Where The Wildcards Are

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)
Swellnet Dispatch

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.


simba's picture
simba's picture
simba Monday, 16 Apr 2018 at 4:45pm

ah the 70s those were the dayz.........................

memlasurf's picture
memlasurf's picture
memlasurf Monday, 16 Apr 2018 at 9:58pm

Yes checked that women out never heard of her. Playboy July 1975, she was curvaceous, loved get her kit off and could actually surf. I wonder if Gary G has fond memories!

Nick Bone's picture
Nick Bone's picture
Nick Bone Monday, 16 Apr 2018 at 5:59pm

Is Mikey Wright actually a bad ass or just a image he would too project? Maybe its cause St. Owen is his big bro that it throws me off a little bit.

Just a wondering thought in my head written out aloud on the internet..

quokka's picture
quokka's picture
quokka Monday, 16 Apr 2018 at 10:15pm
simba's picture
simba's picture
simba Monday, 16 Apr 2018 at 6:28pm

na hes o.k ,he was born without joints in his finger so its permanently raised like that.....hows that for a gimick to show potential sponsors......

crg's picture
crg's picture
crg Monday, 16 Apr 2018 at 8:29pm

I remember the Breaka Burleigh Pro QS event running a similar comp where you had a chance to win a spot in the comp when you bought a carton of milk.
Not sure of it was rigged but it was won by none other than Nicky Wood. I think he even made a few heats.

lost's picture
lost's picture
lost Monday, 16 Apr 2018 at 9:42pm

Ah yes the Rip Curl bro where Adam Robertson should have won. Three barrels in one wave at a wave that docent often barrel. Yep lets open that can of worms again *grins*

Chipper's picture
Chipper's picture
Chipper Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 10:40am

Mikey may be a gifted surfer..... doesn't make him a decent bloke in the line up..... thanks for the vid Quokka!

prawnhead's picture
prawnhead's picture
prawnhead Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 10:45am
stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 11:49am

Great effort but not quite a wildcard. The most popular comp format up until '92 - and the one used in the 1980 Stubbies - is 14 trials winners (of which Harris was one) plus two wildcards go up against the Top 16.

Other winning triallists include Joe Engel at Bells, Nicky Wood at Bells, Ricardo Tatui at the Quiksilver Surfmasters, and Tom Curren for a whole season in 1991.

After '92, when the tour split, a triallist could still compete though they usually took one of the alotted wildcards. There was also just one per comp and not a whole bunch of them.

CryptoKnight's picture
CryptoKnight's picture
CryptoKnight Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 2:39pm

Here’s a very positive article about surfing wildcards. It’s not like official officials in surfing to hide the truth! Where’s kango when you need him!


btheodore's picture
btheodore's picture
btheodore Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 3:19pm

Nicky Wood, bells beach. Was he a young wild card??

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 3:27pm

Triallist. He surfed through the trials, made the main event, then won it.

See full explanation above.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 3:30pm

Nine years ago today Robo, as a wildcard, almost rung the bell, finishing second to Parko.


lost's picture
lost's picture
lost Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 8:27pm

yep thats the one. where Robbo clearly should have won. pity there is no footage of his poorly scored three cover ups in one wave - at winki !

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 8:34pm

Nah, final for 2009 was at Bells. It was 2011 when Robo was knocked out at Winki. Rd 2 against Jordy.

Tough call but variety of maneuvers has always been central to the criteria.

lost's picture
lost's picture
lost Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 8:39pm

ah yes, my mistake. Accept the manoeuvres argument except when there is barrels on offer then barrels always win. I know what you are going to say - sure yes for Fiji and Tahiti but not Bells (or Winki) but as far as I know there is not a different rule book for each event.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 8:46pm

"but as far as I know there is not a different rule book for each event."

No, but there's absolutely no secret to the fact judges give weight to certain moves depending on the spot, and Bells/Winki are places where open-faced moves get greater value.

lost's picture
lost's picture
lost Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 9:31pm

makes me wonder what the unwritten rule will be at the wave pool and if there is to be different rules for different events then have actual written different rules for different event !

truebluebasher's picture
truebluebasher's picture
truebluebasher Saturday, 5 Oct 2019 at 3:20pm

Only 2 Olympic Wild Cards for 4 'current' WSL surfers

2019 WSL came under fire for favouritism.
2019 WSL choice failed the test.
WSL are in the frame come Olympic Year not to repeat mistake!

Injured Pros
J J Florence
Mickey Wright
Leo Fiovaranti
Adriano De Souza

Red Hot Pros on tender hooks.
Owen Wright
Gabriel Medina

WSL will want to avoid heavy Hawaiian Surf.
One more Injured Wild Card could wipeout USA #1 Dream Team.
The end of the Olympics as we know it, before they even begin.
1st Surfing Gold Medal defaulted to least injured weekend soup hack!

Try picking 2 from that Red Hot list whilst balancing politics of National Seeding?
Consider rating position verse healing time as to ISA or Pan'...
Not to mention Sponsorship seeding in the other ear + WSL [f] Likes.
Click on the WSL Health Monitor to check on your Pro's vitals [ Press Like ]

Forgotten red hot game players standing down should National Hero get past GO!

WSL Cup is no more than a scoop for Olympic sized Sundae.