The ASP: It's on but who's watching? - Part 3
Last May and September Swellnet published articles that tracked the viewership of each World Tour contest of 2014, the first year of ZoSea's operation. ZoSea's business model – Dirk Ziff's benevolence notwithstanding - presupposes a large live audience to attract corporate sponsorship, yet the live webcast traffic has been far below expectation making ZoSea's job a tough sell. This is the third and last article in the series. To understand the rationale behind YouTube concurrent viewers as a metric we suggest reading the first article in the series.
In September, the CEO of ZoSea, Paul Speaker, wrote an open letter to the surf community announcing an imminent name change. From the beginning of 2015, Speaker said, the ASP will be known as the World Surf League (WSL).
In hindsight the name change wasn't a surprise, at least to those who were paying attention. Two months before Speaker's announcement ZoSea hosted a party in New York under the pretext of celebrating the US leg of the World Tour. In attendance were ZoSea's top brass, surfers Kelly Slater and Steph Gilmore, a gaggle of businesspeople, plus celebrities such as Tom Cruise's ex-wife, Katie Holmes.
Celebrity blogger Perez Hilton was aware of the name change even if the rest of the surf community weren't. On the 25th July, Hilton wrote: “Katie Holmes' white lace Nina Ricci dress was pure romance at the World Surf League cocktail party held atop a hotel in New York last night.”
Then, in their own press release about the New York soiree, the ASP made a soft announcement of the WSL. They wrote: “The Association of Surfing Professionals, the world surf league, announced the return of the annual Samsung ASP World Surf Tour to the United States...”
Despite the title of this article we'll use the acronym WSL. We'll also revisit the WSL rebranding later in the article.
The last four contests
Part 2 of this series ended at the Billabong Pro Tahiti, which was at that point the most popular event of 2014. Teahupoo peaked at 118,911 concurrent viewers, more than double the next best competition.
From French Polynesia the tour headed to Southern California and the Hurley Pro Trestles. The two contests are a study in contrasts, but what Trestles loses in quality it supposedly makes up for in proximity to industry and the world's largest surfing market. At least that's how it goes in theory. The reality wasn't quite so favourable.
The first day of the Hurley Pro peaked at 43,958 viewers during Kelly Slater's Round 1 heat. This represents just over a third of Tahiti's peak. The numbers edged up as the contest progressed with a peak of 69,417 hit during the Final between Jordy Smith and John John Florence - just over half of the Tahitian high water mark. At that point it was the second highest number reached all year.
As the tour hit the European leg the numbers tapered back to those found during the Australian leg. The Quiksilver Pro France peaked at 38,579 in the Final between John John and Jadson Andre. This contest suffered from many stop/start interruptions which, as was explained in Part 2, play havoc with viewership. Surfers, it would seem, are an impatient lot.
Held just a week later the Rip Curl Pro Portugal did marginally better. It was averaging in the high 30,000s and jumped to a peak of 53,467 during the Final between Mick Fanning and Jordy Smith.
Pipeline was the final contest of the year and enjoyed a spectacular build up and plot line. Three surfers, one from each of the top three surfing nations, were vying for the world title. Gabriel Medina sat comfortably in pole position streaking towards Brazil's first ever world title, Mick Fanning was in second, and Kelly Slater was pushing for an improbable 12th title.
Although the Pipeline Masters ran intermittently the viewer numbers consistently sat higher than the peak viewing of the Australian and European legs, averaging between 40,000 and 50,000 concurrent viewers. On the final day, the day the world title was decided, the viewership peaked at 107,392 during a Round 5 heat between Mick Fanning and Alejo Muniz. Slater had already been knocked out in Round 3, Fanning was the last challenger to Medina's crown. The title decided, viewer numbers dropped off as the contest continued. Curiously, only 90,000 people watched the final between Julian Wilson and Gabriel Medina, a drop of nearly 20% from the earlier peak.
The peak concurrent viewership for each contest in 2014 were:
Snapper Rocks: 41,123
Margaret River: 29,045
Bells Beach: 47,000
Jeffreys Bay: 43,739
It needs to be noted that this is each contests peak viewership figures. Average viewership figures were approximately half the peak.
In Part 2 of this series, which included analysis of J'Bay, Fiji, and Tahiti, we deduced that wave quality trumps celebrity when interpreting the statistics. That is, more people tune in when the waves are good. During Trestles, France and Portugal - contests without good, early forecast waves - the viewing pattern fell back into the celebrity pattern, albeit with numbers far below those contests with good waves. The viewing spikes invariably coincided with heats containing just a handful of surfers: Slater, Florence, Smith, Fanning.
And the women?
Although we're up to the third part in this series we're yet to address a significant part of the pro surfing landscape: women's surfing. This could be considered an oversight as the very reason for ZoSea's existence is Dirk Ziff's wife, Natasha, becoming enamoured by women's surfing. It was that relationship, and perhaps some conjugal manipulation, that convinced Ziff to pony up the seed capital. So how has women's surfing fared during 2014?
