Chaos of Champions: The “sport” of stand up paddling now has 22 world titles and it’s getting ridiculous

 

“What did you get on Halloween?”

– “15 gummy bears, three chocolate bars and a couple of SUP world titles.”

“Ooh, I’ll trade you half a pack of M&Ms for your world titles!”

– “Nah, you can have ’em. I’m sick of world titles anyway.”
 

And just like to kids on Halloween, it appears the world titles of SUP have been handed out like candy this year.

By my count, there were 44 individual “world titles” awarded this season — 22 for men and 22 for women.

Even if we ignore the confusing number of junior, master and surfing world titles (which would be generous), we’re still left with at least 18 top-level trophies — six from each of the “Three Acronyms” (ISA, ICF, APP). Several athletes won multiple, which means we “only” have 12 different world champions.

12 world champions…

How the hell do we promote a sport that has 12 world champions in a single year? How do we market a sport that has no clear winner, no clear leadership and no clear direction? How do we explain the “sport” of stand up paddleboarding to the wider sporting world? How do we even explain it to ourselves?

No single “world title” was particularly authoritative, either, with no single race scoring above 55% on the old Elite Race Index in season 2019. The Battle of the Paddle (which never bothered with titles but was always the undisputed “decider”) averaged 92%.

THE “CHAOS OF CHAMPIONS”

I don’t wish to diminish the dozen (or more) paddlers who won a world title this year. Some of these “world champions” are some of my best friends in the sport, and all of these paddlers have my utmost respect as athletes. The last thing I’ll do is criticise them.

Nor is this a rant against the selfish powers-that-be and their misguided, Game of Thrones-style paddletics (Game of Paddles, anyone?). Blaming them would be too easy. That would be the lazy path.

Truth is, it’s all my fault.

…or rather, it’s our fault.

We’re all in this together, right? We’re a “community,” as we so often claim. If that’s the case, it’s our collective responsibility to sail this ship we call SUP. We can’t just stand on the shore and throw stones at the people who have the courage to stand up and at least try something, even if we believe those people are misguided at best or politically-motivated at worst.

If we don’t like the direction that “our” sport is going in, we have to change it.

It’s quite clear the “Three Acronyms” (ISA, APP, ICF) are doing the best they can. It’s also quite clear they’re doing it for largely selfish reasons, but at least they’re trying. And they’ve been trying for years, so we’re clearly looking in the wrong direction if we’re looking at any them for leadership.

A FLAWED SYSTEM?

It’s safe to say that a sport is flawed if it has at least a dozen “world champions” in a single year.

The fact that two acronyms are in bed together (the ISA owns 10% of the APP) yet still managed to award conflicting world titles within the space of just seven days highlights how dysfunctional our system is. And then the APP, which so desperately wants to award the “one true world title” went and handed out multiple titles of its own within the space of just 24 hours.

This “chaos of champions” is confusing.

It’s also one of the main reasons we reset The Paddle League this year and spent most of 2019 treading water rather than trying to race ahead. Last year we awarded world titles as well, which I believe were quite accurate but simply added to the noise and confusion. We tried, but we were part of the problem. (We also got too distracted from our primary mission of supporting the grassroots.)

Through my combined work with SUP Racer and The Paddle League, which has given me a large voice in our community over the past eight years, I once believed we could unify the existing sport of stand up paddling. But I now believe that’s a fool’s errand. Why try to fix something that’s so fundamentally flawed?

As the wise Buckminster Fuller once said:

“You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.”

We need a new model for SUP.

WE NEED A NEW SYSTEM

Hindsight is a wonderful thing: The sport of stand up paddling has been so blind in its quest to emulate pro surfing (or worse, pro windsurfing) that we never stepped back and asked what are now seemingly-obvious questions, such as “Does that path make sense for our sport?” and “Do we even need ‘world titles’ to begin with?”

Sure, world titles sound sexy, and they look great on a board brand’s marketing poster or an athlete’s Instagram bio. But even if we were unified, would a single “world title” do much good for our sport?

Over the past decade, world titles haven’t helped create a healthy sport. They haven’t helped create a base. There’s no clear pathway, no clear direction, no clear point. Nor have world titles helped the industry grow or helped SUP sustain any mainstream exposure.

Perhaps one day it’ll make more sense to have these shiny trophies in SUP, but so far the biggest contribution “world titles” have made to our sport seems to be confusion.

Most sports don’t actually have world titles — it’s very much a surfing/windsurfing influence — and I believe the structure of our sport shares far more with golf and tennis than pro surfing (that is, a loose collection of events bound by rankings rather than a set tour). Nobody knows who won the world title in tennis this year because there wasn’t one. Tennis doesn’t bother handing out hollow trophies, it simply has the “majors” and the world number one. It’s easy to market and even easier to follow.

Hindsight also tells us we’ve been far too distracted by the Olympic saga and a focus on “elite” racing in general. I don’t think we need the Olympics. It might be nice one day (when we’re ready) but for now I believe it’s largely irrelevant.

