World Surfing League tournament lineup is back, but at what cost?

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t keeping an eye on the Rip Curl Newcastle Cup countdown after three days of standby. On the first day back since the Billabong Pipe Masters and Maui Pro in December and an even longer hiatus since international lockdowns were implemented in March 2020, small waves led to big results. 

It is an exciting time in competitive surfing. World champions like Tyler Wright, John John Florence and Gabriel Medina are at the height of their careers and are going against Australia natives Stephanie Gilmore and Ryan Callinan. The most memorable performances belong to the athletes that showed their small-wave prowess, including fellow Aries Filipe Toledo, San Clementian Crosby Colapinto and 19-year-old Caroline Marks.

The Australian leg of the championship tour has been defined by the World Surf League’s ability to get their athletes across the world while the coronavirus remains a looming threat to competition.

Look at the Pipe Masters. Three days after the event was called on, the WSL had to shut it down briefly due to CEO Erik Logan and other WSL staffers testing positive for the coronavirus. Of course, in any event like this, the WSL had to release the following statement:

“The WSL is committed to prioritizing the safety of the athletes, staff and surrounding community above all else, and is working closely and transparently with the Hawaii State Department of Health to determine the path forward.”

The Australian leg was in limbo as well just a few months ago. The Ballina Shire Council in New South Wales voted to turn down a CT event at Lennox Head, with local support for the no-vote apparent. One of those citizens decided to emphasize their point even further, painting “Fuck WSL” on a road near Lennox Point.

Just over a week after this debacle the WSL announced the next stops of the Australian tour in Newcastle, North Narrabeen, Margaret River and Rottnest Island. This schedule cut out iconic events at the Gold Coast Snapper Rocks and Bells Beach. 

The agreement between the WSL and the NSW Government allowed the league to charter a flight full of athletes that would travel from Los Angeles to Sydney, land in Australia and immediately enter a 14-day quarantine, all on the WSL’s dime. 

So far, there have been no coronavirus missteps; the only thing putting the event on hold now is the unfavorable conditions in the competition. 

So, was this worth it?

The benefits for athletes are undeniable — competition and or publicity is their livelihood, and with a winnings pool of over $1 million, these events continue to fund their careers.

I don’t even want to know how much the WSL spent on all of this. The excitement and fervor expected from the championship-tour host obviously did not payout. In addition, the WSL brokered a deal with some local Lennox Head surf groups in the JALI Local Aboriginal Land Council and LeBa Boardriders to have their junior surfers up for wildcard competition spots. 

Sharon Cadwallader, the deputy mayor of Lennox Head, summed up their decision briefly: “We’ve been [coronavirus]-free we don’t want that to change.”

If the council had voted otherwise, their infrastructure would have been threatened and any and all locals would be prevented from surfing for 17 days. While public health should be the end of any argument, it is important to remember that cancellation effects can compromise any world tour stop in any sort of conditions, pandemic or otherwise. 

It’ll be an interesting leg for sure. I’ll lose my fantasy picks as usual, but we’ll get to see some great surfing that has only been shown in glimpses for the past year. It would be different if the WSL forced their way into Lennox Head after a voting body said no, but in a lot of these decisions, we don’t often hear from the locals on their opinions. The encroachment of the surfing governing body and the possible degradation of communities are still some things to keep a close eye on, regardless of whether it is your community or not.

Lauren Mattice is a senior writing about surfing. She is also the digital managing editor at the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Spring Swell,” runs every other Monday.