September 28, 2014
by Christopher Parker (@wheresbossman)

VERDICT: The Ultimate SUP Showdown On CBS Sports – Next Level? Yes. Perfect? No…

Ultimate SUP Showdown CBS - Stand Up Paddle race

The Ultimate SUP Showdown aired on CBS Sports Network one week ago and, despite being overseas at the time, I managed to sneak in a private viewing of the whole show.

The Showdown has stirred up a lot of chatter and debate over the past couple of months. The event attracted a good chunk of the world’s best to Waikiki and “you can be on television” was the big selling point to the athletes. So now that it’s finally aired in public, I figured I’d give an in-depth review of the show for those who didn’t get a chance to watch.

The short version: The production is slick. Very slick. It’s far bigger and better than anything that’s been done before and makes stand up paddling look like a legit sport for once. The camera angles are awesome and the editing is very smooth which, combined with the A+ talent that was competing, makes for a very exciting show.

However for an hour-long program the action focuses on too few paddlers. There were 64 guys and girls at Waikiki but most of them – even those who performed very well in the Showdown finale – never get a mention. The whole Showdown format is also very confusing, though that’s less of an indictment on the TV broadcast and an issue with the event in general.

Ultimate SUP Showdown CBS - Jake Jensen

Now for the long version…

I was sent a special viewing link (which has since leaked publicly if you wanna see the whole thing yourself), as the official broadcast was for Canada and the US only. The clip I watched had no ads and ran at 45 minutes, which would equate to an hour long TV program once the ads are included.

The start is rather dramatic: A sweeping aerial shot of Waikiki with ominous music and a booming, American-accented commentator proclaiming (perhaps a little optimistically) that the Ultimate SUP Showdown is the premiere stand up paddle event of the year.

Connor Baxter and Kai Lenny dominate the intro, which sets the standard for the rest of the hour (and also forms the basis for one of my few complaints about the show).

Ultimate SUP Showdown CBS - Barry LeBrock and Chuck Patterson

From there we get an intro to the commentary team, led by seasoned sports presenter Barry LeBrock and featuring everyone’s favourite sunset photographer, Chuck Patterson, as well as Olympic Gold Medalist Julia Mancuso.

After that the program more or less follows the event as it happened. There’s plenty of action from the SUP surf contest, the very cool “Y Race” qualifiers and then the big finale: The Showdown.

There’s no doubt the production is first class. The camera angles are amazing, the popup graphics are professional, the editing is smooth and the commentary is, for the most part, quite accurate. The whole package makes stand up paddling look serious and for that alone we owe the Showdown organisers a big thank you.

Ultimate SUP Showdown CBS - stand up paddle aerial footage

Chuck Patterson sounds like a seasoned pro despite this being his first foray into the world of sports commentary. I asked Chuck the other day how he felt and he was modest – “Was a little nervous, could have done a few things better,” however I think the big guy held it together well. He was the only SUP specialist in the commentary team and without him there would have been a disconnect.

I was impressed with the various camera angles and also rather surprised that no other events have done anything on this level before. The on-board GoPro split screen footage is aweseome and there are about five different aerial angles. There are some cool shots from the jetskis plus the standard land- and water-based footage you’d expect. All of which combine to produce an exciting package.

I watched the ten minute section that features the Showdown finale over and over. I’ve never seen a SUP race look so good. I’ve already mentioned the various camera angles however one highlight stands out: The split-screen footage of Jake Jensen and Zane Schweitzer’s tussle around the outside buoy.

Ultimate SUP Showdown CBS - Jake Jensen vs Zane Schweitzer

The show dragged on a little bit in some areas – even for someone as obsessed with this sport as myself I wanted things to move along a bit quicker – but overall I think it was very entertaining, especially considering this was only the second Showdown event and the first time it’s been produced for TV.

I’ve watched the program three times now, one of which was with five dozen hardcore paddlers at Starboard’s annual meeting in Spain. After that group screening, the consensus on the broadcast was “exciting” and “professional.”

Ok so those are the “Good” points, now it’s time for me to nit-pick and talk about the “Bad”…

For an hour long show the coverage focused way too much on way too few paddlers. Kai and Connor get a huge amount of screen time, whereas several guys that were right on their heels never rate a mention.

This isn’t saying anything bad about Connor or Kai: I love those guys and they deserve their moment in the mainstream limelight. Connor Baxter won the event for the second year running and is an official Showdown ambassador, while Kai Lenny is Kai Lenny (not to mention he was the only one who got close to Connor in the Showdown race). So the the pair certainly deserved the most attention.

Ultimate SUP Showdown CBS - Connor Baxter

I also appreciate this broadcast wasn’t done with the hardcore paddling community in mind: This was made for a mainstream audience, which has a limited attention span and would probably prefer to get excited about a few paddlers than try and remember 64 different names.

But still, for 45 minutes of content I would have expected more guys and girls to get a shout out.

The biggest downside of focusing so much on a couple of paddlers is that several of the lesser-known guys and girls didn’t get any credit, despite some impressive performances that saw them competing at the same level as the big guns. The Showdown’s stated goal is to give all the hard-training, elite paddlers out there a professional platform, but I guess right now that platform doesn’t have much room on it.

For example unheralded Josh Riccio was sitting in third place for almost the entire second half of the Showdown race (being cruelly overtaken in the final seconds by Danny, Riggs and Travis). Likewise Kelly Margetts was battling for 3rd/4th during the critical part of the finale. Neither of these guys get mentioned once.

Travis Grant hardly had his name called out, despite his status within the community and his amazing performance to battle all the way through the field in the Showdown. At one point the lead commentator even incorrectly calls Travis out as Zane.

