Disinterest and indifference to pro surfing is at all-time high. Time to talk rubrics.
When the tour opens at Pipe on January 29, it’ll mark almost 10 years since the WSL began running the show.
Back in 2013, after the tour was taken over by ZoSea, one of the chief architects of the takeover Paul Speaker said, “For the first time we’re able to approach this league as a global centralized sports league…and it’s essential for those of us who are already engaged, and those who are invited in, see it as one of the premier global sports in the world.”
One of the premier global sports in the world?
It’s fair to say, rather politely, that the WSL hasn’t quite reached those heights.
The ASP gave us the world’s best surfers in the world’s best waves concept but since then the tour has stagnated badly.
One reason is the judging system.
And, I’m gonna tell ya why.
Or lack thereof.
The WSL Judging Problem #1
On page 82 of the WSL rulebook, in Chapter 13, are the rules pertaining to judging WSL events. Here’s a screen grab from the section relevant to how judges score waves.
From the information contained in Section 13.05 above, I have taken that info and used it to create a scoring rubric, seen below.
If you’re not familiar with these things called rubrics, they’re just fancy info charts often used for scoring. Especially in academia land. They normally resemble something like the one below, which my university writing department uses to grade student essays.
Comparing the two rubrics, it’s not too hard to see the problem with the WSL one, is it?
Yep, it’s fucking blank.
It’s got the five scoring categories along the top and the breakdown of scores down the left side… and that’s it.
From the rule book, page eighty-two, this is what we get regarding judging and wave-scoring. A few ambiguous bullet points devoid of any detail or elaboration whatsoever.
And when converted into standard rubric form, it’s completely fucking empty!
This is where I become concerned.
When your scoring rubric is completely empty and missing some scoring accoutrements that might serve to help or guide the presiding judges, how can you tell me that the scores the judges are coming up with in WSL events, including WCT events, are anything more than a hopeful, ambitious guess?
How can they be anything else when you’re working from a blank page?
Tell me, according to the WSL judging rubric above, what separates a “Good” score and a “Very Good” score in terms of Commitment and Degree of Difficulty?
How do you know a score is “Excellent” in the Combination of Major Maneuvers category?
Why is something only “Fair”, and not “Good” when it comes to Speed, Power and Flow?
Then compare the WSL’s rubric and with my uni’s essay writing rubric, and you see the difference.
Unlike the WSL’s blank rubric, all the categories have information for graders to draw upon.
In addition, the info included in the rubric is just the bare bones. We also have full booklets regarding each category and each square to help our marking be as accurate and consistent as possible.
For example, in the Lexis (Vocabulary) category, we use the New General Service List (NGSL) as our standard. The NGSL is the most widely accepted and cited vocab list in English language learning. It lists the 2,800 most basic, commonly used words in English, starting from “the” at Number 1, down to “thirst” at Number 2,801.
Therefore, when scoring the “Lexis” category, we look for fancy words in the essay that are outside the top 2,800 words from the NGSL.
For instance, if a student writes “The WSL judging system is calamitous”, then that will score well.
Firstly, ‘cause “calamitous” is a great word that sits way outside the top 2,800 word list and, secondly, ‘cause he student has used the word in its correct adjectival form, “calamitous”, as opposed to “calamity”, the noun form.
What do the WSL judges have in their grading rubric? Nada. Zero. A blank page.
That being the case, I come back to my initial point, how can the scores that the judges give for every single wave be anything but a hopeful, calculated guess?
The WSL Judging Problem #2
This ain’t the only issue.
In the WSL’s official rulebook, and specifically in Chapter 13 related to judging, there’s no clear info about whether the five categories that surfers are judged on are equally weighted or not.
Is Speed, Power and Flow as important as Variety of Maneuvers?
Is Innovative and Progressive Maneuvers deemed equally as crucial as Combination of Major Maneuvers?
On page 82, the rulebook states, “It’s important to note that the emphasis of certain elements is contingent upon the location and the conditions on the day, as well as changes of conditions during the day.”
Very ambiguous, and perhaps a deviously cunning way to remain vague regarding distribution of scores for a surfer’s waves.
Don’t say which category’s more, or less, important, then lean on whichever one serves your defence the best.
However, when you take the whole “maybe, might, possibly, could; never commit and everything’s good” approach, you will always come unstuck, eventually.
So let me give you a perfect example of why such a lack of clarity illustrates how murky and inconsistent the WSL judging can be.
The video below is of Griffin Colapinto at Haleiwa in 2019.
Dying seconds and he takes off on a closeout and chucks a huge frontside air. Lands it perfectly. Crowds cheer. Ross Williams in the commentary box loves it. Lots of wows. Clutch. Gets a 9.93/10. Three out of five judges give him a 10.
Watching live, you might get caught up in the excitement of it all.
However, objectively, we all know Haleiwa ain’t no one-turn wave. Never has been. And wasn’t on this day.
So you can immediately chuck out the whole, “It’s important to note that the emphasis of certain elements is contingent upon the location and the conditions on the day” caveat in the WSL rulebook.
