Womens world champion Tyler Wright being greeted by young crowds after a heat at the 2017 Australian Open in Manly. Photograph: Jonny Weeks for the Guardian
The WSL makes money off the top end to support the lower end, and the lower end acts as a feeder system [to the Tour], Hayden-Smith explains. Ethan Ewing is a perfect example. This time last year he won the contest in Burleigh and won a couple of pro juniors, but before that no one had really heard of him.
He then qualified for the Championship Tour at 18 years old. No Australian has done that since Taj Burrow 20 years ago.
However the WSL was rocked at the start of this month by the withdrawal of Samsung, its principal sponsor. That news followed the resignation of Paul Speaker as the WSLs CEO in January, albeit a move Speaker, also the leagues co-owner, had long envisaged.
A WSL spokesperson said: We certainly enjoyed our partnership with Samsung, but the sport enjoys a number of commercial partners so we very much look forward to having a great year and keep building the sports revenue model in future years. I think were fairly convinced that this season will go without a 2017 title sponsor for the Championship Tour. Were on the eve of the start of the season but weve had a number of really, really exciting conversations with potential partners for future years.
Paul Speaker is part of the ownership group and acquisitional team. He began the 2013 transitional year [when the Association of Surfing Professionals became the WSL] as the company CEO with the intent to transition out of that role. There was a lot happening in the sport for those first years. He stuck around, stewarded the sport to its current position and hes stepped out of that role to spend more time with his family but remains part of the ownership team.
Fans and journalists have been critical of the WSL. Tracks magazine wrote that in the WSLs infancy competitive surfing had lost some of its spontaneity, fun and humour, while supporters and elite surfers continue to rail against the scoring system amid suggestions of favouritism and inconsistency.
For those who wish surfing would remain a rebellious, backyard kinda sport to borrow a line from the podcast Aint That Swell accusations persist that the sport is losing its soul. Hayden-Smith counters: When you look at who we are and what we do, we are the rebellious, different kinda people when you compare us to the golf players and the tennis players.
Were going out in the ocean where theres sharks, theres giant ocean waves, theres sharp reefs its a battlefield.
Owen Wright got concussed [last year] and nearly drowned. No matter how polished we get were still going to be edgy.
More positively, the WSL has displayed a bold commitment to protecting the marine environment through its philanthropic arm, Pure, which last year provided $1.5m to scientific research into ocean health and ecosystems, ocean acidification, sea-level rise and climate change.
Surfing is unique in that its playing field is a living ecosystem, says Jessi Miley-Dyer, womens commissioner of the WSL. As surfers, it is incumbent upon us to do what we can to protect the oceans.
Chess and chequers
WSL Tour features 11 venues for the men, 10 for the women. Three of them are in Australia. The season begins this week at Snapper Rocks on the Gold Coast (1425 March), followed by Margaret River in Western Australia , then Bells Beach in Victoria, before moving overseas. The tour rolls on to Rio, Fiji, South Africa, Tahiti, California, the south of France and Portugal, with the final event at Pipeline in Hawaii in December.
With 10,000 points and US$100,000 on offer to the winner of each Tour event, surfers know that one victory in a season should guarantee them a spot on the Tour the following year.
Or at least that was the case until last year when Keanu Asing became the first surfer to win an event (at Hossegor in France, where he defeated the likes of John John Florence, Kelly Slater and Gabriel Medina) and be relegated in the same season. His mistake was inconsistency.
Being on the Tour was a dream come true, says Asing, with conflicting pride and regret. Youre competing at the highest level, surfing against your heroes. You have to be on point, no flaws, because the other competitors there will capitalise on your mistakes.
It hurt me a lot [to be relegated]. Ask anyone whos around me: my mom, my dad, my fiance, my coach. I worked so hard to get to that point, so much sacrifice and money and energy getting there. To have it slip through my fingers is really tough. But now its like How do I come back?
My love for competing and getting good scores and making heats and winning contests is still there, thats why I do this. Its addictive.