The Ethical Fan – Navigating Football Clubs’ Moral Minefields

As I sat watching the Manchester derby with a friend the other weekend, there were two topics of conversation on our agenda: the sensational performances that we have come to expect from Pep’s team on the pitch, and City’s slipperiness off it.

On the 5th November, German magazine Der Spiegel released the first of a four-part expose that put the Sky Blues’ books under the microscope, piecing together a narrative through a series of leaked emails that brought to light numerous counts of purported systematic financial misconduct since the Abu Dhabi Group’s takeover in 2009. Despite protestations from the club that they were in fact the victims of a ‘organised and clear’ attempt to ‘damage the club’s reputation’, even my friend, a Cityzen since the days of Maine Road and Jon Macken, seemed fairly happy to concede that it was more than likely his boyhood club had taken FIFA’s Financial Fairplay regulations with a rather large pinch of salt.

As the game ebbed and flowed towards another seemingly inevitable City win, our wider footballing conversation likewise meandered around topics ranging from Emirati soft-power plays and accusations of human rights violations to its own predictable conclusion. Punctuated here and there by the odd gasp of appreciation at the masterclass we were witnessing on screen, we landed on an uncomfortable realisation: it’s difficult to stay angry at what goes on behind the scenes when the show itself is so good.

The duality of the modern game - on the one hand reaching new highs and the other new lows - creates a tension that often favours the path of least resistance. As one’s personal ethics begin to clash with an organisation that, for many, will have been a love affair that long pre-dates the latest scandal or dodgy deal, we seek to separate out football-the-game from football-the-business. For every new cover-up exposed there is a screamer to salve; for every step out of line another step-over. Simply put, most of us are just here to watch the game.

But should we care about where our football comes from? And what do we do if we don’t like the answer?

In many other aspects of our lives we are beginning to pay much greater attention to the knock-on effects of our indulgences. From keep-cups to flexitarianism, a wave of trends rooted in the rise of personal accountability have shown us to be willing to do our bit. Are we likely, then, to see ex-City fans queueing up outside Forest Green Rovers, the self-styled ‘greenest club in football’?

In a word, no. Football Clubs, unlike disposable coffee containers, are not products that can be easily dropped or changed. They thrive on a powerful brand of flag-waving and chant-singing tribalism that demands fealty at the door. We judge one another on our commitment to the clubs we hold dear and boast of mileage covered on cold Tuesday nights to far flung corners to the UK. Our fandom is an emotional, even masochistic experience that often defies reason. Teams are passed between generations, often rooting people to a place long after they have moved away. In the words of Eric Cantona, ‘Never can you change your favourite football team’.

In many ways, then, the modern football fan can find themselves tied to the mast of a complex and layered ship, simultaneously sinking into moral decay while soaring. While our personal grievances pale in comparison to those felt at the sharper end of football’s sprawling reach, we are nonetheless victims of owners whose personal baggage can contaminate the purer visions of our team that we hold dear.

But that does not mean we should abandon our own moral compass in the face of something we love. In fact, that is precisely the reason why we should hold our respective football clubs under even greater scrutiny. As mentioned before, the relationship we share with our team will more than likely vastly predate the latest ownership regime. We know the true meaning of our clubs and must therefore act as guardians of these ideals. We are the first to complain when something goes wrong on the pitch, however more fan impetus must be placed into correcting what is wrong off it. As a collective we hold great power, whilst not necessarily agreeing with the way in which it was conducted, one need only look at the #WengerOut groundswell to understand how fans can make a big noise. Imagine what could be achieved if this energy had been applied elsewhere.

To be the greatest ally to your team, then, fans must assume the role of a critical friend, and the first step towards this comes through education. Despite what rivals might say, following a certain club doesn’t make you a bad person, but remaining ignorant to the wider context might. My friend and I will almost certainly meet up again to watch another City game, but just as Pep goes into every match having done as much research as possible, by reading articles likes the one from Der Spiegel, we will have done our homework too. We all have a responsibility to keep the game beautiful.

Synergy Speaks Freestyle with Kim Seokjin (@kimfootball)

At 19 years old, Kim Seokjin has achieved two things that most people his age would dream of: he’s ‘insta-famous’ and really, really good at football. In one 10 second clip, he can amass more views than every post I’ve ever made on social media and does so without even uttering a word. That’s because for an influencer like ‘kimfootball’, his feet do the talking.

As he patiently takes me through one of his more ‘entry level’ tricks for what must be the fifth time now, it starts becoming clear to me that, however much I try and force it, freestyle footballing may not be for me. Where his pristine adidas boot orbits the ball like a carefully pre-programmed satellite, my leather chukka boot smashes straight into it like an alternate ending to Armageddon.

“I started when I was maybe 14 or 15. I played football on the weekends and trained on weekdays. I didn’t go out partying, I preferred to just practise skills.”

The practice has clearly paid off. In four years Kim has turned what was ostensibly a hobby into a business. As a sought after freestyler and content creator, Kim has collaborated with just about every major sporting brand in the game, his client list reading like a Sports Direct catalogue.

In amongst brand deals, corporate events and TV appearances, Kim even finds time to play Son Heung-min’s body double:

“My friend told me I should apply to be a body double because they said they needed someone Asian looking. I sent off my height, weight and foot-size and got a call one day saying can you come to Manchester, like now. I packed all my stuff and asked my school if I could take some time off. They didn’t tell me much about it but I got there to find that Salah, Son, De Gea, Lingard and Alli were all there: we were literally doing an adidas World Cup shoot in Manchester with over 300 people. I never thought I’d be in a commercial like that, it’s something I’ll never forget.”

Asked whether he got the opportunity to meet the man he had travelled half way across the country to impersonate, Kim was in luck.

“I shook Son’s hand. I couldn’t show him my skills because we were on a tight schedule, but next time.”

Now is clearly a good time to be a freestyle footballer and content creator. With the likes of F2Freestylers boasting more YouTube subscribers than Real Madrid and Barcelona combined, the demand for social media football entertainment has never been higher. Indeed, if anyone ever needed proof of the increasing influence accounts such as these are having on the game, one need only look to Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster.

Shunning traditional representation in favour of signing on to the newly established F2Talent, Rhian is a prime example of the ever increasing blur between the worlds of social media and ‘real’ football. With 78% of Gen Zs sharing football content on a weekly basis, players are increasingly joining the cast of content creators adding to the pool of slick pics, vids and memes driving the football conversation. Global behemoths like the Premier League are, of course, still a vital anchor point that holds all these moving parts together, but one wonders whether there will be a future where tuning in for a full 90 minute match will be the sporting equivalent of dusting off the vinyl.

“Social media makes it easier for audiences to engage. It creates a link between clubs, players, content creators and the fans. You can share something instantly. If I wasn’t watching a match and someone scored a screamer, it would be shared on my feed within 20 minutes. You don’t have to actually watch the full game anymore.”

While the appetite of young fans for football content appears insatiable, the market is nonetheless competitive. Having grown his page from humble beginnings to nearly 80k followers in less than five years, Kim knows that, in order to stand out, you need to do something different.

Where you might expect some of his top-shelf tricks to gain the most traction, it is actually the more ‘achievable’ moves that rack up the views. Packaged as highly polished bitesize lessons, Kim has become known for his particular brand of explainer videos that lift the curtain behind his vast repertoire of tricks.

“Tutorials get a lot of exposure. Not many pages in the football community do what I do. They go for the crazy stuff that other people can’t do whereas I’m more about teaching people things they could actually learn.”

Part of retaining fans, therefore, seems to be about giving them some kind of added value; something they can take away or show off to their friends. Without bastardising an oft-quoted adage about a certain man and learning to fish, having a relationship with your audience beyond simply dazzling them with an unattainable level of expertise is a sure-fire way to keep them coming back. While his tutorials are annotated in English, it’s the visuals that drive the content, with the beautiful game, thanks to its flicks, tricks and turns, speaking a universal language. Kim’s core fanbase may be from London, but a quick look at his Instagram insights shows a truly global audience of followers.

