shortage of things about which to bitch, but one thing everyone generally agrees on is that each year's World Champion is pretty close to a consensus pick for the best surfer on the planet. Do you really care if John Florence can do a stylish cheater five? Did you need to see AI navigate Nazare after seeing him in maxing Teahupoo?
I found the Surf Ranch Pro pretty Groundhog Day-ish and best suited as background noise to beer drinking. But I feel roughly the same way about Margaret River, and that event isn't driving surfers to an existential crisis. Meanwhile, even to my gimlet eye, it looked like Medina won because of his relentless consistency, ballsy decision making, and ability to rise to the moment—the same skills he's used in every one of his other 10 World Tour event victories.
The WSL and Slater's evil geniuses have some work to do; the judges need to decide what a perfect run looks like on a "perfect" wave, the surfers need more time in the tub, and the left is clearly an inferior wave to the right. But, whether you like it or not, the thing about innovation is that it doesn't really go backwards. By the time Medina's won his second or third Surf Ranch Pro, all of this will seem totally normal.