Pro surfing and the kindness of strangers
Ever since the World Surf League assumed ownership of pro surfing it’s been online sport to speculate about their machinations: What’s happening to pro surfing? Where is it heading? And for the really curious, why did Dirk Ziff, a reclusive non-surfing billionaire, buy into our sport?
The simple answer to the last question is that Ziff merely stumped up the seed capital till the WSL could spin its own wheels. And to date, the seed money has made a profound difference.
Consider the recent Aussie leg to understand what’s been achieved. Continual improvements to the webcast mean the interface is far and away the best it’s ever been, while the surfing regularly rose to the theatre of sport - think Owen winning Snapper, or the final day at Bells - and, perhaps most importantly, there’s less angst over the coming post-Slater era now that John John has illuminated the pathway to the future. For the first time in a long while the sport feels bigger than Kelly Slater.
In the hands of the WSL, professional surfing has been a success in every aspect bar one: It ain’t making enough money.
When the WSL first hopped in the saddle they talked a big numbers game - real big. However, it wasn’t mere bravado, one of their first decisions was to contract Repucom, a sports research firm, to discover the potential reach of professional surfing.
In late 2013, the WSL’s then-CMO, Michael Lynch, said of surfing's fan base, “the ASP found through research via Repucom that there are 130 million hand raisers and 120 million bona fide fans of the sport.” As for the future, Lynch said that “there's a potential to have some 250 million real fans.”
This wasn’t an isolated quote, the “120 million fans” has since been used repeatedly in WSL advertising and literature. And it still is, recently I received a press release advertising a WSL longboard event in Papua New Guinea that would attract “120 million online viewers”.
If 120 million viewers for a longboard event in Papua New Guinea sounds fanciful then the same can be said for even the best Championship Tour webcast. Research that Swellnet conducted in 2014 showed the actual viewership was orders of magnitude below Repucom’s figures. And while our later research shows that numbers have risen, pro surfing is never going to match those initial figures provided by Repucom.
Clearly there was a flaw in Repucom’s methodology. Attempts to contact Nielsen Sport, who now own Repucom, were rebuffed though any explanation on their behalf would have been academic: surfers intuitively know the sport will never cross into the mainstream. It’s far too nuanced, too specific, too unrewarding for Joe Public who can see nought but two guys bobbing on the ocean.
Yet it’s important to consider those initial viewer figures because they’re the numbers the WSL used to build their business case, and they’re also the numbers the WSL took to market. Think about that for a moment and consider again why Samsung pulled out of their role as Championship Tour sponsor.
The Championship Tour may yet again get an umbrella sponsor but it’ll be on drastically reduced terms because now that the model is operable companies can’t be sold on the promise, only on the reality.
Similar reassessment will also occur at the event level, and in fact it already is. Recently I spoke to one event sponsor who summed up his relationship with the WSL as “dysfunctional”, and yet he was thinking of renewing the contract when it expires next year. It would, however, be renegotiated on new, “fact-based” terms.
All of this is pointing towards a significant revenue shortfall that can only be filled by one person. And this is where the online sport of speculation begins. But lest you think that such talk is negative consider that much of it is driven by people who care about pro surfing and wonder about it’s future.
And those people have a right to wonder, because if pro surfing can’t become sustainable then Dirk Ziff switches from venture capitalist to surfing philanthropist and the WSL assumes a slightly different complexion.
Pro surfing as a charity
The story goes that Dirk Ziff crossed paths with surfing when his wife Natasha had a surf lesson in Hawaii and came home smitten. We can guess that Terry Hardy and Paul Speaker then weaved their rhetorical gold and brought Ziff on as silent partner. For the first few years of the WSL’s tenure he was not only silent but seemingly invisible too; surfing’s own Howard Hughes, providing funding from the shadows while the front end of the WSL sold the product.
Comparisons to the American NFL, NBA and the like were made, not least because Paul Speaker was an ex-marketing director for the NFL, but also because it was the business model being copied.
Five years down the track and it appears the WSL - at least in its current state - will struggle to be self-supporting in the way other national and international leagues are. If this is true then to survive pro surfing becomes reliant on the goodwill of the Ziffs.
By all reports the Ziffs are very good people. Together they’ve created the Natasha & Dirk Ziff Foundation to give money to environmental, social, and mental health causes. Amounts listed online aren’t particularly large - rarely over a million dollars - and suggest judicious reasoning. The perception is people who are prudent and not prone to splashing cash around.
