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2015: Surfing’s Dead-Ball Era!

Rory Parker

by Rory Parker

Did we just live through the most tedious year, ever, on tour?

There were two stories I spent most of 2015 waiting to write. The first, Brazilian Storm Downgraded to Drizzle, was mainly based on the fact that I think that’s a clever title, and I honestly thought that they’d falter and drop the ball mid-season.

But in the end Brazil ended up with more top ten surfers than any other country, and variations on the title don’t really work. Brazilian Storm Upgraded to Hurricane sucks.

For those of you who don’t know much about professional baseball, and I’m assuming that’s the majority of our readers, the period from 1900 until 1919 is known as the dead-ball era. The near twenty year span was marked by low scoring games, a heavy emphasis placed on stolen bases and hit-and-run strategy. The then-rules, combined with equipment limitations, encouraged a slow and steady approach, chipping away to victory.

At first glance, surfing and baseball have almost nothing in common.

Surfing, as an activity, excels when removed from a competitive framework. You may see flashes of brilliance during a heat, but the very best performances, without exception, spring from free surf sessions. Baseball, on the other hand, doesn’t exist outside of the competitive arena. Without an opposing team you’re just playing catch, or swinging away at the batting cages. Fun? Maybe, but not baseball.

However, they’re very similar in that they are long, often tedious, affairs, and to all but the most devoted fans are best delivered in the form of fifteen minute long post event wrap-ups. Waiting, waiting, waiting, a few seconds of action, more waiting, waiting, waiting.

Boring stuff, by and large.

Not that it matters to competitors. Those that win know that there’s only one thing to worry about, winning. Dead-ball era players knew their near unhittable spitballs and bunt-and-runs were awful for spectators, but that was for management to worry about. The coaches and players were obligated to always strive for victory, and intelligent strategy forced a certain approach. Rules are rules, once the teams had an effective strategy dialed they had absolutely no incentive to change. Empty platitudes aside, it’s only about having fun when you’re an amateur.

The top two surfers on the tour, De Souza and Fanning, figured out the rules, knew what it took to win. Unfortunately for us, the viewers, what it took to win was technically perfect, totally uninspired surfing. Outside of a heat I think it’s an easy statement to claim that Fanning is the superior wave slider, but once the horn sounds they step into the same role. Link the turns together, don’t fall, bonk it at the end. Tens may win heats, but consistent sevens win titles.

Which brings us to the end of 2015, the year that dead-ball came to surfing.

The top two surfers on the tour, De Souza and Fanning, figured out the rules, knew what it took to win. Unfortunately for us, the viewers, what it took to win was technically perfect, totally uninspired surfing. Outside of a heat I think it’s an easy statement to claim that Fanning is the superior wave slider, but once the horn sounds they step into the same role. Link the turns together, don’t fall, bonk it at the end. Tens may win heats, but consistent sevens win titles.

Interestingly, if not surprising, though DeSouza finished in first, he has the lowest average heat total of ‘CT top five. Despite hype, the year is a grind, and ADS had the best mill stone around. Combined with his stereotypically Brazilian gamesmanship it should have come as no surprise when he landed on top of the podium.

Fanning looks like what he is, a world class surfer, arguably one of the greatest of all time, approaching the end of his career. He can’t play the high performance game at the same level as the young ‘uns. What 34 year old could (not counting Slater)? So he takes the same tack as De Souza, albeit one that’s stylistically better. Link your turns, keep the board in the water. Surf to win, not to impress.

An experienced surfer understands how difficult it is to surf like ADS and Fanning. Surfing well, and not falling, is insanely difficult. More difficult, without a doubt, than hucking huge hail mary airs and hoping for the best. But it just isn’t engaging.

As a fan of professional competitive surfing (which I most definitely am, constant WSL criticism notwithstanding), I’d much rather see John John do two amazing turns and fall on the end section than watch either of this year’s top two whack the lip twice and toss a floater for the score.

Dead-ball baseball came to an end with a series of rule changes (such as outlawing spitballs and counting the first two foul balls as strikes), equipment changes (corked center balls which were replaced more frequently) and a reactionary adjustment to tactics. Stadium dimensions were changed, and power hitters, beginning with Babe Ruth, started hammering balls out of the park. Scores were higher, the game became more exciting.

Unfortunately, surfing isn’t so easy. The equipment is great, hard to imagine better. The venue is a constantly changing nightmare. It’s impossible to be provide truly objective scoring without reducing the sport to a figure skating style ritualized dance.

But, still, adjustments can be made. It’s easy to cast judgment, but to do so without offering an alternative is straight up weak shit.

Fuck objectivity. Judges should score based on what they, personally, view as superior surfing. Certain judges will reward certain surfers, but the beauty of averaging scores should smooth out any edges.

Isolate the judges. Noise canceling head phones, a separate feed for each to watch, a partition between them. Easy stuff to implement.

Identify the judges. I understand a reluctance to name people, it’s 2015 and the internet is a mercurial bitch. Simply assign each judge a number, report each number’s score, allow viewers a chance to track said scores over the course of the year.

Fire the entire judging staff, hire some fresh faces. While internet conspiracy theories are fun, I don’t believe there is any actual collusion. However, weird shit goes down, sometimes, and surfing isn’t great at holding people accountable. Like back in ’93, when Renato Hickel, current Tour Manager, served as head judge while dating Lisa Andersen on the side. A gross conflict of interest, one which should have seen him drummed out of the sport.