Wild Cards, are they the maker and killer of careers? Used in many sports but has the greatest impact in surfing. There are a myriad of arguments for both sides of the story, but the real question is, are they good for our particular sport?
So what are the significant issues with wild cards, if there are indeed any? We think the most prominent is people’s careers that are put in jeopardy. They have to surf against a wild card or surfers that get a free ride into the top-level without the required grind. One stunning example of a surfer who qualified for the big show exclusively via wild cards from start to finish in one year is Mikey Wright. If you’ve ever seen Mikey surf, you would agree this isn’t a bad thing, as the man rips the bag, but is this the exception that proves the rule or the example for it being a good thing? The main question in our mind is, how many surfer’s careers have ended because they met a wild card who put them to the sword?
Talking to Mikey, he said that he was granted a wild card to the year’s first event because he was winning the World Qualifying Series (’QS). After making it to the quarter-finals of the Snapper Rocks event, he was granted a wild card into Margaret River. Mikey seesawed through the year getting random wild cards, even though he was sitting in the top ten at the stage of awarding the wild card. By year’s end, Mikey finished 12th from only eight events, quite a feat in our books.
When pushed about whether he thought it was unprofessional, he said, “Yes, it is unprofessional, because a retired surfer shouldn’t get the spot of a young up-and-coming surfer, someone winning the ’QS, and that’s said with no offence to those guys who’ve received them.”
In the end, it was simple: the next in line on the ’QS, no brand intrusion, no local favourites, no retired athletes.
As mentioned earlier, we aren’t the only sport that gives wild cards to athletes. We would argue, though, that we have the weirdest way of offering wild cards. Let’s break these down one by one, starting with sponsor wild cards, probably the most prominent.
After the big three took over the events from the days of old when Ampol and Coke used to sponsor them, these brands have managed to get wild cards for every competition. The surfers they award wild cards to, more often than not, deserve their spot. They are great surfers or legends. Is this a free ride that they have only received because they are the darlings of these brands? Receiving these wild cards because the brands are calling shots because they are fronting all the money? Does money really talk that loud in our sport? Some would say, “Yes.”
The next wild card anomaly is the “legend” wild card: the old dog or recently retired legend synonymous with a particular break or brand. I’m sighting the inclusion of Mick at Narrabeen and Taj at Rottnest. It is imperative right from the beginning of this point that it’s clearly understood we love Mick and we love Taj. We firmly think Taj was ripped off for a world title. When they retired, we shed a collective tear, especially because they were in the top ten when they did … Mick, please come back. Now that Mick has retired, Taj has retired, they are at the end of their competitive career, so why should they take spots from guys trying to make it or maintain their places on tour. As surf fans, we love all these legends. We love to see them surf, but why not go and make sick signature movies for us to enjoy watching them at their very best and not grovelling it out in two-foot Narra?
After talking to someone who has benefited from wild card inclusion, although worthy in our opinion based on his ’QS ranking, we thought we’d ask 1988 World Champ Bardon Lynch.
When asked who he thought should receive wild cards, Barton said: “As a competitor, I like the fairest playing field I can have, because I don’t fear anyone, but you just want a fair opportunity. I liked it when the wild cards are given off the ’QS ratings. You’re there, and you’re deserving of it, and that’s the cleanest way to do it.” Barton went on to say: “The more it is a steadfast rule around how it is managed, with nothing to do with the marketability and promotional value, but everything to do with your competitive results, then that’s what I could live with as a competitor. Anything else, you’ve got an argument on your hands”.
The “break” specialist. The toughest of wild cards to come up against for the tour surfer. For instance, the guy who can’t lay rail, go to the air or drop the wallet but has spent his entire life getting barrelled at Pipeline. They would never make it on the world tour but are world-beaters at their own break, where they have finely tuned their skill to the point they are almost unbeatable. This wild card can cause the most grief. Make no mistake.
The free and easy, nothing to lose, wild card. The surfer who was almost there—loved by their local community, getting too old to compete on the ’QS anymore—gets a wild card into their local event. With nothing to lose, they win heat after heat. Knocking out guys, who simply had a bad year and next minute, they’re off tour, dropped by sponsors and wondering around a wasteland of sponsorless pro surfers. Or the young grom, again with nothing to lose, and given the opportunity because of either location or sponsors. They never get far in the events but can cause enough trouble along the way. These surfers may not be directly responsible for taking out people but can indirectly make the difference, pushing surfers into the next round knock-out round. They are then beaten by a more established surfer.
The scenario, as a professional surfer, you’ve done your time, come up through the juniors, and landed a meagre contract. Started doing well on the ’QS. Qualify for the Challenger Series and finally, you’ve qualified for the world tour. Not only do you need to survive on tour, but you also have to take on the top seeds to do so. Then out of the blue comes a break specialist to overcome. You’re still trying to find your feet travelling the world, adjusting to a higher level of competition. Then you have to surf against someone with nothing to lose, not surfing for their career, doing it for the fun of it and shackle free.
Imagine you’re sitting at work, and someone gets to have a go at your job. Without putting in the years and effort to get where you are, they get to come in and get to take your position with one new idea or business decision. Then, you get sacked because your idea wasn’t as good as theirs … that’s a brutal way to earn a crust.
Can you imagine being that surfer good enough to make the world tour entirely on your own merits? Never given a wild card or a hand up. With smaller sponsors and making it happen through sheer effort and will, only to be knocked out by a wild card? Some people say if they deserve their position, they should knock out all the people they surf against. We need to consider the point again. They come up against the nothing-to-lose, no-pressure surfer, the specialist, or the former world champion who can beat even the GOAT on their day or at their break.
Is there a way forward? That’s a challenging and complicated question. The world tour operators are certainly turning over every stone on their way to make the best tour possible. However, perhaps they have missed the mark with this one. Surely a fair and professional world tour would give wild cards to the highest-ranked Challenger Series/Qualifying Series surfers. We feel that once you’ve received your first wild card and perform well, you should continue with that wild card spot, especially if your numbers would put you in requalification (for example, if the tour stopped without warning).
We believe these surfers have earned it, and not just because they are sponsored by this brand or that brand. Not because they come from this beach or that, and indeed not because they have been formerly retired world titleholders or the flavour of the month. We think the WSL should pull their socks up as the professional sport they claim to be, relative to this particular point. Not frivolously give away wild cards, but to have a structure that everyone can understand and is fair. We know with this simple change the world tour could hold it’s head high.