Surfing was poised for a monumental year in 2020 with its arrival on the Olympic stage. But the pandemic has not only caused a postponement of the Tokyo Games, it has now led the sport’s governing body, the World Surf League, to cancel the World Championship Tour this year and to revamp the next tour schedule.
The 2021 tour will begin later this year, an early start designed to provide leeway in case the pandemic worsens and causes schedule changes later in the calendar.
The 2020 championship tour, which had been scheduled to begin in March with the Corona Open Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia, never got off the ground because of the pandemic.
It was a jarring realization. If surfing — a sport that takes place outside, with physically distant competitors — couldn’t pull off competition safely, was there hope for any other sport?
As event after event was canceled, it became obvious that the surfing season could not continue amid coronavirus infections and the extensive international travel that the tour demands.
“When we entered into what we thought was a longer, more protracted hold, it became clear that this could be a transformative moment for the sport,” Erik Logan, the chief executive of the surf league, said.
So Logan, along with the league’s executive team and a round table of surfers, went to the drawing board. Corralling a group of stakeholders over Zoom was surely less complicated than it would have been to coordinate groups of pro athletes and executives as they bounced around the globe from Australia to Brazil to France.
All questions were up for discussion. Former world champions were asked about their experiences: How should athletes earn that crown? When should the tour start and end, and how many events would be included? Were there too many surfers on the tour?
The questions have long been posed to fans, surfers and sports executives. Professional surfing has decided world champions in much the same fashion since 1976, awarding points to surfers at each tour event and crowning a champion based on total aggregate season points.
It’s not particularly easy to follow, or satisfying for fans, given that well over half of the winners since the mid-1970s have not claimed their title in the water, said Matt Warshaw, the author of the Encyclopedia of Surfing. The titles for the men’s and women’s tours are frequently awarded far before the final event begins, which can be bizarre to witness.
That’s what happened in 2016, when Tyler Wright was walking on the beach and someone ran up to her to say “hey, you’re the world champ!” She responded with, “What, I won?” The next year, John John Florence — the 2016 World Title holder — won the 2017 title by default after Gabriel Medina was eliminated from a quarterfinal heat. Florence was showered with champagne in a backyard when his competitor paddled back to shore.
The dream scenario played out in real time, for the first time, in 2019. The two top athletes — Medina and Italo Ferreira — were the last two surfers in the final heat of the final competition of the year. A win would mean the world title, and the commentators — and executives — were thrilled.
Creating a true championship all-or-nothing event was one of the first things the league decided to do going forward.
The bulk of the 2021 season will still award points to surfers. But the final event of the year will only include the top five men and the top five women based on those rankings. The last man and woman standing are the world champions.
And for the first time, the men’s and women’s championship tours will have the same number of stops. In previous years, the women’s tour — which has long had to fight for peak conditions, swells and coverage — had fewer stops than the men’s tour. The women will now have a stop at one of the most famed and feared waves in the word — Teahupo’o in Tahiti. The wave, home of the 2024 Olympics, has a name that translates roughly to “wall of skulls.”
“The equal amount of men’s and women’s events represents a standard for the tour we never had,” said Jessi Miley-Dyer, the World Surf League’s vice president of tours and competition, adding that returning to competing at Teahupo’o — a site that has not been on the women’s world tour since 2006 — represents a “return to waves of consequence for us.”
For all the upcoming changes, tour organizers are still hoping to get the surfers in the water before the 2021 tour kicks off. They won’t be at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa, where surfers had originally been scheduled to compete this month. Or in Chiba, where they were expected to compete in the 2020 Olympics. And surely not in Teahupo’o, where surfers would fly after Tokyo.
Logan did leave the door to competition ajar for some preseason, regional exhibition events — pandemic and health guidelines pending — at Kelly Slater’s wave pool in Lemoore, Calif., along with events in Australia, France and Portugal. Only athletes living in those regions will be invited to compete.
And the 2021 tour is scheduled to begin in 2020 too, a move the W.S.L. said they hoped would give organizers some padding should things need to be pushed back because of safety concerns. The women’s tour is slated for a November start in Maui, and the men’s tour is scheduled to begin in December in Oahu.
But, Logan said, in a moment of vulnerability uncommon among most high level sports executives, “Who knows? Nobody knows.”