We have a problem. Let’s go to the judges’ scoring categories.
Commitment and Degree of Difficulty? 10 all day.
Innovative and Progressive Maneuvers? Pretty massive, let’s give him a 10.
Combination of Major Maneuvers? That’s a no. It was a one-turn closeout Hail Mary air.
Variety of Maneuvers? No again. Just one air.
Speed, Power and Flow? Objectively, no. It was a take-off to half-face bottom turn to massive air. But we might argue the case.
Thus, even with our empty, blank rubric above, Griffin only adhered to 2/5 category criteria. Combination of Major Maneuvers wasn’t there, nor was Variety of Maneuvers. Even if you make the argument for Speed, Power and Flow successfully, it’s still only 3/5 criteria met.
So how can he get a 9.93, including a 10 from three of the judges, when he only met 2/5 scoring criteria categories, or 3/5 at best on a reef wave that allows surfers multiple turns?
To hammer my point home, here’s John John’s 10 at the most recent 2021 Haleiwa contest.
Frontside air to tail slide into a big layback hack into a nice tube and finished off with a faultless, frontside air reverse on the closeout section.
Commitment and Degree of Difficulty? Yep
Innovative and Progressive Maneuvers? Yep
Combination of Major Maneuvers? Yep
Variety of Maneuvers? Yep
Speed, Power and Flow? Yep
JJF’s wave meets all criteria, he gets a 10. Fair enough. Griffin’s wave meets 3/5 criteria at best, he gets a 9.93. At the same location.
More specifically, who is actually affected and why is it such a big problem?
Pro Surfers: How often do we see surfers in heats frustrated, baffled, or incandescent with rage when they hear the scores announced over the loudspeaker? Pretty much every round of every contest. It sure makes it hard to please the judges when the judges don’t have anything to look at or guide you with.
You want to know how detached from reality the scoring is for surfers?
Watch this video of JJF and Jordy discussing all things surfing and contests.
From the four-minute mark, they talk judging and scores and both vehemently agree that the most important thing in a heat, without a shadow of doubt, is making sure you’re on the best wave.
Slight problem. Wave selection isn’t even in the five categories the judges use to score a wave.
Is that not the most insane thing you’ve ever come across in competitive sports at an organisational level?
The most important thing in a heat, according to two superstars of the sport, is a factor not even listed in the official WSL rulebook related to judging?
The Judges: I feel sorry for the judges. How are you supposed to adjudicate with any degree of consistent accuracy when your help guide is a blank page?
As someone in a similar position, I can tell you, unequivocally, those rubrics are indispensable lifesavers.
Imagine sitting in your office happily browsing BeachGrit when your door is suddenly assailed by furious bashing and crashing. Little Johnny is waving his essay in the air demanding to know why he got a D.
In those moments, there ain’t nothing like calmly, confidently pulling out those rubrics and asking Johnny to take a seat.
The conversation, paraphrased, then goes something like this:
“Oi, Johnny, did your essay have this?”
“Then fuck off and cry somewhere else. And fix your fucking essay”
What can WSL judges show the surfers when they storm the judging tower?
A blank page full of empty boxes?
The Expert Fans: You can’t con the longtime fans who know their surfing inside out. Judging controversies and blowups on social media don’t make the sport more interesting, or engaging.
Ridiculous scoring turns the hardcore fans away.
The Novice Fans: If you’re trying to attract new people, you’ve gotta be able to explain to them exactly what’s happening on a wave and why a surfer is getting X score and Y score. Commentators can’t do that ‘cause their guess is as good, or bad, as anyone else’s.
If the new fans can’t grasp what is going on, they won’t stick around.
The Commentators: They’re in a hard position because they have to explain to the viewer what the surfer’s doing and how they’ll be rewarded. Nothing like making yourself look like a giant peckerhead in front of thousands of people on air when you give a wave a six and the judges give it a nine. Or vice-versa.
Commentators should be able to predict, with confidence, what the scores will be and be able to break down exactly why.
Especially for the novice fan.
Right now, they can’t do that with any kind of confidence so you get the endless drivel dished up that’s so often meaningless and banal, and, at times, humiliating for the commentators.
The WSL: Old Man Ziff and Cocaine Cowboy handsome E-Lo and all the characters up at Santa Monica HQ might have delusions of grandeur, but if you can’t get your scoring right, nothing progresses.
Disinterest and indifference to pro surfing is at all-time high. Yeah, more people are in the water, but they ain’t marching to the WSL’s tune.
The WSL website is seldom even in the top five surfing websites according to most available metrics.
How do they think they’re going to attract new global fans when judges, surfers, commentators, and fans can’t really explain the scoring, and it often makes no sense?
The good thing is that there is so much room for improvement.
The first step’s pretty obvious, fill in the blank rubric.
It also needs to work with the judges on inter-rater reliability and (re)examine the categories’ cause I imagine their internal consistency would currently be a mess.
From there, I’ll let the BeachGrit commentariat add their views in the comments section.
But if you really want to know every step necessary, send me an email at: [email protected] and I’ll tell you how to fix it.