Pro surfing and the kindness of strangers

Stu Nettle
Surfpolitik

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 wavepool

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.

Why surfing?

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?

Comments

the-camel's picture
the-camel's picture
the-camel Wednesday, 3 May 2017 at 3:31pm

Hopefully, not for much longer. Let's kill off this corporate circus where you can't tell one high performance tryhard from another. The poor judges have to somehow pick the miniscule difference between these "pros" and then try to make it look objective. Set up surfcams on poles all over the break from every angle, run the footage thru a computer program which analyses every competitor's wave, the most wriggles in the tightest angles vrs percentage of time spent in the air, crunch the numbers then printout the winner. Done. Whole comps done and dusted in a day. Hand a cheque to some drongo who thinks he's somebody because he can ride a surfboard and then repeat ad nausea

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy Wednesday, 3 May 2017 at 7:41pm

This is true. A mate of mine who had some cash to invest was approached to fund a computer based judging system.....no human input at all. The program would analyse the wave and give the score. Part of the pitch was that he already had interest from various amateur bodies. I suggested he let the opportunity pass.

the-camel's picture
the-camel's picture
the-camel Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 7:49am

Yes, the technology is already here for a fully analysed, objective, computerised scoring system, but as with everything else in pro-surfing the money is not. Still, the "pros" should be happy. From Nat Young thru to Owen Wright, surfing is full of these "visionary" folks who are desperate for sporting & athletic legitimacy so they can make a few quid and/or get a bit of reco. Their time has finally come. Enter the data.

roubydouby's picture
roubydouby's picture
roubydouby Wednesday, 3 May 2017 at 4:48pm

Doesn't WSL Holdings own Kelly Slater Wave Company?
Is the plan is to get it to commercially viability, then use the revenue to run the tour?
Imagine a wave pool stop on the tour where they can showcase the latest upgrade - bigger, heavier etc. Perfect way to advertise it, then on sell it to all the wave pools around the world.
It has got to earn more than those ridiculous shirts they were flogging.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy Wednesday, 3 May 2017 at 7:42pm

Think China. I am sure they are.

clif's picture
clif's picture
clif Wednesday, 3 May 2017 at 11:30pm

I am tired of these China claims. You have no evidence of such and it makes no sense, if you know China even in the slightest. It is clutching at straws because you don't know so you go ... well, it must be China they are looking at (simply because they have a large population). Unless you have evidence of such - hard evidence - maybe stop making claims. about that which you know nothing, not that it has stopped you before.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 8:40am

.......nor will it stop me again. It is an entirely reasonable hypothesis that a financially insecure sporting organisation would look to a huge potential market to improve their fortunes. As for knowing nothing, well I actually had a conversation with a skate park designer a couple of years ago who had been hired to design one for a mall in China. They also wanted a wave pool but couldn't find a suitable design. A bit stressed are we clif? Kicked the dog again!

ant shannon's picture
ant shannon's picture
ant shannon Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 3:23pm

The ZIFFS maybe smart, but I don't think they're that concerned about the ocean...
http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/03/28/1080330996949.html?from=sto...

ashleigh's picture
ashleigh's picture
ashleigh Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 10:21am

As much as I appreciate the skill levels and commitment pro surfers have for the 'sport', I personally could not give a rat's backside if the whole WSL and professional side of surfing went belly up. In all honesty, as long as my kids and I can keep surfing in nice relatively uncrowded conditions, we're all happy and life's good. Perhaps my view is that of a simpleton, but what more can you ask for than that?

finch's picture
finch's picture
finch Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 10:28am

We had a guy like Dirk Ziff ride into town a few years ago. He moved to the coast as a plump middled guy who'd never surfed and then took some lessons because he encouraged his two kids into the water. Within a month, voila!, he figured he'd found the elixir to life and was talking dumb shit about the merits of Flashbomb wetties and EPS blanks and what wax was the best. You couldn't get out of a conversation with him fast enough.

He rocked up at the first pointscore of the year and on rainy days we were stuck. People would stand out in the drizzle rather than listen to him drone on with no clue about surfing but all the lingo which he'd read somewhere. He started helping out at boardriders and within months he had the megaphone and clipboard. It was embarassing but he knew how to draw sponsors and he was organised.

Eventually he moved over to the surf club when his oldest son won some races, and we went back to standing inside the tent and being unorganised again.

the-camel's picture
the-camel's picture
the-camel Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 10:39am

That's cool. If only we could convince all the pros and the wanna-be pros to join their local surf lifesaving club. Clubbies are cashed-up, perhaps they should run the WSL. It should be a good marriage, all the surfing pros are looking for sporting "recognition" and "legitimacy" and the clubbies are looking for......well just about anything really that's prepared to wear their undies to the beach

Craig's picture
Craig's picture
Craig Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 10:54am

Ha, great story.

rusty-moran's picture
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rusty-moran Saturday, 6 May 2017 at 6:01pm

Ben and stu, can you guys do two new things this week?