As he aptly surmises:
“Everyone understands a trick”.

Rob Jennings interviewing @kimfootball for Synergy

Five Reasons Why The Ryder Cup Is Like Nothing Else In Sport

1. It’s Golf. But not as you know it.
Individual sportspeople, by their nature, are often selfish and driven exclusively by the desire to improve their own performance; so seeing some of the best golfers in the world unite as part of a collective - setting aside their rivalries, the pursuit of prize money and ranking points, for a common goal - is particularly thrilling. This team nature of the Ryder Cup provides a wealth of different narratives and these unpredictable storylines play out over five intense sessions of golf and the momentum of a Ryder Cup ebbs and flows in a way that no individual golf tournament can match. Players have the unique opportunity to etch themselves into the history books off the back of their Ryder Cup exploits; take Ian Poulter for example, a charismatic pro with a solid career behind him, whose legend is secured by his incredible performances in the event, particularly as the talisman of Europe’s amazing comeback at Medinah in 2012. Can one of Team Europe’s five rookies be the hero this year and reap the adulation (and commercial opportunities) that will undoubtedly follow?

2. It’s three magic days every two years.
With the Ryder Cup, less is most certainly more. As the event takes place every two years (alternating between a venue in Europe or the USA), the excitement levels for both the players and the fans crescendo to a fever pitch. There is no wonder that tennis’ Davis Cup is making major reforms to become a week-long tournament, as for both build-up and then intensity of world-class action, the Ryder Cup is unrivalled. I’m sure the event organisers, The European Tour and PGA of America, are sorely tempted to try and make this an annual event to fill their coffers as as reports suggest that The European Tour generated £80m in revenues from the 2014 event (, enough to sustain its finances until the next event on home soil). However, like the Olympics, the specialness lies in the fact that we fans are made to impatiently wait.

3. It’s all about the fans.
These first two factors are crucial as to why the Ryder Cup transcends beyond the core golf fan audience to reach a wider sporting one. As the fans either root for one team or another, support isn’t ‘diluted’ behind particular individuals and, whilst American fans need little excuse to rally behind Team USA, it is fairly unique for the whole continent of Europe to unite under one banner. According to research from Nielsen Sports, fan sizes for the upcoming tournament have surged by more than 6.7 million people compared to the same period ahead of the last event to be hosted in Europe in 2014. Perhaps the Ryder Cup is the next event that is ripe for the Netflix/ Amazon Prime treatment – an ‘All or Nothing’ style behind-the-scenes documentary could only grow this casual audience.
With its partisan nature, the atmosphere at the event doesn’t disappoint either. Over 55,000 fans are expected at Le Golf National during each day of the action and a huge 6,500 seat grandstand has been set-up behind the first tee, so the players can expect a wall of noise to greet them at the start of every match. The format of the event also means that the action tends to be focused on a concentrated area of the course, so unlike a typical tournament, where the fans are spread across acres of terrain, at the Ryder Cup there is a much more intense (and often raucous) atmosphere.

4. It features the best players in the world (and Team Europe tend to have the edge!)
The quality in both teams this year is incredible and for the first time the entire world’s top 10 are competing; in fact, 17 players out of the top 18 will be in Paris. The USA team has the winners of six of the past eight majors and are understandably the bookies’ favourites to take the spoils. The Ryder Cup however is rarely won on paper and Team Europe have been punching well above their weight for the last quarter of a century. Indeed, the last time the US won on European soil was back in 1993 and, of course, once again, nobody knows how this year’s edition will play out. It is this underdog story that helps to keep pulling the fans back again and again.

5. And to top off this year’s edition… Tiger’s back.
The timing of Tiger Woods’ 80th tournament win at The Tour Championship couldn’t have come at a better time and it is brilliant news that a fit, healthy, and in-form Woods takes his place in the US team. You only need to look at the TV viewing figures from that victory to understand the impact that Woods still holds - NBC saw a 206% ratings increase compared to the 2017 tournament. Yet, Woods’ Ryder Cup record isn’t hugely impressive for one of the all-time greats of the game (Won 13, Lost 17, Halved 3) and whether he can turn it around this year provides yet another glorious sub-plot. Anyone for a Woods vs McIlroy head-to-head to secure the winning point?

Whoever you’re supporting, whatever the result, it is fair to say that with the Ryder Cup, drama, magic, and potential greatness are par for the course.

Federer’s $300m Uniqlo deal shows that tennis sponsors are missing a trick

On the eve of Wimbledon, mainstream men’s tennis news was once again dominated by the same old names: Murray’s late withdrawal from the competition, Djokovic’s re-built serving action, Nadal’s lack of grass court preparation and, of course, Federer’s new bumper kit deal with Japanese brand Uniqlo.

This is no surprise to the casual tennis fan, for the Big Four in men’s tennis (regardless of Murray and Djokovic’s current rankings) are so entrenched in the tennis psyche that serious consideration to whom may one day replace them has yet to take place – but the times they are a changin’.

Federer’s deal with Uniqlo, a reported $300 million dollars over 10 years, may prove to good business, but even for the greatest tennis player of all time, securing a 10-year deal at the age of 36 is some coup. However, what’s undoubtedly a huge win for Federer should cause concern for the men and women in charge of developing the game, because it points to a lack of younger contenders whom would be worthy of receiving a much smaller pay cheque, with the promise of greater things to come.

In a surprising show of self-awareness, the ATP Tour has shown a clear willingness (and not an inconsiderable amount of time and money) in trying to address these concerns and allay fears that the sport is danger of a fallow period of talent.

This willingness has manifested itself into the #NextGenATP, a programme that aims to shine a light on the Tour’s best players aged 21 and under. Culminating in a season-ending tournament that mirrors the senior players’ ATP Tour Finals but with a combination of courtside innovations and dramatic rule changes all designed to grab the attention of a younger audience.

It’s fair to say the approach has had mixed results thus far, garnering huge criticism for the shockingly sexist NextGen Finals draw last season, and also receiving damning assessment from tour veteran Fabio Fognini, who slammed the perceived favouritism shown towards NextGen athletes at this year’s French Open.

To its critics then, the #NextGenATP is a false attempt to build up players who simply don’t carry the required skill to match or replace the old guard. Yet the numbers don’t lie, and a simple look at the stats should cause enough concern to understand why they’ve taken this action.

Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th on the all-time list of career prize money, and if sport is built on rivalry and competition, the recent period of unequalled consistency in men’s tennis is hard to beat. Nadal and Djokovic have played each other 51 times alone, victories split 26-25 in the Serbs favour, with the players regularly producing the kind of matches that fans, broadcasters and sponsors dream of.

Yet despite their individual brilliance and collective pulling power, the Big Four can’t go on forever. Names such as Stefanos Tsitsipas, aged 19, ATP ranking 35, Frances Tiafoe, aged 20, ATP ranking 52 and Felix Auger Aliassime, aged just 17 with an ATP ranking of 152, may lack of current media profile of the current crop, but possess the game, looks and attitude to flourish both on and off the court.

Time will eventually defeat even Federer but with the ATP Tour announcing record attendance levels at the most recent Tour Finals in London and Amazon outbidding Sky for the exclusive Tour TV rights, they are rightly keen to keep the momentum going and supporting the next generation of players is the only way to go.

There is then unrealised potential in the market for a forward-thinking sponsor. Next generation athletes who are social media savvy alongside a helping hand from a governing body in need of new stars points to a clear opportunity at a far lower investment level.

So, although the old guard won’t go down without a fight, it’s a matter of when, not if, the Big Four finally depart and when they do the fight for supremacy will be played out as fiercely by competing sponsors as the young guns on the court.

Will ‘The Hundred’ Be An Attractive Proposition For Sponsors

‘Embarrassing and shambolic… a total mess’.

No, not the England Cricket team’s performance against Pakistan in the First Test at Lord’s last month, but former skipper Michael Vaughan’s verdict on the England and Wales Cricket Board’s proposal for a new eight-team city tournament, dubbed ‘The Hundred’. It is fair to say that the announcement of a new 100-ball tournament – designed to appeal to a younger audience and attract new fans to the game – has not been an unqualified success.

Critics aplenty have been queuing up to lambast the move as a marketing gimmick, insufficiently distinct from Tewnty20 at just 20 balls fewer per innings, and a format too far for a sport already struggling to cope with T20, 50-over and Test cricket.

It certainly isn’t the ideal starting point for drumming up sponsor interest. But in that respect cricket has been on a sticky wicket for some time now. The ECB struggled to find a sponsor for Test Cricket, after Investec pulled out of their 10-year, £40m sponsorship deal three years early. Two pre-existing ECB sponsors – NatWest and Specsavers – have filled the void. That doesn’t exactly suggest brands are queuing up at the Grace Gates to be associated with cricket.

England’s abject performances on the pitch haven’t helped matters. Nor has the steady stream of negative headlines surrounding the sport over the last year – be it Ben Stokes charged with affray, Australia admitting ball-tampering, or the recent – strongly denied – allegations of English spot-fixing.

Against that backdrop, and the ECB’s very own chairman opining that ‘the younger generation, whether you like it or not, are just not attracted to cricket’, one might assume that ‘The Hundred’ will struggle to garner sponsor interest. But you would be wrong.

There are a few hurdles to overcome before ‘The Hundred’ is a fully-fledged proposition – consulting the players and PCA, finalising the format, gaining MMC and ICC approval – but many brands will already be eying up the opportunity. The tournament is a fresh, new opportunity, unencumbered by any previous sponsor baggage or legacy to overcome, which always plays well with prospective brands. In its previous incarnation as another T20 competition, it would have sat alongside another domestic T20 competition – the NatWest T20 Blast. Now it has differentiation, innovation, and a USP. For marketers it will be less about associating with a new format, and more about an original brand proposition.

That proposition includes both male and female competitions, and will benefit from the ever-increasing brand interest in women’s sport. It will be interesting to see whether the ECB unbundle the male and female strands for separate sponsors, although that could create marketing and logistical complexity, especially given the proposed double-headers. Perhaps a brand will make a portfolio play, much like Isuzu/Subaru with the Wales Rugby team, who have Isuzu on their home shirt, and Subaru on their away shirt.

Aside from the tournament instrinsics, brands will climb aboard if there is certainty about fan interest, and reaching the valuable family and youth audience that the ECB is purporting to target. Which comes down to the marketing, and broadcast platform. This is where the ECB has some trump cards. They recently signed a monster broadcast deal with the BBC and Sky – reportedly £1.1bn over five years – that includes this new tournament.

Creating a format that starts at either 2.30pm or 6.30pm and lasts only three hours was not just so that families attending could get home for kids’ tea or bedtime. Fitting broadcaster slots was arguably a far more significant consideration. The received wisdom is that cricket interest and participation fell off a cliff the minute cricket moved from Channel 4 and the heady days of our 2005 Ashes win, to hide behind Rupert Murdoch’s paywall on Sky. If you show it on terrestrial TV, they will come. Helpfully, the BBC will show 10 of the 36 games live on terrestrial TV, giving cricket – and its sponsors – much needed reach into bedrooms and living rooms nationwide.

The marketing muscle of Sky and the BBC is in the bag, and will help create the requisite buzz and anticipation. But the ECB have their own marketing chops. The Women’s World Cup in 2017 was a case study in engaging a new audience with the right marketing, and an accessible, family-friendly matchday experience. And ECB execs have made many a trip to the Big Bash in Australia, where there’s a ready-made blueprint on how to engage a family audience in a new competition.

In terms of the cricketing calendar, the build-up to new tournament couldn’t be much better, with a Cricket World Cup on home soil in 2019, marketing to the very same Big Eventer family audience that ‘The Hundred’ will be trying to capture. There should be a pretty handy (GDPR compliant) database from that marketing exercise, and some new cricket fan appetites to feed. Throw in a home Ashes Series in 2019 as well, and it is a pretty good time for those ECB execs to be out selling their wares.

