April 3, 2016
by Paul Jackson

SUP Racing Is Boring.

(…and here’s how to fix it)

ISA Stand Up Paddleboarding World Championship

The ISA Worlds: A great event, but could it be more exciting? Possibly… (photo: Ben Reed/ISA)

Boss Man’s note: This is a guest post by Paul ‘Jacko’ Jackson, one of the most experienced paddlers on the planet. Jacko is a top 30 world ranked athlete, has competed at every major race around the world, manages one of Australia’s most active training squads, owns a SUP retail store, and recently founded the ‘ONE SUP’ board brand. He’s been competing at the top level for seven years, and gives more thought to the future of our sport than anyone.

Let’s Make SUP Racing More Exciting

I love SUP racing but I’m the first to admit it can be a little boring.

I don’t mean it’s boring for us paddlers – we love getting on the water no matter what – but it’s certainly not very entertaining for the average sports fan. Apart from the hardcore fanatics, I really don’t think many people are interested in watching a SUP race.

So if we really want to grow the appeal of our sport beyond the core community, and if we really want to attract more mainstream attention, sponsorship dollars, and media exposure, then I think we’ve gotta make stand up paddling more exciting and more spectator friendly. We’ve gotta make it a bit “sexier” and more appealing.

It seems like we’re just going with the flow a little bit these days, almost as if the creative juices have stopped flowing. Most events look exactly the same: Course race one day, distance race the next. There’s not much innovation happening.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think all races have to be “crazy exciting” to be successful. The Carolinas, Molokais and Lost Mills of the world do heaps for our sport – they bring the community together and give paddlers an amazing challenge of skill and endurance – but unless you’re already a paddler, those races probably aren’t something you’d ever watch at the beach or on a TV broadcast/webcast.

Some might say “Why do we need spectators, media and money? Why shouldn’t paddling just be for the paddlers?” I can see that angle, and for most events that’s fine – supporting the grassroots and building a foundation for the future of the sport is critical – but I also think SUP racing has the potential to evolve and become an exciting, entertaining spectacle that appeals to much more than just the inner tribe.

I want to see the sport of stand up paddle racing go next level. I want to help build this sport into something more than just a novel pursuit for the few who do it. Right now, we have the opportunity to elevate SUP racing to a whole new league, but I’m not sure many people even realise it. We shouldn’t get complacent, we should keep pushing the boundaries.

I certainly don’t want to criticise any event organisers here – most events make a great effort in general, while running a SUP race is a very thankless job (trust me I know, I’ve done it!), so we should all be grateful every chance we get to compete – but I still want to encourage everyone in the sport (and that includes not only the event organisers but also the athletes, the fans, the media, the brands, etc) to think about how we can evolve SUP racing, and how we can attract the attention of more fans, more sponsors and more mainstream media.

ISA Stand Up Paddle World Championship

SUP racing in the waves always adds excitement, but I think we could definitely improve the course formats… (photo: Carlos Gonzalez)

To build on the foundation that currently exists, we have to think outside the box. We need to look at what is working and what is not. We need to offer constructive criticism while also coming up with fresh new ideas and options.

Because if we can find this magic formula that makes the sport more exciting and more appealing, everyone wins: The brands sell more boards, the events get more mainstream sponsors, the SUP media has more action to cover (and the mainstream sporting media has a reason to start covering us), the fans have something more exciting to watch, and most of all the athletes will earn a better living and have a real future.

Again, many events do a good job and probably don’t really need to change, but I strongly believe we need to create and promote a more exciting, specialty racing format that can be showcased for the whole world to see.

So how can we take SUP racing to the next level? I think there are two ways: The most obvious way is to create more exciting race formats, though I think we also need to make the sport a little sexier in general.

On the topic of race formats, I think we’ve simply gotta be bold and start experimenting with new styles of racing to see what works and what doesn’t.

The way it is now, so many events look identical: The Battle of the Paddle format of “course race + distance race” is still used by some of the biggest events in the world – Pacific Paddle Games, ISA Worlds, World Series and several more – despite being close to a decade old. Maybe some events just want to play it safe, which is understandable (as I said, being an event director is often a thankless job! And the athletes probably need to be a little more constructive in their criticism and feedback), but that shouldn’t stop other events from pushing the boundaries.