I believe we do need elite racing and elite athletes — “aspiration” is a powerful thing in any sport, and the beauty of SUP is that both first timers and the world’s finest are essentially doing the same thing. The beauty of SUP is that it could and should be connected all the way from the grassroots to the world number one. Elite racing is the little peak on top of our pyramid, but it’s hard to justify having that peak if it isn’t connected to the rest of the structure — you don’t build a house starting with the roof.

SO MANY POSITIVES, SO MANY POSSIBILITIES

Fortunately we already have a wide base, we just need to organise it. What our sport needs is to be better connected.

Because the thing is, our sport is actually thriving away from world of paddletics. We’re in a new golden age and we don’t even realise it.

The GlaGla Race will get 600 people on the water in the middle of winter next month. The Corinth Canal in Greece welcomed the same amount a few months ago. The 11 City Tour went to Thailand and kickstarted an exciting new age of SUP adventure. The Midwest Paddle League was a breath of fresh air this year. China, and Asia in general, remains largely untapped.

There are so many positives, so much potential, such a magnitude of paddlers still stoked just to get on the water. There are many reasons to be frustrated, but there’s such a plethora of possibilities that I’m almost blinded by the sheer volume of opportunities in our sport right now.

Ironically, most of the negative issues in the world of SUP stem from those trying to force the term “world” into SUP in the first place. World titles this, world champions that. World governing bodies here, “world’s best paddlers” there. It’s time to look beyond the smoke & mirrors, the over-inflated hype and the complete disconnect from reality that’s often being promoted.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe there’s more to sport than money, power and ego-driven politics.

SO WHAT’S NEXT?

If we, the community, are to blame for perpetuating this mess, how can we fix it?

For one, I think we need to stop looking for definitive answers and searching for absolute leaders. We – the community – we are the leaders, and we need to embrace that role. We need to open our minds and start enjoying the ride instead of looking for goals that will never be reached. The old cliche of “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” rings true.

We’re never going to have an end-game in our sport. There will be no zenith of SUP history, no utopian point in time that’s all rainbows & unicorns where everyone in the sport gets along. The sport of stand up paddling will always be evolving — we don’t need to reach some mythical high-water mark to have a healthy sport, we just need to have a healthy journey.

But perhaps that’s a little too philosophical…

What we really need to do is support the foundations of our sport.

We need to support our local events, our grassroots events, our junior events. The Gorges. The GlaGlas. The Chattajacks. We need to promote our paddle clubs and our regional leagues, our core brands and our courageous athletes. We need to experiment with new race formats and new ideas about what “SUP racing” even means. We do need to support the events that are trying to elevate our sport into the mainstream, and we also need to let go when things aren’t working.

And as fans (and media), we need to be more vocal. We need to be more involved.

So as much as I’d love to spend the rest of my paddling days floating down a long river in Canada or sipping fresh coconuts on a beach in Thailand, my goal for 2020 is to be more involved in the sport I love.

For my part, I’ll be working on three core projects that I hope will have a meaningful impact.

1. PADDLECAST

SUP Racer is going all-in with live streaming and podcasts in 2020 to help promote, share and connect our sport.

In addition to my usual event live streams (GlaGla in January and the 12 Towers in March are the first two), I’m planning to start a weekly live news show to highlight what’s happening around the paddling world.

It’s also my goal to be more honest with you next year. Or perhaps “transparent” is a better word for it — I aim to share more of what’s really happening in the sport. More open discussions and less closed-door whispers. Because it seems that so many big problems arise simply because we don’t talk about the little ones.

I’m also aiming for 52 podcast episodes in 2020. Every week I’ll share a couple of hours with a paddling personality to dig deeper into why we paddle, what we can do about the big issues and how we can keep our sport progressing. Or perhaps we’ll just share some cool stories from behind-the-scenes 😉

You’ll be able to watch every podcast episode live or listen to it later. We’re building a podcast/livestreaming studio at the ONE Ocean Sports warehouse in Australia to be the new SUP Racer HQ, and I can’t wait to share what we’re creating in there.

2. SUP RACER WORLD RANKINGS

Better late than never, right?

After a near season-long hiatus and following many inquisitive messages, the original SUP world rankings are returning. But they’ll have a new look…

I created the SUP Racer World Rankings in 2013 because the sport was so fragmented back then. There was no clear “number one” paddler, while most of the standalone events had no connection to the rest of the international SUP community. And it seems that summary is even more relevant today.

But after publishing the definitive SUP world rankings every year for the past half a decade, I went AWOL in 2019 as I lost interest and grew apathetic. I let the community down. The original SUP world rankings are my baby, something I’ve been very proud to build and share, but I almost gave up on my baby this year. Almost…

It was only last week, when I was drafting the article above, that I thought about how much I want and perhaps need to be involved.

So I’ve spent the past 11 days bunkered down in a rusty little $7-a-night shack on distant a beach in Thailand staring at a complex set of spreadsheets that list row after row after row of athletes, events and results. This adds to the month I spent building (but never releasing) the “New Race Index” – the new foundation of the SUP world rankings – earlier in the year.

