Where the wildcards are
Yesterday, during the second round of the Margaret River Pro, two wildcards upset the field. Mikey Wright knocked out Ace Buchan, while Kael Walsh, ranked 416 in the world, beat Wilko who's ranked 397 places ahead of him.
They've been around almost as long as professional surfing has existed, yet wildcards remain a contentious inclusion. Wildcards have been the flies in the ointment to many a CT surfer snuffing out world title dreams and requalification hopes, while providing the drama that viewers, not to mention contest promoters, long for.
Aside from injury wildcards, which are season long, the World Surf League issues two wildcards per event, one is usually offered to the winner of the trials event - in this case Kael Walsh - and one to the event sponsor who bequeath it to one of their top riders
As the Margaret River Pro has no event sponsor the second wildcard was chosen by the WSL Commissioner who gave it to the top ranked Australian on the QS - Mikey Wright.
Mikey Wright accepts his wildcard slot with grace
The wildcard concept seems simple enough: keep the locals happy and keep the sponsors happy, yet the original wildcard concept was borne out of an entirely different practical need.
Contest schedules look simple on paper yet the contest director is always one decision away from utter disaster. Small surf, pushy sponsors, and rowdy spectators are just some of the unexpected hassles they have to deal with. So are competitor no shows. Surfers get sick, they get injured, some even get hungover and can't get out of bed, so contest directors needed flexibility in the contest draw. The solution was ‘substitutes’.
Graham ‘Sid’ Cassidy spent 20 years dodging disaster while working as a contest director, including 7 years as an Executive Director of the ASP.
“Substitutes were part of the amateur competition framework going back to the late 60s,” says Sid. “They were a meaningful part of the action plan for the 1970 amateur world titles at Bells and Johanna. It gave the organisers wriggle room given they weren’t completely sure back then who would show up.”
Before long, ‘substitutes’ were themselves being substituted. For Australia’s first big professional contest, the 1974 Coca-Cola/2SM Surfabout, “wildcards” as Sid explains, “were both a must and a part of good governance.”
The contest directors somehow had to squeeze 34 candidates into just 24 slots. The challenge wasn’t just an operational one, it also presented a media risk if surfers who missed out poured some sour grapes into the mix. Good press was everything.
So wildcard slots were created, and they both increased viewer interest and mitigated bad press as candidates took comfort from thinking they had a chance to compete. “Real dollars, promotion, and publicity were on the line,” says Sid. “Getting the formula right was not just important, but a necessity for the sponsors.”
Sid was the event promoter for the 1976 Surfabout when Hawaiian Laura Blears-Ching was chosen to fill the wildcard slot and surf against an all male field. “The publicity was huge,” recalls Sid, “and it generated national and international interest.”
The interest was perhaps aided by Blears-Ching recent appearance in Playboy...
Laura Blears-Ching in Playboy, July, 1975
Coke masterminded another PR masterstroke when in 1991 they launched the Classic Wave Competition, the winner of which received a wildcard entry into the main event of the Coca-Cola Surf Classic at North Narrabeen. The winner was Allan Willis, a 32-year old brickie from Bundaberg who’d surfed twice in the last six months and was recovering from haemorrhoids.
Unsurprisngly, Willis lost his first round heat to Ross Clarke-Jones then retired to the VIP area for schooners. According to Tim Baker, Willis had “arrived with an esky full of fresh Bundaberg prawns as a gesture of gratitude to dispense to his hosts.”
When his hosts then gave him a new surfboard and cheque for $1,750, Willis couldn’t hide his glee. “I’m just stoked off my tits,” said Willis.
More great moments in wildcard history:
- At the 1997 Pipeline Masters, Michael Ho and Johnny Boy Gomes make history as the first wildcards to both reach the final of a CT event. JBG took the title.
- In 1999, Joel Parkinson won the MSF Jeffreys Bay Pro as an 18-year old wildcard.
- At Bells Beach in 2001 Mick Fanning wins the Rip Curl Pro as a 20-year old wildcard.
- Wildcard Jamie O’Brien wins the 2004 Pipeline Masters.
- As a 17-year old wildcard, Steph Gilmore wins the 2005 Roxy Pro Gold Coast, then in 2006 she wins the Beachley Classic, again as a wildcard.
- In 2008, wildcards Bruno Santos and Manoa Drollet make the finals of the Billabong Pro Tahiti. Santos takes the win.
- In 2009, Torquay local Adam Robertson makes the final of the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach.
- Caroline Marks became the youngest wildcard in CT history when she competed at the 2015 Swatch Trestles Pro as a 13-year old.
- In March 2018 Mikey Wright beats world champions John John Florence and Gabriel Medina in consecutive heats.