I think everyone can agree that short races are the most exciting for the average spectator, especially if it involves waves and some chaotic buoy turns. So let’s try and develop that idea further.

Jamie Mitchell gave it a good nudge a few years ago with the “Survivor” format at the Waikiki Paddle Festival, which was a series of back-to-back knockout sprints. Each lap was only about four minutes long, and there was only a two minute rest between races, which made the whole thing really fast-paced. It was exciting to watch and it was a real challenge for the paddlers, with a whole bunch of skills and strategies coming into play. That was one of the best races we’ve ever had, but how come we haven’t seen more than a handful of events try and copy it?

About 18 months ago I introduced the Super Lap SUP race format, which I reckon would add a whole new dynamic to racing, especially in flat water events where you can’t rely on waves for excitement. We’re going to play around with the concept at the Victoria Pro in Japan next month, but I’m surprised more events haven’t already started experimenting with it.

Super Lap for stand up paddleboard racing

The basic Super Lap course format

The World Series has been trying to bring in some exciting sprint race formats in the surf (see: Huntington and Turtle Bay), but I think they fall down by having only half a dozen paddlers in each heat. It makes it look a bit empty. I think you generally need at least 15-20 guys or girls on the water if you want intense, fast, exciting race action.

Going in a slightly different direction, I recently helped my local crew, the Currumbin SUP Club, come up with a fun new race format for a flat water race. We combined a 200m SUP sprint (that went around a few buoy turns) with a quick run and a swim. Heaps of the guys and girls said it was one of the funnest races they’ve ever competed in and watched as a spectator. And as a bonus, not only are these short, sharp, multi-sport formats fun to watch (and to be part of), they could also help attract athletes from other sports such as the lifeguard racing, triathlon, crossfit, etc.

Again, I’m not saying every race in the world needs to suddenly change what they’re doing, but I would love to see a few big events start playing around with new styles of racing, even if it’s just something on the side — perhaps they could start off as “exhibition races” just to see how it goes in the beginning.

If more events start experimenting, then in a year or two we might suddenly have three or four new race formats that everyone loves and which make the sport more attractive to outside fans/media/sponsors. I don’t think it’ll take all that long, but we have to start innovating now before we really get stuck in our ways.

I think we should also look at what’s working in other sports. If the ISA really wants to get SUP racing into the Olympics, they’ve gotta seriously improve on the same old “course race + distance race” format they use every year.

Speaking of the Olympics, perhaps the ISA should take a good look at what’s working in the Winter Olympics, where sports such as boarder cross have attracted a whole new generation of fans. Even if they’ve never touched snow before, any sports fan can relate to a short, sharp, exciting race that only goes for a few minutes and where the result isn’t certain until the winner crosses the line.

(Race The Lake of the Sky up in Tahoe invented something called the “SUP Cross” race, which is a great initiative and something I’d love to see more of. Though from what I’ve seen their format is probably a little too much fun — it’s very short and very chaotic; There’s often a fine line between making a race a fun novelty event and keeping it as a legit athletic contest.)

So if I was in charge of the racing events at the ISA, I’d probably say let’s run a 500 metre knockout sprint race in 2-3ft waves. Start with all of the paddlers (usually about 40-50 for the standard races at the ISA Worlds) and have a “survivor” style format that goes for a few rounds and reduces the field down to a final of say the top 15. One lap would be about three minutes long, which still makes it a genuine contest of skill for the athletes but keeps it exciting and slightly unpredictable (which is good for the fans/media, and in turn the sponsors). Then for the grand finale it could be three laps of the same course (~10 minute total race time) but with a ‘Super Lap’ format, which decides the final winner.

Even if the ISA introduced this as an exhibition race the first year to see how it goes, that would be better than nothing.

That’s just one idea but I’d love to see events experiment with more exciting and innovative racing. And like I said earlier, I’d really love to see the athletes giving more constructive feedback to event organisers — there’s often a lot of complaining in this sport but not always much useful feedback!

