The Challenger Series: A look at the brand new pro surfing qualification system

The Challenger Series is of course the new way to make dreams come true. Photo: WSL

With the launch of the Boost Mobile Gold Coast Pro at Snapper Rocks, we thought it was prudent to investigate everything you need to know, and what you don’t, about the new surf qualification system, and maybe help you better understand the Challenger Series of the World Surf League.

First, the schedule: there are eight events in the men’s and women’s Challenger Series (CS). The first starts at Snapper, followed by Manly, Ballito, Huntington Beach, Ericeira, Hossegor, Saquarema and Haleiwa.

Each Challenger Series event will feature 96 men and 64 women. All CT surfers who started the year, so 34 men and 16 women were allocated a place for each CS event. However, not everyone will surf. At Snapper, 19 of the 32 male CT surfers are competing. For women, it’s 13 out of 16.

Originally, CT surfers were contractually obligated to surf in a minimum of two CS events. Surfers who rebelled on the revamped tour at Bells saw “event congestion” as one of their problems. We know the rebellion was quickly put down with an ELO steel-toed boot. However, a source tells me that one of the very few concessions surfers got was that the requirement was dropped to only surf one CS event. This event must be surfed in their area.

If we use Kelly Slater as an example, and why not, while he surfs at Snapper, he is still contractually obligated to surf in a North American Challenger Series event. Since there is only one, the Vans US Open, we can assume that he will put on the jacket in Huntington.

For Ethan Ewing, who is not on the ground for the Gold Coast, he will now have to surf in Manly. Why the Queenslander chose the Sydney beachbreak over empty Snapper surfing is a mystery.

The rest of the field

With all CT surfers earning a spot, that leaves 58 men and 43 women who are allocated by WSL regions. These are based on the region’s qualifying series standings. For the United States, there are veterans like Evan Geiselman and Michael Dunphy who have been granted VIP access. Wonderful carnations like Caitlin Simmers and Kirra Pinkerton also graduated through the Qualifying Series.

However, with so many CT surfers unlikely to take their allocated spots, there will be a lot more land available on the field. Known as CT replacement places, these will be allocated by Tours and Competitions, aka WSL HQ. The criteria for these selections are not too clear. You’d assume regional QS rankings will inform some of the decisions, though it could also be a mix of voodoo, personal preferences, Instagram followers, and which quadrant Jupiter is currently riding in.

The Challenger Series: A look at the brand new pro surfing qualification system

Sierra Kerr is just one wild card that will make the Challenger Series interesting. Photo: WSL

Wildcards

Each CS event set aside four male and four female wild cards. For the Snapper event, Julian Wilson and Ace Buchan are two of the wildcards. Not bad editions in the field; you’ll recall the pair made the final in the Kirra epic at CT in 2018.

On the women’s side, Sierra Kerr, easily the most exciting prospect in the world, takes the start. Given her talent and knowledge of Superbank, she could easily cause major structural damage.

The large number of Wildcard spots, if we include CT replacements, adds random dynamics to the Challenger Series. Choosing from retired icons, next-level groms, or hometown heroes, each draw could contain explosive landmines. ELO responded to the surfer’s concerns at Bells by saying the tour revamp is all about developing narratives, which he says will make money. A good deal of CS storytelling could come in this space.

The format

Another advantage of the Challenger series is the simplicity of the format. All surfers start on the first lap; The men in the 96th finals, the women in the 64th finals. There are four surfers in each heat, two of which pass.

Unlike CT, there is no losers’ round. It’s brutal, and you might feel for a surfer who traveled from Lisbon to Snapper and got knocked out in the first 25 minutes, needing a 4.5 to go from second to third. However, this means that competitive tension hits hard from the get-go. Two-man heats start from the round of 16 for both men and women.

For the spectators, four surfers in the water add to the spectacle. Watching unridden waves at Snapper could be a frustrating experience. And even if heavyweights like John John are absent, the volume of waves flown makes the webcast easier to watch. It should be something to see as we enter a new era of competitive qualifying.

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