A New Wave for Brands to Surf On

The 2018 World Surf League kicked off last week in Australia and the first event of the season, the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, is already over after conditions offered both surfers and fans a very exciting 5 days of competition.  This is an opportunity for me, as a dedicated surfing fan, to share my thoughts on the future of the sport, bearing in mind some important recent events.

Unusually for a niche sport, professional surfing made the headlines a few times in the latter part of 2017 and this has continued into the first two months of 2018. There were indeed three major changes at the World Surf League, all of which helped fill column inches in the sports press:

• July 2017: Sophie Goldschmidt, former Chief Marketing Officer at the RFU, is appointed CEO
• January 2018: Will Chignell, another RFU alumnus, is appointed CMO
• February 2018: Facebook becomes the WSL’s exclusive broadcaster in a $30 million deal

As a surfing fan and as a sports marketer, this deal – the first of its kind in sports – and the move of two major figures of the sports industry to the WSL made me think professional surfing has finally come of age. This is a clear statement of intent; their way to send a message to brands that it’s now safer than ever before to invest in the sport.

Before I go any further, I should perhaps put these events into perspective.

The World Surf League was created in 2013, taking over from the rather amateur ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals), backed by the support of brands including SAMSUNG, Jeep and Tag Heuer and with the clear ambition to grow surfing as a professional sport.

They have done a brilliant job since, improving the fan experience by developing an app worthy of a professional sport – allowing fans to watch events live, compete with their friends in a fantasy league and customize their league experience in general – and improving broadcast of the World Tour year on year – promptly adopting the latest technologies available to offer an ever-immersive watching experience.

In August 2016 those efforts finally paid off, and in a game changing move, surfing made it to the list of five new sports to be included in the schedule for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

However, in early 2017, progress stalled, and the WSL was hampered by two major changes:

• Paul Speaker, CEO, and the man responsible for most of WSL’s progress since 2013, stepped down
• SAMSUNG pulled out of their title sponsorship, leaving the league high and dry and in desperate need of a new major sponsor

Unable to fill the revenue gap during the remainder of 2017, the WSL somehow survived, one assumes thanks to the funding of co-owner and billionaire Dirk Ziff.

Given the context, the recent hiring of both Goldschmidt and Chignell is a clear statement from the WSL: we still mean serious business and we’re not finished growing the sport.

The incredibly smart deal they have just signed with Facebook proves it even more; instead of searching for another brand to replace SAMSUNG and their not insubstantial investment, the league looked to other potential revenue streams and secured a broadcast partner that:

1. Fits with their target audience
2. Is best suited to the many challenges posed by live coverage (conditions are hard to predict and still water doesn’t make for exciting surfing)
3. Provides a stable platform for brands to invest in and own
4. Earns them an estimated $15 million a year

However, this wasn’t the only approach the WSL took towards making their proposition better for fans and more attractive for brands. Within the surfing community, the most talked about subject over the last 6 months has been the changes in the season calendar.

As WSL Commissioner Kieren Perrow admits, "the 2018 calendar has some of the most significant changes we have implemented in many years". Key changes see the newly acquired Kelly Slater Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California replacing the iconic Trestles event, Indonesia taking over from Fiji, and the world's best female surfers joining their male counterparts at Jeffreys Bay in South Africa and leaving their usual stop at Cascais, Portugal.

This new 2018 schedule is another clear message directed to both fans and brands that the WSL is committed to “continue to explore opportunities to enhance the schedule and keep championing the best surfing across the world”.

As well as demonstrating a commitment to diversity that many more mainstream sports neglect through their championing of the women’s league, the WSL is finally behaving with the commercial and administrative nous typical of traditional rightsholders (Fiji was left out because of a lack of government support behind the event).

Above all else, by replacing an iconic World Tour stop with an artificial wave garden – meaning it acknowledges its ground-breaking commercial potential and game-changing aspect for the future of the sport - the WSL is beginning to show the world that professional surfing is entering a new era, of which it aims to be at the vanguard.