Let's start at the beginning, back at Snapper Rocks. On Day 3 the women were sent out in improving conditions at Snapper. As it transpired the conditions improved much more than expected and that day ended up being the best of the waiting period. In years past the rapidly improving conditions would've seen the women called in and men sent back out. This year, however, the commissioners held tight and allowed the women to continue. The decision was universally lauded in the surfing media, presented as an example of gender progress. Sean Doherty called the decision “historic and long overdue.”
The first heat of the day was between Alana Blanchard and Dimity Stoyle. It attracted 10,887 viewers which was also the peak viewing of the entire day. The media may well have deemed it an historic day but the audience numbers didn't reflect that sentiment. The viewership slid all day and by the last heat the women were registering just 5,000 concurrent viewers. By comparison the men averaged 20,000 at the Quiksilver Pro and peaked at over 40,000.
The women's audience travelled on a similar arc for much of the year. It boosted slightly when their contest was combined with the mens, dropping when it ran solo.
In late November the women fought out a very similar title race to the men; three surfers - Steph Gilmore, Sally Fitzgibbons, and Tyler Wright – were in contention on the last day of the last event. It was a champagne showdown and the WSL pushed it hard. Yet despite the deluge of news and social media updates very few surfers were aware that Stephanie Gilmore could've won the title during the previous competition, the Cascais Pro in Portugal. The Cascais Pro was held in early October, its waiting period overlapped that of the men's Quiksilver Pro France.
The women's title breakdown at Cascais was simple: If Steph Gilmore won the event – which she did – and Tyler Wright finished no higher then fifth, and Sally Fitzgibbons and Carissa Moore finished no higher than third then Steph would win the title in Portugal. Moore lost early, however Wright made the semis and Fitzgibbons the final. Yet for two tense quarterfinal heats the women's world title was very nearly decided in Portugal.
During those crucial quarterfinal heats the viewership maxed out at just 1,145, plus 23 Portuguese locals enjoying commentary in their native tongue. In total there were a mere 1,170 sets of eyes watching matchpoint for the women's world title. Meanwhile, up the coast at France, 35,000 viewers watched the men in the Quiksilver Pro France, a competition without any bearing on their world title (see image below).
Swellnet recently spoke to Dave Prodan, the WSL's VP of Communication, about the plight of the women. Prodan made assurances that women surfing will be a focus of the WSL in 2015 and beyond. “Our management will invest more next year in women’s surfing, said Prodan, “the details of that marketing plan are coming together now.” More broadly he said the WSL would celebrate the stories of the women and market them across endemic and non-endemic media. The women would also have parity with the men in terms of pay and broadcast quality. It's also worth noting that in 2015 there are no overlaps between women and mens competitions.
The Big Wave World Tour
Only one BWWT event ran since the last instalment of this series – the Punta Galea Challenge in the Basque Country. Although in its third year, this was the first time it was a top tier event and so received all the marketing and press coverage worthy of its status.
In early December the first in a series of deep low pressure systems formed in the far North Atlantic Ocean. Forecast to send huge waves to every west facing coast in Europe the WSL gave Punta Galea the green light on December 7th for competition to run on December 11th. That day dawned with strong wind, driving rain, and an unorganised 20 foot swell broaching the irregular reef at Punta Galea. Conditions slowly improved but it was far from spectacular viewing, long periods of inaction were punctuated by survival stance drops into sloping waves. The viewership started at 7,728 and slowly climbed toward 10,000 viewers, then beyond that to 15,000. The global audience peaked at 15,203 concurrent viewers around the same time Nic Lamb dropped into his winning wave.
Punta Galea garnered marginally more viewers than the last BWWT contest, the Pico Alto Challenge, which averaged around 11,000 and peaked at 12,829. Given the optimistic state of the WSL they'd no doubt call the incremental rise a win though it's patently clear they'll need to attract many more viewers to create a sustainable product, especially considering they have, at best, just six one day contests each season. When, or if, a BWWT event gets held in the blue water, viewer friendly waves of Peahi or Todos Santos then we'll get a better idea of its potential reach.
As was mentioned at the beginning of this article the ASP recently changed its name to the WSL. The motive behind the change was, as Paul Speaker said in a press release, “because we believe the new name is easier to understand.” Potential sponsors had reportedly been confused by the term 'association' in the title so a more more commercially appealing name was chosen. Most of the sponsors are American and so accustomed to the term 'league' when describing a competition.
In 1992, the food company Kellogg's registered the trademark, “Kellogg's Nutri-Grain World Surf League” with IP Australia. This 'world surf league' wasn't for surfing but surf lifesaving, a sport that boomed during the 90s in Australia.
In July last year, just a couple of days before Katie Holmes shared hors d'ouvres with Kelly Slater in New York, a company working on behalf of ZoSea applied for trademarks in the USA and Australia for "WSL World Surf League Since 1976" and "WSL World Surf League.” At the same time they also applied for the "Kellogg's Nutri-Grain World Surf League" trademark to be removed due to non-use.
There's nothing wrong or unethical in these actions, but it shows the lengths the WSL are going to in order to protect their brand. Despite Kellogg's not using the “World Surf League” brand for nearly twenty years the WSL were proactive in legally quashing the original trademark.
