April 3, 2014
by Christopher Parker (@wheresbossman)

Big Names, Big Races Combine To Create New “Champions Tour” Ranking System, Push Sport Towards Grassroots Participation

2013 Battle of the Paddle

In what is a fairly major announcement (to put it mildly), several of the biggest names in paddling have confirmed they’re working with several of the biggest races to create a new tour/ranking system for the sport of SUP racing. The basic story goes like this: There are a lot of paddlers who want to celebrate the grassroots nature of this sport by recognising and giving back to the events that have already provided so much for both them and the wider SUP community in general.

The idea is to take the seven biggest, standalone SUP races that already exist, connect them via a simple points system (where at each race, paddlers will earn x amount of points for finishing 1st, 2nd 3rd, 10th, 20th, etc…) and then rank everyone on a big ‘leaderboard’ that’s based on each paddler’s best four or five results of the year. This kind of thing – grouping the established major events together in a common tour – has been talked about on and off for as long as I can remember, but now, after a sudden burst of action behind the scenes, it’s apparently becoming a reality.

It’s called the “SUP Champions Tour” and I think it’s a pretty bold new proposal.

The Champions Tour tour would see the paddlers and the events work together to try and unify the racing scene (at least to some extent) through this simple ranking system. Competitors would earn Champions Tour points based on their result at each of big races (Carolina, OluKai, BOP, etc). These points will be put up on the Champions Tour Leaderboard, which in turn will give both the paddlers and the fans something to follow throughout the season. At the end of the year we’ll be able to see where everybody ranks based solely on the major races that have, up until now, been well supported but totally isolated from each other.

That’s the idea anyway.

It goes without saying that this whole thing intrigues me a great deal, not only as the person who runs SUPracer.com but as a fan of the sport in general. So over the past few days, I’ve been chatting with a bunch of the guys and girls involved with this effort in order to try and get the full story on why it’s happening, what it’s all about and where it’s going.

While the background to the SUP Champions Tour is a long and interesting tale, I think I can best sum it up like this:

It’s as if a group of the world’s most influential stand up paddlers got together and said: “Hey you know what, these are the events that already do a great job of attracting hundreds of recreational paddlers, these are the events that are growing the sport and fueling the industry, these are the events that have given us our opportunities, so these are the events that we need to recognise, support and give back to.”

If you look at the proposed Champions Tour schedule below, you’ll see what I mean: Almost all of ‘these events’ are the mass participation type of races that attract both a strong recreational crowd as well as a good dose of the more seasoned competitors. They represent everyone from first-time racers through to the amateurs and right up to the seriously elite guys & girls.

So while the name Champions Tour may sound exclusive at first glance, it seems the opposite is actually the case: This appears to be a grassroots movement designed to keep the sport in tune with its “anyone can participate” origins and celebrate the great events that are growing the sport. And by basing it around these ‘mass participation’ races, suddenly anyone can line up and be part of it.

How many other sports can you say you were a part of the biggest races in the world alongside the best competitors in the world? It’s a unique quality that makes SUP racing such a fun and interesting sport to be involved with and I think it’s something that should be promoted.

Carolina Cup

Results from the Carolina Cup will count towards the Champions Tour rankings (photo: CarolinaCup-SUP.com)

Looking at it more closely, the 2014 SUP Champions Tour looks set to be a seven race season covering several different regions and race formats. It’s set to start at the Carolina Cup and would finish at the Battle of the Paddle, with OluKai, the Gorge, Lost Mills and the Showdown in between. Every paddler’s best results would count towards an overall ranking at the end of the year, while there will be that big rolling “Leaderboard” to give both the paddlers and the fans something to follow as the year progresses.

It’s a very simple but also fairly exciting idea. A lot of paddlers (both the pros and the regular fans) have long dreamed of a legit points system that ranks all the serious paddlers, and while plenty of other attempts have been made in the past nobody has pulled it off yet.

How cool would it be to go into the Battle of the Paddle with Danny, Travis, Connor and Kai tied for Champions Tour points, and seeing it all come down to the wire not only in that race itself, but with the entire “season” on the line as well?

The events that make up the Champions Tour are all standalone events, but they all share something in common too: They’re all big events who put on great races that have attracted a loyal following. So in many ways, while this is a “new” Tour, it’s actually more about unifying a pre-existing racing scene. And rather than coming in over the top and trying to overshadow each event with some sort of umbrella tour, the Champions Tour has the simple mission statement of sliding in underneath these events and helping elevate them to a higher level.

This isn’t the work of any one organisation (the Champions Tour has no official sanctioning or affiliation) and the paddlers themselves aren’t asking for anything in return from the race organisers, other than their blessing for results to be included in the Champions Tour ranking system.

The individual events won’t change one bit. No new rules or anything. No changes to the entry fees. Each race will operate independently, the same way it always has and with the same people in charge. It’s just that after the race is over, everyone’s results will go up on the Champions Tour leaderboard and then we may finally get to see where everyone ranks relative to everyone else. Which would be pretty cool to witness.

