Part 1: Can the flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Middle East trigger a storm in Brazil?
This January marked an historic event for a small but vibrant surf community on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. For the first time in 30 years, an official professional surf contest was held in Israel. The local scene, using a diet of 10% waves and 90% froth, exploded on the small QS1500 event with a crowed turn out usually reserved for much larger venues–more than ten thousand people showed up throughout the days of competition. Local surf media embraced the event, praising the WSL and the ISA (Israeli Surfing Association) especially its new head of operations Yossi Zamir, for making the impossible happen: bringing a surf contest to a place that was perceived as a wave deprived war zone and proving it was a beautiful place to surf. The celebration was not without cause. Until now, Israeli surfers could only dream of competing for QS ranking points. The SEAT Pro Netanya opened the door for these surfers to compete in other WSL events and who knows, maybe someday an Israeli will compete on the Championship tour.
Maybe, but not so fast.
According to the 2016 WSL Qualifying series schedule, 17 countries (with USA and HI counted as one country) will host no less than 49 QS events this coming year. From Israel to Taiwan, Sri Lanka and Argentina. Over a 1,000 QS ranked surfers will surf at these contests alongside hundreds more; wildcards, CT surfers, past champions and unranked entries. Even though not all events will run, on paper, this competition year should have the most events since 2010, the result of a steady increase in the number of participating countries in the last eight years. More surfers from different nationalities will probably surf QS heats this year than any other year before. These surfers all share a passion for competitive surfing, but some will have an easier path than others. Despite years of WSL\ASP competitions around the world, only three(!) of the world’s top 34 are not from Brazil, Australia or the USA (including HI). The same image emerges in the QS, where only 9 of the top 50 ranked at the end of 2015 are not citizens of these three major countries.
At first this makes sense. For decades, the United States and Australia have been the only countries truly invested in the sport of surfing, and accordingly, these are the countries with most QS contests. The continental United States (HI not included) is in the lead with 8 WSL qualifying series contests (the same as the entire European continent) Australia is just behind with 7 contests. Together, they make up more than 30% of all contests on the QS, and if you count Hawaii as well, that’s 42% of QS contests worldwide. On the other hand, Brazil only has 4 QS contests this year, and in the previous five years. Same as Japan, and only one more than Portugal. Yet the number of Brazilian surfers in the WSL championship tour has not only risen steadily, it is slowly becoming the country with the most representatives in the big league. At the same time, there are no Portuguese or Japanese surfers currently on the CT, so how is this happening?
Part 2: The Secret in the Numbers
The secret behind the advancement of Brazilian surfers lies in the ranking system of the Qualifying Tour system or “the grind”, aptly named for the difficulty level and the amount of time it takes to make it to the top 10 qualifying spots at the top of the tour. In essence, it’s grinding through low level competitions in order to gain enough ranking points to be seeded into the top QS6000 and QS10000 events. Only in these events is it possible to gain enough points to qualify into the CT. This trend is easily demonstrated by te QS rankings: Billy Stairmand the surfer ranked 50th in the world at the end of 2015 had 11,250 points, only 5,000 points more than Gonzalo Zubizareta, ranked 100th. At the same time, Billy needed 21,500 points to make it into the qualifying 10th place, almost double. In order to advance, surfers need to work hard for their points, and the higher up they are in the ranking, the harder the job gets. Every contest you enter, though, gives you more points, which sounds fair enough… but there is a catch.
When analyzing the point distribution between contests, we find that of 49 scheduled contests this year, only 19 will be QS3000 and upwards, with the other 30 contests being QS1500 or 1000. This means that out of 159,000 points up for grabs by contest winners this year, 124,000 points, or 78%! of global first place points could only be gained by surfers who are seeded high enough to attend contests QS3000 and upwards. Getting enough points to be seeded into the top tier contests requires surfers to compete in countless low tier contests, sometimes flying half way around the world to compete against 128 other surfers for a quarter final finish worth 400 points and as little as 50$. This means that to be a pro surfer, you not only need to surf incredibly well, you also need parents or sponsors with deep pockets just to get to the where the contest is in the first place. But wait, there’s a shortcut.