This whole system involves a ridiculously complicated matrix of numbers and algorithms, but it produces something very simple for you: The leaderboard of the world’s top-performing paddlers. All 3,187 of them.

Yes: 3,187 paddlers.

That’s how many paddlers are included in the new, unified world rankings of stand up paddling. Because I believe every paddler in the world who loves to race — whether you’re an average joe or seasoned pro — deserves to feel like they’re part of this sport. To feel connected.

This newest version of the original SUP world rankings system will independently recognise 100+ events around the world including results from both open and elite races. It carries the same founding philosophy from 2013 — to connect the sport and produce a legit world number one — but comes with some cool upgrades.

The first upgrade is extending the leaderboards from the “Top 100” to the “Top 3000 and beyond,” while the second upgrade is the ‘New Race Index’ — an entirely new algorithm for ranking and rewarding SUP events based on mass participation, junior opportunities, media exposure and quality of an event in general (key criteria that create a healthy sport) in addition to the old singular measure of elite participation.

This new system will recognise the “grassroots” and “mass participation” events that the old elite-only system unfortunately ignored (the GlaGlas, the Chattajacks, etc). The New Race Index will allow thousands more paddlers to feel connected, while I’ve also tweaked the system to include more than 100 events (the old SUP world rankings only included about 30).

And unlike last year, when the SUP Racer World Rankings became the exclusive domain of The Paddle League, I’m bringing them back to supracer.com and connecting results from a dozen different leagues, tours and federation – just like I did from 2013 to 2017 – which will hopefully elevate the world rankings above any sort of partisan paddletics and keep them authentic, independent and very much neutral.

The Paddle League, the Alpine Lakes Tour, the EuroTour, the Asia SUP Tour, the Midwest Paddle League, the APP Tour, ISA events, the ICF world championships plus a few dozen “standalone” races, community events and various national titles will all be supported by the SUP Racer World Rankings.

More than 3,000 paddlers and 115 events are included this year, and my goal for 2020 is to recognise 200+ events and 5000+ paddlers. I want a weekend warrior in Wisconsin to be able to see their name on the same leaderboard as Connor, Sonni and Boothy. I want this amazing community to be a connected community.

I’m also very determined to see the SUP world rankings return to weekly scheduled updates next year, but considering each update takes about 15 hours it might not always be ready by 9am Monday.

(I’m also building an algorithm to recognise the top junior and masters paddlers, however that might have to wait until 2020 because these 115 results sheets are so fragmented and often lack age divisions.)

Maintaining the SUP world rankings involves a lot of work and a lot of spreadsheets. But I’m a total stats geek. I love it. And I’m very excited to be bringing my baby back home after almost a full season out in the cold.

This won’t solve the “chaos of champions,” but I think it’ll help connect the pyramid and clean up the sport a little. I won’t be claiming “world titles” or “world champions” or any other buzz-words, just a simple “world number one” for the top man and woman in our sport.

My goal for relaunching the SUP Racer World Rankings is 24 December. Merry Xmas!

(I’ll also be revealing a special “Top 10 Paddlers of the Decade” based on seven years of historical world rankings data, which is something I REALLY enjoyed putting together.)

3. THE PADDLE LEAGUE 2020

The Paddle League needs a serious pivot, that much is clear. The original vision of a unified world tour/world title no longer makes sense, and The League isn’t giving the sport nearly as much value as it could. Season 2019 was our year of treading water. I certainly didn’t give up on it, but without a clear mission I wasn’t as passionate about The Paddle League as I could be.

So beginning on the 1st of January, The Paddle League is being relaunched with a new mission and new format to help give the sport more stability and connectivity.

You’ll hear a lot more about this before the end of the year (including a revealing podcast about the true origins of The Paddle League with my co-founder Kelly Margetts) but the short answer is that The Paddle League is going open source in the future.

We aim to launch or support existing tours in a dozen regions while also building up our own specialty leagues (such as The Ultra Paddle League) that shine a light on some of the most interesting and story-rich parts of our sport.

Beyond this, we’re going to create an open-source template and points system that will make it easy for anyone to setup their own regional paddle league — no matter whether it’s for a local club or national race series. In the future, we want to see hundreds of independent leagues around the world all connected to create a healthy foundation for our sport.

It was always our mission for The Paddle League to act as a platform – a solid base; a rising tide that lifts all boats – not a federation that tries to take over. And this new format honours that original vision. We won’t be adding to the “chaos of champions” — The Paddle League will instead be focusing on supporting the regions (and the niches) that we believe can help connect and grow our sport.

The Paddle League will produce regional leaderboards (eg. for The Ultra Paddle League and the Alpine Lakes Tour rankings) that will officially feed into the unified SUP Racer World Rankings along with unofficial partners such as the EuroTour and APP.

“The Paddle League 2020” starts rolling out on 1 January, while the new “unified” World Rankings will relaunch here on SUP Racer next week.

I’m being careful not to promise too much, but I’m pretty damn excited about season 2020!

In the meantime, leave a comment and share what you’re excited about as we head into the new decade. Which races are you really looking forward to? Who are the paddlers you’ll be cheering loudest for? And what are the topics you’re most fired up about?!

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