‘A lot of drama’: WSL flags changes to surfing’s controversial mid-year cut

The World Surf League has flagged plans to refine the Championship Tour’s controversial mid-season cut as the prospect of champion surfers in tears during upcoming Australian events looms once more.

WSL chief Erik Logan has helped drive the contentious rule during his tenure, which saw last year’s men’s competition cut from 36 to 24 surfers, and the women’s drop from 18 to 12 competitors at the Tour’s halfway point.

Australian Olympian Owen Wright after missing last year’s cut at the Margaret River Pro.Credit:Getty

Former world champ Sally Fitzgibbons and Olympic medallist Owen Wright were among the high-profile casualties of the new rule last year, while current world No.1 and rising Australian star Molly Picklum also fell victim to the format change, re-qualifying for the Tour via the second-tier Challenger Series.

The rule’s introduction was met with criticism from some of the world’s best surfers.

A petition signed by 30 WSL competitors calling for it to be reconsidered was dismissed by the governing body before a robust Q and A session ahead of last year’s Ripcurl Pro at Bells Beach saw the same discussions played out in person.

The mid-year cut will take place again after April’s Margaret River Pro, raising the same cut-throat scenario at Bells and the WA event where Fitzgibbons was among several surfers to break down at being relegated.

Logan pointed to that drama and competitive intrigue as the key driver in what the WSL claims was a “35% rise in consumption” of content around last year’s Bells event, but said fans and competitors can expect tweaks to be made next year.

“We want to get through this year before we make any seismic changes,” Logan told the Herald from California.

“Once we get through 2023, 2024 is an Olympic year. That’s a good opportunity to evaluate what’s working and what’s not. And I think it’s fair to assume that we as a league will make refinements to these [formats].

“We’re always talking to our surfers about ways to enhance the competitive arena… how we think about the finals formats and also the mid-year cuts.

Stephanie Gilmore narrowly avoided being cut from last year’s world tour before going on to win a record eighth title.Credit:Beatriz Ryder/World Surf League

“It made huge news and there was a lot of drama when it was introduced at Bells and also at Margaret River.

“The mid-season cut raised the stakes right in the middle [of the season] and it really drove more viewership and more engagement.

“And then the second year of running the Ripcurl WSL Finals was massive drama and massive stakes, when we watched what Steph Gilmore did by running the table and winning her eighth world title.

“It’s about how we’re driving the sport and how we’re going to make these improvements in the sport and having a smaller field post-cut yields all these other advantages.”

As it stands, the likes of Gilmore and Fitzgibbons sit outside the mid-season cut-off with one event in Portugal next month before the Tour returns to Australian shores.

Kelly Slater and 2019 world champion Italo Ferreira are among those on the top 24’s edge on the men’s side of the draw.

Surfing’s return to the Paris Olympics in 2024 will see the WSL’s top 10 male and top eight womens competitors automatically qualify for the event at Teahupo’o in Tahiti.

Forty-eight athletes in total will be invited to the event under a slew of Olympic qualifying rules.

The WSL and International Surfing Association have also adopted a transgender policy that meets IOC regulation and requires trans-female athletes to maintain a testosterone level of less than five nmol/L for at least 12 months to compete as a woman.

Popular surfer Bethany Hamilton, whose appearance at Pipeline last year was her first WSL event since 2018, said she would not surf in competitions governed by the rule earlier this month.

Logan said he had not spoken to Hamilton about her protest and that he respected her views before WSL officials pointed to the governing body’s official line on the policy.

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