In a similar manner, the WSL are protecting their image through other means. After the first two instalments of this series were published, Swellnet was no longer able to embed any WSL videos, be they of the world tour, BWWT, or XXL Awards. I asked Dave Prodan why Swellnet was blocked from doing so. “In year one of operations,” said Prodan, “the WSL experimented with various content syndication models. At present, media partners of the WSL receive the benefit of embedding WSL content.”
Prodan's answer doesn't mesh with our experience. Until the two articles ran, Swellnet, who aren't a WSL media partner, could embed videos. Also, sites such as STAB in Australia and Carve in the UK, neither of whom are media partners can embed videos. Even Daily Surf Videos, a repository of internet clips and nothing more, “receive the benefit” of embedding WSL clips. It's hard to see the block as anything but a means of controlling their image in the face of scrutiny.
What nationalities are watching?
Since ZoSea took control of pro surfing a recurring criticism, at least from Australian and European quarters, has been the American-centric nature of the webcast. The team is mostly comprised of Americans and the broadcast presentation is eerily similar to many other American sports. Squint and those graphics on the screen display NASCAR statistics, or NBL, or NFL. There's a homogeny amongst those sports and the WSL has wholly adopted it. Even the Google Earth graphics used to locate contest sites shows them in relation to the Californian coast. In 2015 surfing is global in everything but the surfing webcast.
Last year the WSL significantly ramped up their social media presence and strategy. They have large social media followings, but more importantly they use them to effect. Whenever a contest is called on they immediately announce it via Twitter and Facebook. In a May 2014 press release Dave Prodan said: “Through the benefit of the ASP's updates on event alerts...fans can organize their daily schedules around when their favorite surfers are competing, tune in for their heat and get back to business.”
The same event alerts that Prodan mentions above has allowed Swellnet to track where their audience is coming from. Each social media alert uses a unique Bitly link to truncate the URL address of the webcast page. Bitly is a popular tool, used by organisations to streamline social media messages. It's simply a proxy web link, when someone clicks on the Bitly link they are forwarded to the original webpage. In this instance the live webcast page for the respective contest. An example is shown at right with the Bitly link for the Billabong Pro Tahiti.
Not only is Bitly powerful, it's also public -sort of. All the traffic information is available to anyone with a Bitly account. By doing just that Swellnet has analysed the Men's World Tour and found that the WSL's 2014 audience was split into four major markets, which are (in order of size): Brazil; United States; Europe; and Australia, who each comprise roughly 20% of the audience (Australia is actually closer to 15%), and Japan, who represent around 7%. The 'rest of the world' makes up the remaining 13%. Interestingly, South Africa, a pioneering pro surf country, is now one of those minor markets.
Questions arise beyond the hard data. The WSL name change was clearly to appease sponsors who are mostly American, yet the audience is global. Can the WSL appeal to the burgeoning markets with its current aesthetic?
If the WSL is hoping to grow their audience they'll have to consider this because success hinges upon widespread appeal. Already the WSL pulls more social media traffic from Brazil than the United States and with Gabriel Medina's world title win that'll only increase. Likewise the number of viewers from the minor markets which, anecdotally at least, have faster growing surf populations than the US or Australia.
Following the first two articles in this series we received hundreds of comments. A recurring question was why we didn't include data for viewers who don't watch webcasts live on YouTube. There are a couple of answers, the first being that we simply can't. It just isn't available. The idea for this series only began on Day 1 at Snapper Rocks when we realised the new YouTube interface showed concurrent viewers. While commentators have always given shout outs to the "millions of viewers in webland”, I'd long suspected webcast numbers were lower than the official figures. However, it wasn't until Snapper Rocks that viewer numbers became publicly available. Immediately it was obvious the commentators were talking an outrageously big game.
The other answer is that, to get a gauge of the audience, we don't need that data. The WSL – and indeed every other major television sport – have long said that live viewing is where the money is. Therefore delayed playback on late night network television isn't the panacea pro surfing needs. Building a live audience is, and as one anonymous media buyer told me “the ASP will need at least five times the current audience to entice a third-string sports sponsor.”
The huge shortfall between actual viewer numbers, as shown shown in this series of articles, and those required for a sustainable product counts out the relatively small viewership garnered on Oceanic Cable in Hawaii, the now defunct Fuel TV channel in Australia, and ESPN in Brazil.
No doubt the WSL's movers and shakers were aware they had to dramatically increase the viewership. They had access to the webcast figures throughout 2013 so knew what was needed to turn a profit. At this point it's worth recalling Michael Lynch's 2013 assertion in Marketing Daily that pro surfing could count 130 million fans as “hand raisers” and “120 million bona fide fans of the sport.” In the same interview he said “there's a potential to have some 250 million real fans.” Questions lie in whether they can reach these figures, the means needed to achieve them, and lastly, what a world with 250 million surfers would look like.
But those questions are for the future. Right now the WSL is readying itself for 2015, its second year in operation. They're yet to find sponsors for two of the most popular contests on the tour – Fiji and Jeffrey's Bay – and they're yet to announce an umbrella sponsor.