Australia's Competitive Dominance Is Fading, If Not Already Gone
20 years of data reveals a shocking truth about Australian professional surfing.
27 February 2019
BY: MITCHELL SHEPHERD
FOR: STAB MAGAZINE
No need to adjust your monitor, you read it correctly: Australian surfing is on the decline.
Let’s face it; professional surfing has never been a team sport – it’s an individual pursuit of riches and glory. Surfers are their own entities, their own brands. They don’t belong to any midfield or leadership group or franchise. They don’t perform weird team shower-together rituals after a win. The point is, they compete for themselves.
I mean, sure, surfers represent their nations and the companies whose stickers sit beneath their toes. But do they really? Did Jules Wilson feel the weight of Australia, or his multi-national conglomerate sponsors, on his shoulders during last year’s Pipe title shot? Perhaps. A little.
But maybe that’s changing. These days, we have a WSL webcast invading every phone, laptop, and TV on the globe. We had the nation-based competition structure of the Founders Cup, which was all about where you’re from, not who you are. We have millions of dollars invested by national surfing bodies into their local produce. We even have silly little national flags on competitors’ jerseys. Plus, the surfing in the 2020 Olympics is a thing.
For one reason or another, Kelly has never come off as especially patriotic. Will that change in the coming years?
The formula isn't complicated – if you’re a world sporting organisation, there’s a simple way to attract more eyes to your sport in a crowded marketplace, and that’s to frame it as a competition between teams and countries, not individuals. That way people are drawn in not by the sport itself, but by the desire to support their nation. It's the same way you all sudden care for your country's Curling squad and the 400-metre sprint when the Olympics roll around
Surfers surf for their country (or island, in the case of our Hawaiian friends). It matters more now than it ever did.
Which brings us to two important analyses depicting the performance of the top four surfing entities over the past twenty years: Australia, Brazil, USA and Hawaii. Neither tell a great story for Australia and both share the same theme: Australian performances are heading south.
First, let’s discuss the numbers.
You can measure a nation’s surfing performance in a number of ways. This analysis took into account two main variables: the number of surfers each country had on the CT (the top 36 for men, and top 17 for women), and the end-of-year rankings of those surfers.
Take 2018 as an example. Medina scored 36 points for Brazil for finishing first. Then you work your way down the rankings to Miguel Pupo who scored one point for Brazil for finishing 36th. Get it? Similar for the women, Steph racked up 17 points for Australia for her win, with Macy Callaghan earning one point for Australia for finishing 17th. Then each nation’s points are tallied for each year stretching back to 1999.
Is it a perfect analysis? Of course not. But it does you a good indication of how each surfing heavyweight has performed over the past two decades.
Let’s start with the fellas.
NOTE: Hawaii and USA categorised separately
Take a look at the graph above and focus on 2018, specifically where the blue and green lines intersect. That’s the point where Brazil overtook Australia as the strongest men’s surfing nation on earth.
It's not 2003 anymore, a time when 20 Australians piled into the top 36. Six of these Aussies finished in the top 10 (headed up by Taj, Mick and Joel finishing third, fourth and fifth). With that many surfers on the CT hailing from one nation, odds are in the country's favor. And even regardless of final rankings, 20 out of the top 36 demonstrate a healthy stock of ability.
Compare it to the 10 Australians in 2018 who finished in the top 36, with only three of those finishing top 10. The differences between now and then are stark.
Now take a look at the green line. You’ll notice that since 2011, Brazil has risen rapidly. What was so special about 2011? Well, for one thing, Medina showed up. And that’s important because he’s finished top three for the past five years (take a moment to ponder the significance of that feat). Throw in consistent performances by de Souza, Toledo and of late, Ferreira, and you can see how we ended up here, and more importantly, where things are headed.
In terms of USA and Hawaii, well, there’s not much to report. USA has been weakening since the mid-noughties, whereas Hawaii has been steady. There’s not much to suggest those trends will change a great deal in the short term.
Now, for the women.
NOTE: Hawaii and USA categorised separately
Unfortunately (for Australians), things are getting a bit close for comfort on the women’s tour also. Australian performances have been on a general nosedive since 1999. To be fair, 1999 was a bit of a freak year, with 13 Australians filling the top 17 positions (think Layne Beachley, Serena Brooke, Trudy Todd, and co.). Unlikely to recur anytime soon, if ever.
The other story is the USA. It spent a good decade in surfing’s wilderness, before finding some form in 2011. Since then, the US has seen an uptick. If the likes of Lakey Peterson, Courtney Conlogue (let’s not forget she missed four events in 2018 due to injury) and Caroline Marks can push north in the rankings, which is likely, then that makes life uncomfortable for Oz. A lot rides on Steph dominating again, Sally improving and Tyler bouncing back using her wildcard. A big ask.
So what does all this mean? Not much. A lot. Depends who you are. But the results are clear: Australian surfing performance is trending down. And the fact it is occurring for both men and women, well, maybe there’s a deeper story in that.