There are no big prize money jackpots or anything like that. Not this year anyway. In fact the founding of the Champions Tour doesn’t appear to be motivated by money in the slightest, but rather just a simple and potentially exciting goal of unifying the existing, fragmented racing scene. If the plan comes off, it could in turn help grow the sport for everyone: The paddlers, the events, the brands, the fans, the media, etc.

That’s the idea anyway, and now that it’s out in the wild I’m sure everyone involved will be eager to see the community’s response and feedback.

So despite some of the biggest names in the world of SUP being the driving forces behind this initiative, I’d say this new tour is actually less about creating a pro circuit and more about simply saying thanks to the events that have essentially built this sport from the grassroots level up. When you look at the races on the schedule that last point becomes pretty clear: Almost all the included events attract hundreds and hundreds of people that have one thing in common, they love paddling.

As one very influential paddler told me this week: It’s not rocket science. This basic idea of connecting the big, standalone events through one single “Tour” has always seemed like a logical step to those who closely follow the sport, it’s just that nobody has ever managed to do much about it. But now the paddlers have taken it upon themselves to turn it into a reality. And they might just succeed.

Gorge Paddle Challenge

The Gorge Paddle Challenge always draws a solid mix of elite, amateur and recreational paddlers (photo: Gorge-Us Photography)

I’ve always thought it seemed bizarre that races like the Battle, the Gorge and Carolina were always so big and successful, yet they were always kind of off on their own, not part of any tour or ranking system or anything. Danny and Travis at this race, Connor and Kai at that one. Candice racing on the West Coast, Annabel racing on the East Coast. It was so fragmented.

And while the Champions Tour definitely will not solve that fragmentation problem overnight, it could potentially be the first step towards finding a long-term solution.

Of course the obvious question is: Who’s in charge of this thing? Who’s calling the shots? And the easy but slightly mysterious answer seems to be: Nobody and everybody at the same time…

There’s no one particular person running the show, instead the Champions Tour can best be described as the work of a SUP Collective of sorts, where an open group of influential paddlers have combined with some of the most influential events to bring about some degree of uniformity to an otherwise extremely-fragmented racing scene. It’s almost like a crowdsourced tour.

In compiling this story I’ve spoken with everyone from race directors, to Battle of the Paddle champions, to the old school influential types, right through to the general fans of the sport who don’t have any vested interest but are simply just passionate about seeing the sport grow in the right direction.

The Champions Tour isn’t aligned with any one organisation either. This isn’t the work of SUPAA or the WPA or the ISA or the NBA or the NFL. It’s just a group of the influential guys and girls coming together with a group of the top events and deciding it would make perfect sense to connect everyone together via a common rankings system.

Again, rocket science it is not.

And if that means we get to see the likes of Connor, Travis, Danny, Kai, Georges, Jamie, Candice, Annabel, Jenny and all the other big names race each other more regularly, and do so alongside the hundreds of recreational and amateur paddlers who fuel the SUP industry, then it sounds like a pretty good idea.

Besides, who doesn’t love the thought of being able to follow a serious rankings leaderboard and comparing paddlers throughout the season? (Or am I the only stats geek in the room?)

While there are endless egos and differences of opinions that make collaboration in any sport difficult, and SUP is no exception, I really do get the feeling this has been a group effort to return Stand Up Paddling back to its roots and give back to the events that have given the sport so much, while at the same time giving the serious paddlers something simple but meaningful to strive towards (and giving the rest of us something fun to cheer on).

But enough of the behind-the-scenes stuff. Here’s how the proposed Champions Tour would look this year:

#1: Carolina Cup (April 26)
#2: OluKai (May 10)
#3: Lost Mills (June 21)
#4: The Showdown (August 16)
#5: Gorge Paddle Challenge (August 23 & 24)
#6: Battle of the Paddle Elite Race (October 4)
#7: Battle of the Paddle Distance Race (October 5)

Now there are obviously a lot of great standalone races out there, and it’s been interesting to see the debate about which events to rank, but this is where the ball has landed for now. I have been assured that a full review of the season will happen later in the year, meaning that the 2015 Champions Tour could have a totally different formula. Or in other words: this list of events certainly isn’t locked in for life.

But looking at this season: These seven races cover a variety of regions and different race conditions. The East Coast USA is covered with the Carolina Cup, West Coast USA with the Battle of the Paddle, regional/inland USA (The Gorge), Hawaii is on board (OluKai on Maui and The Showdown on Oahu) and then Europe courtesy of the Lost Mills race in Germany. Meanwhile all the main race formats are there: Downwind, Surf Race, Ocean Race, Flatwater Race.

However one of the most significant parts of the setup, something that could have easily gotten lost in the details, is that these seven races encompass not only all the major race formats, but all three of the major board classes as well: The Showdown and BOP Elite are 12’6, Carolina, Lost Mills, The Gorge and BOP Distance are held on 14 footers, while OluKai is on unlimited boards.