Survivor SUP Race

Jamie Mitchell’s original Survivor SUP Race at Waikiki in 2012, still one of the best formats. That’s Danny, Jamie, Travis, Connor, Jake, Slater, Kelly (and me!) in the final eight (photo: Quiksilver)

If we come up with exciting race formats, there’s more reason to have live webcasts or even TV broadcasts, which brings me to another point: Let’s create more exciting video productions that can attract and captivate the average sports fan.

Obviously budgets are a major factor with the current quality of webcasts and post production video clips, but I think the big events could easily experiment with little things such as live on-board GoPros and drone footage. Or what if we mic up a couple of the paddlers so we can hear everyone yelling at each other going round the tight buoy turns. How bout we strap a heart rate monitor on the top 10 contenders and have live stats as they’re charging down the back straight — how good would it be to see who’s just cruising along at 80% and who’s destroying themselves to stay in touch with the lead pack.

I really think we could add so many new elements to how SUP racing is covered, the kind of stuff that would give a huge boost to the sport’s appeal among the average sports fans.

Again I’d love to see the ISA Worlds take the lead here, especially seeing how they almost certainly need to find a more exciting format if they want to score a spot in the Olympics (which seems to be their main mission). I believe the annual ISA World Championship events cost over half a million dollars to run already, so why not spend an extra 10% to make the webcast go next level. The webcast is what everyone sees – it’s the cherry on top, so make sure it tastes good!

Finally, I think we really need to make stand up paddle racing a bit “sexier” in general.

Our top athletes are all extremely fit and athletic. They all have great looking physiques. They’re ripped! So why are we hiding them behind baggy old t-shirts that make us look like we’ve woken up groggy on a Sunday morning and thrown on the first thing we could find?

Why aren’t the guys racing in something that shows off their strength? Have them race in nothing but a pair of boardshorts. That’s definitely going to turn a few heads.

And why aren’t the women wearing something a bit more appealing? I’m not saying we have to go full beach volleyball style, where it’s skimpy little bikinis, but let’s ditch the baggy t-shirts, the basketball jerseys and that kind of thing, let’s have the women wearing something that’s sexy but still athletic, maybe like those triathlete swim suits for example.

The bodies of our athletes are one of our sport’s biggest assets. Let’s showcase that. The top paddlers are fit and attractive, which is what the average sports fan aspires to be. Make SUP racing a sexy, athletic, aspirational sport. Don’t hide everyone behind big baggy t-shirts.

This goes both ways between the events and the athletes: Some events have mandatory race jerseys (which they can improve on) but sometimes the athletes can choose what to wear. Even in the ISA Worlds you can wear whatever you want. So in those cases, why don’t the athletes get together and say “Hey guys let’s all wear this or that so our sports looks more appealing.”

One thing I want to make really clear is that it’s not just the event organisers that can make the sport more fun and exciting — that responsibility rests just as much on the shoulders of the athletes. Perhaps even more so. The paddlers need to invest in their own future, because they’re the ones with the most to gain from all these changes I’m suggesting. The athletes at the top of the sport right now are pioneers that need to keep pushing the boundaries to ensure both themselves and the next generation have a future.

I often hear from race organisers that they’d love more feedback from the paddlers, but they rarely get anything more than a couple of grumbles about what happened out on the course. We’ve gotta all work together to push the sport forward.

Anyway I’ll leave it there but my point is I reckon we’ve gotta seriously look at how to make our sport more exciting, more appealing, and more spectator friendly if we want to have a bigger future. We’ll always have the classic old races that the community loves and that do great things for our sport – they don’t need to change – but we still need to push the boundaries and experiment with new formats, especially at the showcase events like the ISA Worlds.

I love this sport but let’s face it: 99% of the time SUP racing isn’t exactly the most exciting thing to watch for the average spectator, and a boring sport won’t attract mainstream sponsors, it won’t become a popular TV or webcast series, it probably won’t ever get into the Olympics, and therefore it won’t give the athletes (and every other stakeholder in the world of SUP racing) much of a future.

So let’s all work together and make this sport as exciting, sexy and successful as it can possibly be.

– Jacko