So consider then, a WSL that’s funded by such money and the implications of, say, a drug scandal. Or a sex scandal, or even just a het up athlete saying some choice words on live television. If the choice is between indulging pro surfers or saving panda bears...well, you can understand why everything is being censored.
The above scenario makes pro surfing sound vulnerable to the whims of the Ziffs, and that may be so, yet the WSL’s acquisition of the Kelly Slater Wave Company should bring comfort to fans as it indicates there’s a longer game being played.
The wavepool is the great saviour out there on the horizon as it employs technology that circumvents current obstacles. It can be programmed to run at any time, it can work around ad breaks, and it serves both onsite fans in the bleachers and those watching on a scheduled webcast. It may even, take a deep breath, appeal to non-surfers.
Except the technology is a long time coming. Kelly Slater has reportedly been working on his idea since 2005, and has had his company going since 2010. At present they have one wave that breaks one direction located in an isolated lake. It’s impressive, no doubt, but it’s pioneering work replete with setbacks and blowouts, so who can schedule an end date for a full-blown arena. Another five years? Ten perhaps…?
I’d venture the 2024 Olympics are their moon shot, though it sounds too sci-fi to get a fix on; too distant and unknown to consider seriously. The one thing we can be sure of is that by developing wavepools the WSL are taking the long view with pro surfing. But what will happen in the meantime?
How long till it hits the black?
When venture capitalists provide start up money they also prescribe terms. Unless they have ulterior motives the capital can’t flow in perpetuity, at some point they have to cut their sunk costs and get out, or they change the business model. This year marks five years since the WSL took the reins and the passing milestone has been noted by some pro surf commentators.
“It just feels like something’s gotta change or something’s gonna give,” wrote Sean Doherty in his first contest report of the year. “We’re on the brink of something, I’m just not sure what.”
While Nick Carroll was more specific when he wrote,“...cold reality is coming to the WSL’s operations, later if not sooner.” The ‘cold reality’, according to Carroll, was a reduced contest schedule, a reduced surfer roster, and a shift in sales focus from multinational corporations - which the WSL has struggled to land - to local, industry-related sponsors.
No-one knows the terms of Ziff’s seed money but despite having a vastly improved webcast the forecast audiences have failed to show, the Championship Tour has lost its umbrella sponsor, and Carroll’s prediction seems most likely to come true - a scaling back of infrastructure and switch in commercial direction.
Yet it needn’t be seen as a negative: a tour that’s more exclusive, more adaptable, and more focussed on the core, may even be welcomed by some fans. Who among us really wanted the WSL to broaden the appeal of surfing to 250 million people? Even 120 million is gonna change your wave count down at the local.
The sporting world is full of rich folk who support their team by buying it. Elton John bought Watford FC, Jay-Z is a part-owner of the New Jersey Nets, and even ol' Russell Crowe once owned the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Yet Dirk Ziff (along with Terry Hardy and Paul Speaker) have done something different, they didn’t just buy a team, they bought the whole league plus the associated organisations: the Qualifying Series, the Longboard Tour, the Big Wave Tour, the XXL Awards. They own the lot.
They’re not, however, the first rich folk to support surfing. From 1996 to 2010 Englishman Greville Mitchell played wealthy benefactor to various incarnations of the ASP providing both counsel and cash. Like the Ziffs, he also gave money to humanitarian causes, yet his link with surfing was less altruistic: he simply felt better for surrounding himself with surfers.
In 2000 Greville Mitchell told the London Telegraph that the revelation came when, after a “wonderful” day of watching surfing, he returned home and switched on the news. “Halfway through I just threw up my arms and, pardon my French, exploded: 'What a load of fucking crap. I just don't need this any more.' Only by association with surfers have I really began to realise what is important in my life," said Mitchell. And the benefits flowed both ways. On his online blog Paul Sargeant said that if it wasn’t for Mitchell’s interest and support of pro surfing, “we might not even have a circuit or professional association.”
The Ziff’s original connection with surfing parallels that of Greville Mitchell - late bloomers who discover the salubrious effects of the surf. And as benefactors of the sport Dirk and Natasha Ziff also currently occupy a similar position that Greville Mitchell once did. Just before they stepped in, pro surfing was in a death spiral, the companies who sponsored it were struggling financially and glad to offload the burden. Now it’s up and running again, a roaring success except for the revenue, which is being shouldered by the kindness of strangers. How long can it continue?