Lost Mills distance race start (c) Federico Benettolo

The Lost Mills, fast becoming Europe’s premier event, is the only non-US race on the inaugural Tour (photo: Federico Benettolo)

So when you combine the different regions, different conditions and different board classes, it actually comes across as a relatively complete tour (i.e. you’re gonna struggle if you only specialise in one type of racing).

And while a lot more details are expected/needed in the coming days, the proposal is that the guys will count their best five results (out of seven possible races) in their end-of-season rankings, while the women will count their best four. Not having to count every single race means that for the 99% of paddlers who can’t get to every single one of these races, it’s still possible to be part of the Tour. While for the hardcore guys and girls that wanna travel and show their stuff, they’ll have the luxury of discarding their worst performances.

To keep with the “all inclusive” theme however, the Champions Tour ranking points will be awarded right down to 50th place in each race. So even if you compete in just one out of those seven events, and even if you finished in 50th place in that race, you’d still get to see your name up on the same leaderboard as the Dannys, Connors, Annabels and Jennys of the sport. Meanwhile for those who take the world of SUP racing more seriously, it’s a chance to compare yourself to your fellow paddlers by racing in many of the same big events you probably already compete in. So finally we may get a serious, in-depth ranking of the world’s best paddlers.

All in all, this whole SUP Champions Tour sounds like a very interesting (and potentially very exciting) new idea.

However it’s also a long way from being perfect…

There are a few obvious holes in the Champions Tour right now. For one, it’s been announced fairly late – the first event is in just three weeks. You could argue that there are no brand new events on the schedule and that it’s simply based on the big existing races that everyone already knows about. However if more paddlers knew that races like Carolina and OluKai were going to be part of something big like this, then perhaps more of them could have committed to the early part of the Tour.

And considering the late timing, asking guys to do 5/7 is a big call. I doubt we’ll see huge numbers filling the minimum requirement, even with the BOP weekend counting for two races. However from a rankings point of view this is a logical way to structure a tour and it does make sense. Either way, anyone that does even just one race can get their name on the leaderboard (even if they’re not going to be competitive in the end-of-season rankings).

OluKai SUP Race

OluKai has proved itself to be a classic in recent years

There are a couple of other issues too. There’s the inevitable comparison to the Stand Up World Series… The Series has been around for a few years now and has many similar goals to that of the Champions Tour, even if it has attempted to take a totally different path in order to achieve those goals. The big question is whether or not one of these Tours makes the other redundant, or if they can peacefully co-exist. However that’s a whole nother debate and one that really deserves its own article down the road.

Finally there’s the obvious big hole in the Tour: Most of these races are located in the USA, with Germany’s Lost Mills being the sole exception.

Only one event outside America? That could make it easy to dismiss for some of the international paddlers. The counter-argument might be that most of these big ‘mass participation’ races are in the States already, so if that’s what the Tour is aiming for then it kinda makes sense. But still, I’d really like to see more international races. Hopefully next year. 

Everyone in the SUP Collective that I’ve talked to about the Champions Tour seems to agree though: While 2014 won’t be perfect and it definitely needs to be improved upon in 2015, it’s a meaningful starting point. And I guess so long as any criticism is constructive and things don’t get too political, it all helps push the sport forward.

Reading between the lines, I believe the real goal here is 2015 and beyond anyway. While I’m pretty sure the 2014 Champions Tour could (and probably will) be worth following closely, talking to everyone involved it seems this is all about the long game. The 2014 Champions Tour is simply a foundation to build on for the future. This year will almost be a trial run and if the the paddlers, the events, the brands, the media, the fans are all stoked on it, things will grow from there organically. If not, at least some people finally tried to do what everyone’s been talking about for years.

So yeah, the inaugural Champions Tour will be pretty straightforward. It doesn’t appear to be trying to streamroll through and take over the sport, it’s not making any huge promises, it’s not trying to tell everyone what to do. It’s just a very simple way for the paddlers to give back to the races that have done so much for the sport. By connecting these big, standalone events through a common tour and producing a unified rankings system (or “Leaderboard”), everyone in the sport has something to follow.

Again, not rocket science, just common logic.

Apparently there will be an open meeting at the Carolina Cup to gauge everyone’s response and even start looking ahead to 2015, while there will also be a serious recap towards the end of the year (probably at the Battle) where any stakeholders – the paddlers, the events, the brands, the fans, the media – can have their say and decide exactly what the Champions Tour should look like next year.

This whole idea of the paddlers “giving back” and helping keep the sport aligned with its grassroots vibe, where the mass-participation races that have fueled the sport are given the recognition they deserve, is an idea that’s hard to argue against. It’s not a new idea – this thing has been talked about forever – but now, finally, it might actually be a reality.

And, as incredibly clichéd as it is to say, if it’s a win for the sport at the end of the day, then it’s a win for everybody.

So there you go. The SUP Champions Tour. And you thought your Thursday was gonna be a slow-news day…

Obviously a lot of the specifics are still to be announced, plus it’ll be very interesting to observe the community’s response in general, so definitely stay tuned as more details about the Champions Tour emerge in the coming days.

In the meantime, what do you reckon? Leave a comment below with your reaction: