Surfing as a Spectator Sport

This is not a sport we talk about often on the Headrush, but it is one that I am increasingly finding enjoyable as a spectator sport – Surfing. Nearly all the events are streamed live online, the latest one being the Rip Curl Pro Portugal ( Each event website has interesting commentary, an excellent Heat Analyzer feature where you can watch highlights from previous match-ups, and video extras.

Here are highlights from the Final (if you read the comments on the video there was a bit of controversy, which will be addressed later):

Portugal Final

What makes it so interesting is the dynamics of the ocean. No wave is exactly the same, and competitors must seek out that perfect wave during their heat. It is really interesting how some surfers are much better at this than others, as experience and instinct play a huge role in determining the winner.

Quick Background:

During a heat surfers can ride as many waves as they choose, all scored by judges from different countries out of a total of 10 points and averaged. The two highest scoring waves are kept while the others are thrown out, giving each surfer a highest possible score of 20 points for a round. Potentially a surfer could ride just two high scoring waves and defeat an opponent who rode 10 medium scoring waves – all adding to the intrigue.

Despite not knowing the difficulty of some maneuvers, it is pretty easy to tell when someone is going to get a big score. The fluidity, seamlessly transitioning between maneuvers, or getting really deep in the tube of a wave only to come flying out, are aesthetically obvious as top notch performances. The announcers also do a stand up job of explaining each wave during the subsequent replays.

The title race this year is very close, with Joel Parkinson currently leading Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning, and John John Florence. Parkinson is sort of like the Buffalo Bills in the early 90’s – always a threat, but has never won the championship. In fact, Parkinson has come in 2nd three times overall despite ten event wins. Mick Fanning, on the other hand, has two World Titles under his belt, and unless you have been living under a rock you know that Kelly Slater is the best surfer in the history of the sport, currently sitting at 11 World Titles, and probably one of the best athletes of all time. John John Florence represents the new crop of talent injecting fresh energy into the tour this year, and could potentially become the youngest champion of all time.

Hoping Joel can get the win this year!

The World Championship Tour (WCT) is 10 events held around the world. The winner is determined by their top 8 results, dropping the two worst finishes in any one individual event. For example, this year Kelly Slater missed the event in Brazil due to an injury, but will be able to scratch that result. If it sounds complicated, it is. Even the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) messed it up last year proclaiming Slater the winner before he actually had the requisite number of points.

In Portugal, none of the four top competitors made it to the finals, with Slater falling in just the 3rd round. Because he already had two low scores, this means he must keep the result when determining the final rankings. Always consistent, Parkinson again made it to the semi-finals, but could not overcome the young upstart from Brazil, Gabriel Medina. Joining Medina in the final was the young Australian surfer Julian Wilson. Wilson was able to win the final in the very last seconds of the heat claiming a controversial victory.

I watched the final heat; honestly it could have gone either way – so it was basically impossible to avoid controversy no matter who won. Wilson’s last wave was a small but challenging barrel followed up by a few sort of sloppy turns, and after a few minutes of deliberation the judges awarded him a score that gave him the win – his first WCT tour win.

Medina has reason to gripe, no doubt, but there will be plenty of more opportunities to win events. I wish I could say Medina took it gracefully, but unfortunately he did not. He started pouting and crying. Granted he is just 18, so maybe he will learn, but get a grip son. Every sport needs a good foil, and for me that foil is Medina. Even his surfing style sort of irks me. He takes this really wide stance, and looks like he is frantically attacking each wave. While he pulls off some really amazing feats, it just doesn’t look appealing – honestly a trait I think gets him underscored when compared to his peers.

Guess who won?

The WCT has two events left, and with the top four neck and neck the winner will surely be decided at Pipeline in Hawaii, one of the most famous and hazardous waves in the world. It also happens to be the backyard of John John Florence, and a place where Kelly Slater has traditionally lit it up. My money is on one of them to win it, although my sentimental favorite is Parkinson. With all the up and coming talent on tour, this is his make or break year.

Either way, it should be fun watch! Next event is in Santa Cruz starting November 1st. I highly recommend you check it out, pick a favorite surfer, and follow along.

1 Comment

  • Good stuff! The live streaming has provided some riveting sports watching. And Kelly Slater is just the man. Sports Illustrated, wake up and name this guy your Sportsman of the Year!

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