Settle down, settle down. The 2016 CT will return to Jeffreys Bay, South Africa, following the Final-heard-round-the-world between Mick Fanning, Julian Wilson and a juvenile Great White shark. Before we jump down the WSL's collective throat about "marketing/profit over athlete safety," let's take a quick step back and analyze this universe.
Jeffreys Bay has been a part of professional surfing since Marc Occhilupo won its inaugural event in 1984; between J-Bay and Durban, a total of 43 contests have been held since 1976. South Africa is arguably just as much a part of surfing as Australia, and Jeffreys deserves it's place on the tour, absolutely.
That's one item out of the way, no use in arguing there. The second debate that seems to be emerging is that this is a marketing campaign, poised to set WSL records in viewership. This would be fine, of course, if it didn't carry an underlying notion that surfer safety is somehow being sacrificed, and we'll get to that. The fact that this could possibly be the most watched event in professional surfing history certainly has the industry drooling over potential ratings; unfortunately, there are also those who seemingly exist to criticize the World Surf League at every turn. These will be the voices you hear from now until the final horn of the 2016 J-Bay Open, but our question is why? If we take "surfer safety" out of this particular equation (which we will), why is the organization repudiated for catching a lucky marketing break? (We call the incident a lucky break because 1) Mick Fanning came out a very unhurt, very popular guy and 2) Surfing and the WSL made simultaneous news in every corner of the world, which, to our knowledge, has never happened). Surf culture is a business, and this doesn't always sit well with the soul-surfers who might prefer a more non-profit approach. Given a choice, though, we'll gladly take things as they are today and the direction competitive surfing is headed. Live streaming quality is at its all-time best, production value is being pushed every month and overall content is gaining strength and momentum. Sure, you have to watch the same commercial a thousand times, but that's the trade-off: You want the highest quality surf coverage available and you're getting it. Free.
Imagine the alternate universe where television networks hold licensing and distribution rights for surfing telecasts. Blackout restrictions haunt your mobile stream because you're in ABC's market and didn't buy the $99 Season Package. Or maybe you got the Season Package, but guess what? There are still commercials. Heading down to Trestles for the Hurley Pro? Hope you bought your 3-day pass for $65/day on Ticketmaster. And don't even think about going to the Billabong Pipe Masters, corporations have booked it out for executive suites and single-tickets are well over the $1,000 mark.
This Thanksgiving, be thankful that surfing is the way it is.
As for shark concerns at the 2016 J-Bay Open, WSL Commissioner Kieren Perrow released the following statement: "Athlete safety is a top priority for the league. We have been in constant discussions with our athletes, event organizers and administrators regarding the future of this event.
"The WSL has made significant investments in the areas of surveillance and response for all current and future Tour spots, and we are currently working with a number of firms specializing in mitigation technology that focus on both athlete safety and the safety of the marine environment."
Perrow continued: "The strides we're making in the areas of surveillance and response are significant, but there presently exists no technology that has been proven to be 100 percent effective. Our athletes are aware of this, as they have always been."
What are the significant investments? We'll have to wait to find out, but this all has an air of fluff about it. That's OK, because Perrow's statement is politically tongue-in-cheek; within 114 words he discusses advancements in surveillance while almost simultaneously admitting that no solution will be 100%. The WSL shouldn't have to go through any of these hoops, but they obviously expect some of the same criticism we see heading their way as well. Still, the best defense against a shark encounter is sheer statistics. Even at Jeffreys Bay, largely considered to be especially "sharky," surfers are still never in significant danger. Since 1976 there have only been 5 legitimate, confirmed shark attacks at J-Bay resulting in a single fatality in 2013 (swimmer, not a surfer). According to SharkAttackData.com, other locations along South Africa's shores have had different encounter rates, with KwaZulu-Natal (Durban and surrounding) showing most action since 1900 (191 unprovoked attacks, 48 fatal). The contest isn't at Durban anymore, but it wouldn't be a danger there either (in 25 years on Tour, not a single shark encounter has been recorded at a Durban event). Check out this infographic with some more stats (click to enlarge):
Western Cape (161 unprovoked attacks, 32 fatal) - including Cape Town - and Eastern Cape (142 unprovoked attacks, 23 fatal) - including East London make up a good bulk of the rest. Jeffreys Bay has a much, much lower shark encounter rate than surrounding locations.
There's also the population bias, meaning that more attacks in certain areas may have resulted simply due to more people in the water. We checked it out and it seems to be confirmed - here are some cities mentioned in the report and their populations: Cape Town - 3.43M; Durban - 2.79M; Port Elizabeth - 876K; Jeffreys Bay - 27K.
Regardless of how these numbers correlate, the bottom line here is this: Water-sport culture is very popular in South Africa. There are constantly people in the ocean, yet you can count by hand the number of attacks in the last 116 years. The probability that we will ever see something like the 2015 J-Bay Open Final ever again is nearly 0 - and that's completely independent of any WSL preventative measures (whatever gimmicky scented leash or electric pad that may be). So no, there is no safety concern for the surfers when they enter the water at Jeffreys or any other Tour location.
If there are any fans who think otherwise, why don't we eliminate other Tour locations where surfers have actually been hurt or killed? Pipeline has far more injuries and fatalities just from the surf and reef. Fiji? Teahupo'o? All statistically more dangerous. So let's call it fair and tip our cap to the CT elite who recognize the majesty of Jeffreys Bay, while constantly respecting the ocean.
Now... Who will pony up and sponsor what will be the most streamed event in surfing history? We've put our humble bid in for Surf-Stats, and we'll let you know how that goes...