The Surf Ranch Pro cut from the Championship Tour – why, and what next for wave pools?
Ever since Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch was added to the Championship Tour in 2018, it has been the subject of plenty of fierce debate in the surfing world. After just three incarnations of the event, however, the World Surf League has decided to ‘take a year off’ from it, and it’s been sent packing from the 2022 CT schedule. So why has it fallen out of favour? And will it return, or does this spell the end for competitive surfing in wave pools?
Why was the Surf Ranch Pro removed from the schedule?
Professional surfing’s governing body has been typically cagey on the details surrounding the removal of the Surf Ranch Pro from the schedule, simply stating that they will ‘continue to innovate with the world’s best artificial wave technology’ and are excited for its return. The statement is not much more than marketing mumbo jumbo, so we’re left to put the puzzle pieces together for ourselves to understand what, if anything, went wrong.
Let’s start with the fans. Plenty of them do not, to put it lightly, like the Surf Ranch Pro. Complaints largely centre around the fact that it’s highly repetitive, something which is difficult to argue with. The wave is exactly the same, time after time, there is no requirement for competitors to read the conditions, and how one guy or gal surfs it often very closely resembles the ride of the next one.
This issue is further compounded by the fact that, in the three years that it’s been held to date, it appears that the same surfers excel each time, particularly in the men’s bracket. There’s no doubt that Gabriel Medina and Filipe Toledo are phenomenal surfers and are hanging around at the business end of most events regardless, but from the outset it was clear that guys like them, who can take to the air at will and probably have a higher best-wave ceiling than anyone in the world, would excel. And excel they have. In fact, no one other than those two has ever made the men’s final at the Surf Ranch Pro. In 2018 it was Medina beating Toledo in the final, 2019 was the same, while in 2021 we saw the script flipped on its head when – boilover alert – Toledo beat Medina in the final.
The women’s bracket has seen a little more variability, but there have still only been four competitors make it to the final in the three years. Carissa Moore has been there twice, as has Johanne Defay, while Steph Gilmore and Lakey Peterson have featured once apiece.
This distinct lack of variation in the results has certainly done nothing to alleviate concerns about the monotonous nature of the event. In fact, it’s added significant fuel to the fire, and when Medina and Toledo qualified for the 2021 final for the third time in succession, WSL execs must have been tempted to switch off the wave machine and call it quits there and then.
It’s not only fans who appear to have an issue with the event, either. Though the athletes are a little bit (or, realistically, a lot) restrained by the fact that they make their living courtesy of the WSL’s existence and as a result don’t necessarily benefit from being overly critical of the organisation’s events, there have been rumblings from some competitors about the same issues which have riled up the fans. Jordy Smith has been one example, calling it ‘not that exciting’ and ‘predictable’. Incidentally, he missed this year’s edition of the event after undergoing surgery on what had been a nagging knee injury just prior; he subsequently missed both Tokyo 2020 and the Corona Open Mexico so there’s no suggestion that he wouldn’t have had the surgery and missed whatever event was next regardless, but based on his comments it doesn’t sound like missing it would have caused him too many headaches.
Julian Wilson also missed out in his last season on tour, while plenty of other names, including John John Florence, Tyler Wright and Kolohe Andino were notable absentees as well. Injuries were behind virtually all of these and an impending event in Tokyo you might have heard about might have made some competitors on the edge of a return a little hesitant to risk an early return, so it’s a little harsh to attribute any of that to the event itself. Nonetheless, the Surf Ranch Pro appears to have pretty quickly acquired a reputation as the one the most athletes seem to miss.
So what next? Is pro surfing in a pool finished?
The World Surf League, as mentioned, didn’t give us a whole lot regarding the Surf Ranch’s omission from next year’s Championship Tour, but they did allude to a return after a short hiatus. In their statement, the governing body stated: “We are excited for a return to our wave system in 2023 and beyond”. Clearly there are a few issues to iron out, but according to that it sounds like that ironing is scheduled to take place over the next year, with some wrinkle-free wave pool surfing set to return the year after.
Will that actually happen? Who knows, really. The statement wasn’t exactly going to say that they removed the event from the schedule because, from all reports, fans and athletes alike are bored out of their brains by it, but as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the WSL will probably be hoping that that’s the case for our collective tickers over the course of the next 12 months or so.
Of course, the future of professional wave pool surfing doesn’t rest entirely on the shoulders of the Championship Tour. There has been some discussion in the past about the prospect of leaving the top league in the world in the ocean, and instead giving wave pools their moments to shine every four years when the Olympics come around. Certainly, people are a little less attached to the surfing Gold medals than they are world titles given the former’s lack of history, and if it was a one-off event in a pool every four years, perhaps fans would be more receptive to it.
And given the conditions we saw at Tsurigasaki Beach this year, wave pools could definitely make for better viewing than the surfing at some of the locations at which the Olympics will be held in the years to come. For the Surf Ranch Pro, or any event in a pool, to earn a spot on the CT, it needs to be able to compete with events at the likes of J-Bay, Teahupo’o and many other world-class waves. In contrast, if all these events need to do is be better than three-foot waves accompanied by stormy onshores like we saw in Japan, they’ve got a much better chance.
Unfortunately for the wave pool advocates out there, the next three Olympics are set to take place at locations with some pretty damn good waves. 2024 is in Paris (no waves there, of course, but there certainly are in Tahiti, and that event will take place at Teahupo’o), 2028 in Los Angeles (where there are a multitude of quality options) and 2032 in Brisbane (just up the road from Snapper Rocks). This makes it much less likely that wave pools will be adopted for Olympic surfing in the next few years, but in the longer term it could certainly be a viable option, particularly considering the fact that by the time the three aforementioned Games are finished, presumably wave pool technology will have advanced significantly, and the specifics of a wave pool event tinkered with sufficiently to create a much more enjoyable product.
All in all, there is still plenty of scope for professional wave pool competitions in the future, and it’s hard to imagine we’ve seen the last of them. The Surf Ranch Pro has been the subject of plenty of criticism in the short space of time in which it’s been part of the Tour, much of which has been justified by an undeniable repetitiveness, both in terms of the surfing and the results. Equally undeniable, however, is the fact that wave pools are still in their relative infancy, and so too the contests which take place within them. 2022 will provide a little bit of respite for abominators of man-made waves, but that respite is unlikely to be permanent.