Ultimate SUP Showdown CBS - Danny Ching

Even Danny Ching doesn’t really get the credit someone of his standing deserves. Even worse, his beyond-superhuman-comeback in the Showdown finale – where he somehow fought back from 17th at the first buoy to finish third (in a short race where overtaking came a premium) – is more or less completely ignored.

It’s the same with the women. Actually it’s even worse for the women, because they competed in the Showdown finale at the same time as the men. That gave them even less screen time than usual, as they were mixed in with the middle of the pack while the cameras focused on the leaders.

So if there is a next time then I really hope more guys and girls get a shout out.

I’d also like to see the race itself analysed in more detail. Barry LeBrock, as the lead guy on the mic, kinda skimmed over the action, including totally missing several key moments of the Showdown race. Again, I appreciate this show was created for a mainstream audience, meaning the race was never going to be analysed at the level of detail I’d loved to have seen, however they still could have dug a little deeper.

Ultimate SUP Showdown CBS - Jenny Kalmbach vs Annabel Anderson

I don’t think the format was explained very clearly either. When I watched the show with the group of hardcore paddlers over in Spain, even they were left scratching their heads about how competitors qualified for the Showdown finale and why there were two rows on the start line. So if paddlers don’t understand it, I’m sure the average sports fan would have had no idea what the “Surf qualifier + race qualifier = Showdown finale” format was all about.

I’m also still not convinced about the Showdown’s format in general. That’s a flaw in the event itself, not the broadcast production, but I figured it was a good time for another rant:

Half surfing, half racing and then a “combined” surf/race finale called the Showdown.

That’s what organisers are billing this whole thing as. They claim it’s an even match up between the surf specialists and the race specialists. That’s the entire point of the event and it’s where the name itself comes from (it’s a “showdown” between the best surfers and racers in the world).

However the format simply doesn’t work and I haven’t talked to one single person, apart from the main organiser himself, who thinks it does.

The format really needs to change. Right now the surfing part of the event is a nice piece of window dressing but nothing more. It looks very cool to see surfing on TV and probably helps the ratings (I’m the first to admit that, all things being equal, surfing is more exciting than racing), however it doesn’t serve any meaningful purpose in the event itself.

Ultimate SUP Showdown CBS - Sean Poynter

World champions such as Izzi Gomez and Sean Poynter were absolutely ripping it up in the waves, but for what? They basically competed for a day and a half for the right to be totally schooled in the Showdown finale. As much as organisers want to argue to the contrary (and every time I speak with them, they argue with me about this point): The Showdown finale is just another race. It doesn’t give any advantage to the surf specialists. It’s a “start here, finish there, first over the line wins” contest on 12’6 paddle boards. It’s a race…

There’s no prize money or prestige on either the surf or race qualifiers – everything is (and rightfully so) on the Showdown finale – so there was really no motivation to win either of the warm-up events. If you were smart about it, the best position to finish in the surfing was 3rd in your quarter final. That got you a spot in the Showdown finale and saved you from tiring yourself out in the semis and final.

Organisers tried to counter this at the last minute by introducing the “First Row / Second Row” starting grid for the Showdown, which rewarded those who placed high in both the surfing and racing with a faster start in the finale. It was a great idea in theory, however I don’t think it really worked. I don’t believe the top racers tried any harder in the surfing or vice versa. Travis Grant and Danny Ching are never going to be top level SUP surfers, so all this grid system did was put them at a huge disadvantage and rob the spectators of seeing a potential side-by-side contest with the likes of Connor and Kai.

Ultimate SUP Showdown CBS - The Showdown Race

When you watch the Showdown finale (from the awesome aerial camera angles), you can see that the contest was over for the guys on the second row as soon as it started. On the men’s side at least, it was basically a race to the first buoy (though massive props to Annabel Anderson for finding a way to catch the top women from the back).

It’s also a bummer that we saw virtually no waves in the Showdown race. This was a key part of the format, however the ocean went flat right when the starting horn sounded. That’s not the fault of the organisers but it certainly didn’t help with the format issue. Again, the guys that made it to that first buoy in the lead had a monumental advantage, as the pack soon formed into the kind of draft train that would’ve seemed more at home in a flat water race (which makes Danny’s comeback even more impressive and even more of a shame that it wasn’t highlighted).

Anyway, that’s my rant about the format.

Despite calling out the negative points, I genuinely think this was a great production and everyone behind it deserves plenty of kudos.

Organisers invested a staggeringly large amount of their own money into getting the Showdown on TV and everybody, myself included, should be grateful for the showcase they’ve given us. I said my thanks by dedicating nearly endless editorial to this event, but I’m not going to pretend it was perfect. So I hope the crew behind the Showdown take this constructive criticism on board for next year.

Ultimate SUP Showdown CBS - Zane Schweitzer

The good thing is that my few gripes about this show are relatively minor details: The production itself was the most important thing for the CBS broadcast and in that area the Showdown was first class. Showdown organisers are also an open-minded bunch, so I’m pretty sure things will be tweaked ahead of next year.

I believe the main points that need to be addressed are:

– Fix the format and decide if SUP surfing is going to be a meaningful part of the event or not
– Give more paddlers some screen time
– Analyse the critical moments of the race in more detail

Apart from that, the Showdown is looking very healthy and is miles ahead of other events that are trying to go down the TV route. The broadcast was exciting to watch and lays a very solid foundation for more events next year. Hopefully the CBS Sports Network executives (or some other network) get as excited as we do and order a multi-stop, made-for-TV tour in 2015.

After writing my review above, I just watched the show for a fourth time. I’m still a little bummed more guys and girls didn’t get mentioned, however I’m even more adamant that this really was a professional and exciting broadcast.

Was it perfect? No. But was it next level? Absolutely.

Ultimate SUP Showdown CBS - Sports Spectacular