Remember that thing about the United States and Australia having the most contests? Well, it’s not only about how many contests you have, it’s where you have them. Most surfing contests in the continental US are in California, most contests in Australia are on the eastern shore from Sydney to just north of the Gold coast. In Hawaii the, seven mile miracle, well… it’s seven miles long. So not only do these countries have a long tradition of surfing, they have a lot of contests bunched together, making it easier and cheaper for local surfers to advance. But how does this explain Brazil, and the Brazilian Storm? With only four contests and a population less wealthy than the other big two, how did Brazilian surfers gain their powerful status in pro surfing? Well, as the saying goes: It’s not the quantity, it’s the quality. Brazil may only have four QS contests, but two of them are QS6000 and two are QS10000. This means that in Brazil, a surfer can theoretically achieve up to 32,000 ranking points, making Brazil the best place for winners with 20.13% of global points for first place, more than any other region in the world, including Hawaii and its famous “destiny changing” Triple Crown.
Every December, the surfing world is acquainted with a horde of Hawaiian surfers charging at Sunset and Haleiwa, but I doubt the same people watch the QS10000’s that take place in Brazilian beach breaks, where the fate of future surfing is determined. So forget about the Brazilian Storm. A storm, as most surfers know, is a natural force of incredible power that appears out of nowhere and is able to affect shores far beyond its point of origin, yet it is short lived and often fades. Brazilian surfing emerged from a well-built sporting program and smart investments. It did not come out of the blue, and it is not going to fade away, but its effects certainly are far reaching.
So how does it work? Even if Brazil does have four top tier contests, you still need a lot of ranking points to seed into these contests in the first place. Remember “the grind?” Don’t Brazilian surfers still need to travel to remote QS1000 events to gain ranking points? Well yes, but not entirely. According to the WSL rulebook: for every QS event there are going to be 6 wildcards. Two nominated by the event licensee (mostly locals) and 2 (or 4 in QS6000 and below) nominated by the WSL regional office (again, mostly locals). Also, not all ranked surfers can make it to all events, and those who can’t will be substituted by lower ranked surfers if they are able to afford the trip and work it into their schedule. One way or another, it will be easier for low ranked locals to enter the event. This is true for locals in all QS contests, so when a QS is run anywhere in the world, there is at least one local surfer in almost every heat of the first round of competition. A quick look at the WSL scoring tables shows that a Round 2 finish in a QS6000 is equal to a Quarterfinal finish in a QS1500. In other words, most local pro surfers will grind through heats to finish 8th and make less advancement in total rankings than a surfer in Brazil (or Hawaii) who wakes up in his own bed, walks out of his house, surfs two heats, and walks back home and sleeps in his own bed the same day. This in itself is not a bad a thing. On the contrary, it is an example of the intelligent way the Brazilian surfing community adapted to the format of professional surfing.
A point to remember: this is an analysis of data from the official WSL website and rulebook trying do understand the dynamic behind the general success of Brazilian surfers in recent years and the way the competition format affected it. It does not take away from the large sacrifices and investments many of these surfers have to make and the amount of hard work they put in. Or the freakish talent of Medina, Toledo and others.
So what does this say about the Seat Pro Netanya and Israeli pro surfers? Firstly, they should appreciate even more the hard work and working connections built by the ISA, Yossi Zamir and many more in the Israeli surfing community to bring a WSL event to our shores. Yet, as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, world fame is still a long way away. Not until there are more contests, or bigger contests, closer to home, that are affordable or at least profitable for aspiring pro surfers, we will not see an Israeli surfer on the CT.
This is currently the reality for many pro surfers worldwide.
Coming up in Part 2: The allocation of surf contests around the world and the connection between money and surfing–it’s not as bad as you might think. Also, the relation between good waves and ranking potential, the responsibilities that host countries have to face and the part of the WSL in expanding the sport of surfing.