Those sales presentations could well include images of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Hardik Pandya and the like. India’s cricket authority, the BCCI, which bans its players from overseas T20 tournaments to protect the primacy of the Indian Premier League, are considering making an exception for the Hundred because it is played over 100 balls, not 120. The inclusion of those superstars and their IPL stardust is a sure-fire way to fuel fan, and sponsor, excitement.

Ultimately, a lot comes down to the price tag at the end of those sales presentations. The ECB’s revenue expectations should be mitigated by the coffers swelling from the £1.1bn broadcast deal. Attracting brands who will help market the tournament and engage the right audience - straight from that Big Bash playbook – should be prioritised over a fat cheque.

So, will there be a ton of brands clamouring to be associated with the new short format tournament? Assuming the ECB play the long game, one hundred percent.

Let battle commence: American sports are set for a lucrative betting sponsorship land grab

That sound you heard on Monday was the popping of champagne corks as the US Supreme Court ruled to strike down the law that made sports betting illegal in the US outside the state of Nevada.Technically, the ruling doesn’t legalise sports betting in itself but it does allow each state to legalise it if they so wish.

Not surprisingly, most states so wish.

New Jersey brought the case to the Supreme Court in the first place so you will be able to place a bet there within a couple of weeks. Four other states passed pre-emptive legislation legalising sports betting in anticipation of this ruling, while a further 14 have already introduced bills to their legislature. Within a year or two, this will be a tidal wave that will cover the whole country — with the probable exception of Utah and Hawaii.

However, those champagne bottles weren’t being opened to celebrate any sense of justice being done. This was all about the money. Frankly, other than the illegal, underground bookmakers who are currently feeding the (significant) gambling habit of Americans, it is hard to think of anyone who won’t benefit from an enormous commercial windfall.

First and foremost, the individual states are now able to collect tax on the profits of an industry that some people estimate to be worth at least $400bn (£296.4bn) per year.

Bookmakers are the next obvious beneficiaries with over £1.5bn added to the market values of British betting firms immediately after the ruling was made public. Shares in Paddy Power Betfair soared by over 12 per cent. Meanwhile companies like DraftKings and Fan Duel, who currently navigate a loophole in the legislation with their daily fantasy propositions, already have an active database of 10m people who like to stake money on sports predictions.

The major sports leagues and their teams are chilling their champagne flutes as well. Ironically, they were fighting against the ruling, arguing instead for a Federal solution rather than a state-by-state one. But that technicality notwithstanding, Mark Cuban, the outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA team has gone on record saying that this ruling will double the franchise value of all teams in the major US sports leagues.

Even if the - frankly preposterous - one per cent “integrity fee” that the leagues are proposing doesn’t come to pass, there are multiple ways that the leagues and teams will benefit commercially. People are significantly more likely to watch more minutes of more games when they have money on it, so that increased viewership will be reflected in the rights fees. Sports data will become the oil in the engine of the industry so expect to see significantly more deals like US Soccer’s $1.5bn deal with STATSports and Sportradar’s exclusive deal with the NFL.

Even more significantly, the ruling has also opened up a gigantic new sponsorship category. Gambling companies now account for a staggering 45 per cent of Premier League shirt sponsorships and completely dominate the commercial breaks as they compete to be front of mind in the “moment of truth” when the bet is placed. That is worth a lot of money to betting companies and they have shown a willingness to pay for it. Let the land grab commence.

But the biggest winner of all will be those responsible gamblers around the country, who no longer have to go underground to unregulated, dark markets. They will now have access to transparent odds, payouts on their winning bets will be guaranteed and there will be a route to legal recourse if necessary. Contrary to some who argue that an explosion of betting might lead to more corruption, almost all evidence suggests that this increased transparency will decrease the opportunity to manipulate the markets as irregular betting patterns become easier to identify.

Of course, there is a long way to go and there are likely to be plenty of bumps in the road before this all plays out. But the genie is out of the bottle and sports marketing in the US will never be the same again.

That’s something you can bet your mortgage on.

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.