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Did you notice WSL surfers wearing watches last season? Here’s what they’re up to

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How the WSL and Apple Watch collab could re-shape surfing… and sport more broadly.

Professional surfers are quintessentially cool. Long hair, relaxed aura and an uncanny ability to mesmerically dance across water like dolphins.

They always seem care-free, devoted only to the church of wave-catching, absent of the materialistic obsessions shaping much of professional sports.

However, in 2023, professional surfing’s governing body the World Surf League announced the sport would be entering a new, technological age; a partnership with Apple Watch that sees surfers utilise the accessory in competition.

It’s been both celebrated and maligned. So in case you missed it, here’s some of the context and a bit about the impact it’s having on the sport.

The WSL and Apple Watch’s partnership

Per the WSL’s press release announcing the arrangement, it’s seen Apple Watch integrated as ‘the official wearable equipment of the WSL.’

Essentially, that means the world’s best surfers must wear an Apple Watch as they elegantly glide across the waves in competition.

For Apple, the partnership represents a significant milestone; it’s the first time a watch is official competitor equipment in a professional sporting environment.

How does it work?

Throughout the WSL’s Championship Tour (CT) season, when surfing’s cream of the crop battle for glory, athletes will be able to access the tailor-made WSL Surfer app on the Apple Watch Series 8 and Apple Watch Ultra. 

This means that instead of straining to hear updates from the shore over crashing waves and raucous crowds, surfers will be receive the necessary information they need by flicking a glance at their wrist.

The watches will provide WSL athletes with things like live scoring updates, wave priority, and time in the heat.

wsl
Filipe Toledo & Caroline Marks won the 2023 WSL world titles.

Former WSL CEO, Erik Logan, explained how the “unique capabilities, ease of use, and incredible water resistance of Apple Watch make it the ideal solution to support our surfers competing in the extreme conditions of our worldwide tour.”

Much in the same way an NFL quarterback receives plays from their coach in real time, or a Formula 1 driver receives race updates from their engineer as they fly around a track, Logan noted ‘surfers need critical information while they compete.’

ALSO READ: A user-friendly 2024 pro surfing Guide

Unlike most sports, environmental conditions can significantly impact crucial lines of communication, potentially wiping them out and causing chaos and having on the water, and scoring table.

“A surfer could be talking to another surfer in the lineup, they could be underwater, they could be in a wind swell, there could be water splashing and they may not be able to hear it [an announcement],” Logan said.

He stressed his belief the partnership will mean there is higher quality surfing from beginning to end of heats.

“We’re gonna see better quality surfing toward the end of the heat in terms of decision-making based upon better data.”

Surely surfers are happy about this?

Errrr…. some are, some aren’t. There is no universal attitude toward the partnership.

Italo Ferreira, 2019 WSL Champion and Olympic Gold medallist, heralded the wearables inclusion in professional surfing, particularly in how they enhance communication between surfer and shore.

“The noise of the wind and the waves can sometimes make it impossible to hear the announcers while competing, and that means you miss crucial information,” he said. 

“When it’s all on the line, scoring and priority are critical,” Ferreira noted. 

“Not needing to rely on seeing the beach or hearing the announcers makes a huge difference and prevents guesswork.”

However, the Brazilian’s affinity to the watches is not widely held. Italian surfer, Leo Fioravanti, criticised the technology’s failures at its debut during the Billabong Pro Pipeline in February 2023.

“I just wanna say our watches weren’t working from start to finish, which is pretty heavy. We’re fighting for our careers, so I hope they figure it out.”

For his outburst, Fioravanti was allegedly fined $60,000. 

This is due to a reported fining system in place to ensure Apple Watches are adopted by surfers. Reportedly, this includes a $5,000 fine in the first instance of non-compliance, a $10,000 fine the second time round, and up to $50,000 for a third strike.

But surely the Roman wave riders’ complaints were just a symptom the partnerships teething pains during its debut event and not a sign of the wider professional surfing community’s attitudes?

Maybe, but that’s not stopped multiple world champion, Carissa Moore, from refusing to wear one as she competes. Or Kelly Slater, arguably the face of surfing, the Tony Hawk of the waves, continually throwing shade at the product.

If Kelly doesn’t love it, can anyone?

wsl 2024 calendar

However, Australian Isabella Nichols, who was involved in testing the WSL surfer app, labelled the partnership as ‘definitely game-changing.’

Although she conceded; “We’re [surfers] simple. Anything too overly complicated and things might get a bit blurry and a bit hard to comprehend.”

Nichols did stress “technology these days is advancing… why can’t we integrate it into sports and essentially make our lives easier as athletes?”

Is this arrangement a sporting trailblazer?

Right off the bat, let’s rule out similar partnerships occurring in any contact sport. See you later AFL, rugby league, rugby union and gridiron football particularly; the heavy collision nature of these sports leaves no room for a delicate screen on wrists.

Football and basketball are also unlikely to follow suit, given athletes in both sports already benefit from easy access to the necessary information they need for elite performances due to the proximity of coaching staff and size of screens highlighting scoring and time remaining. 

In certain individual sports, however, there may be scope for similar partnerships. Could Apple Watches benefit tennis stars? Maybe. Could they become Jon Ramm’s next caddy?

That all remains to be seen. In the meantime, watch this space.


Kyle Robbins
Kyle Robbins
Kyle is a senior sports writer and producer at Only Sports who lives and breathes sport, with a particular burning passion for everything soccer, rugby league, and cricket. You’ll most commonly find him getting overly hopeful about the Bulldogs and Chelsea’s prospects. Find Kyle on LinkedIn.

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