1. Give a shout out to funniest comment of the week?

2. Give the first one to Finch for this funny-as anecdote?

nickcarroll's picture
nickcarroll's picture
nickcarroll Wednesday, 10 May 2017 at 1:50pm

Nah finch, you didn't have a guy like Dirk Ziff ride into town. Dirk Ziff is phenomenally, hugely, profoundly, massively rich. Four years into his fantastic-seeming expenditures in professional surfing, his estimated personal wealth is around $5.8 billion, over a billion dollars MORE than before he got involved in these shenanigans. Dirk Ziff does not use either the megaphone or the clipboard, indeed the number of times you'd have seen him around a CT event this year so far you could count on one hand, and he is superlatively not interested in personal publicity of any kind. He is gently worshipped around the WSL, which isn't surprising since he's kept 'em all in a job for some time now and looks like continuing to do so into the future. To me he represents a sorta cool-dude version of a renowned American stereotype: the billionaire sporting franchise owner. The rather mega difference being, he picked surfing, not an NFL team.

the-camel's picture
the-camel's picture
the-camel Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 10:30am

I'm with ashleigh all the way. WSL should buy up all them gargantuan snowboard halfpipes leftover from Winter olympics, shoot damloads of water up their faces & get all these "pro" folk to hold their surf comps on them, blasting 40ft airs with their stack hats on and sitting in the tube for hours at a time. Let the rest of us get on with monkeying around in the ocean.

abc-od's picture
abc-od's picture
abc-od Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 10:44am

@stunet...how confident are you that change is imminent at the CT level?

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 12:09pm

Fairly certain. I don't doubt Dirk's commitment to the sport, he said as much to Surfline in an article following Speaker's resignation:

"I’m deeply committed to the future of the WSL,” Ziff said. “I believe strongly in the power of surfing to impact people’s lives, and it’s that power that brings surfers and non-surfers alike to our sport and community.”

But at present the sums just don't add up. I've estimated the numbers in past articles, look 'em up if you need to, 'cept now they don't have an umbrella sponsor while the costs are relentlessly incurred.

The reality is that Repucom's research was wrong and the error could be explained thus: just because you like surfing (i.e you're a 'hand raiser') doesn't mean you like contest surfing (i.e staying up late to sit through two delays and a restart). It means fewer people are watching than was originally expected, the consequences being a contraction relative to the size of the actual audience and the sponsorship revenue. Nothing particularly surprising about that, unless it's gonna run on Ziff's largesse indefinetely the WSL has to abide by biz practices.

wildenstein8's picture
wildenstein8's picture
wildenstein8 Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 12:20pm

It doesnt matter what happens, there'll always be surfers who want to compete against each other and people who want to watch them.

thermalben's picture
thermalben's picture
thermalben Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 12:29pm

But, the missing part of that equation are the people who connect the competing surfers to the armchair viewers. 

derra83's picture
derra83's picture
derra83 Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 12:25pm

This has been the golden era of pro surfing from the web watchers POV, but you know it can't go on forever. Hope the webcast quality isn't reduced.

the-camel's picture
the-camel's picture
the-camel Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 12:31pm

As long as it's on a screen, somebody somewhere will watch it

the-camel's picture
the-camel's picture
the-camel Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 12:36pm

If they computerise the judging system, the whole thing could be streamlined into a very attractive package. Entire comps could be run in a single day of good waves.

talkingturkey's picture
talkingturkey's picture
talkingturkey Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 2:32pm

Here's a hypothetical prognostication. Pro surfing (getting paid to surf) INCREASINGLY follows what's going on in pro skateboarding...as per usual these last, what? 20 years or so?

So, you get corporate tours and comps, sponsored by 'lolly-water' outsiders, even Olympics, for the 'athletes' and their followers (little kids that haven't learnt any better yet and/or Jo/Joe Public)...and the others, travelling around, making media, living the life of Riley.

Group A makes better $...but if you're into the life, you couldn't give a rat's what shit they're up to.

Group B makes a living by not working, and produces the goods in respect to blowing fellow lifer's minds.

Sometimes the twain may meet...because things aren't that regimented anyways.

The rest of us just get on with it. As per usual.

the-camel's picture
the-camel's picture
the-camel Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 3:02pm

You've gobbled it all up Turkey. I have nothing to add after that. Next topic.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 3:07pm

Mate, you've commented seven times already in this thread already. You hiding something? Wanna make an admission perhaps?

the-camel's picture
the-camel's picture
the-camel Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 3:17pm

So I'm working on a computer program that analyses every twitch of a thruster.

PCS PeterPan's picture
PCS PeterPan's picture
PCS PeterPan Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 9:39pm

Has anyone mentioned the dreaded paywall so far ? I've read this thread and have'nt noticed it . Had a chat with a mate who works in media and he reckons MOTO GP viewers in Europe pay around 90 euros for a yearly subscription.
It's not too expensive for some , but some such as myself would rather put that $$$ to a new shooter or wettie, and catch the highlights at a later stage .
For that matter , instead of sitting on my arse watching Phil etcetera rotate and punt away , go get some waves myself .

memlasurf's picture
memlasurf's picture
memlasurf Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 10:04pm

Pete you are right about Moto GP as I ride bikes as well and follow it. That is really sown up money wise can't get near any cast unless you pay and pay ( I don't just try to catch it on channel 1). There is a hell of a lot more money in moto gp than there ever will be in surfing and the punters are not as bigger tight arses as surfers as they have to pay more for their enjoyment (bike, helmet, riding gear, maintenance, etc..). Stu I seem to remember back a few years Kelly was advocating a much smaller, tighter top level when he was rumoured to be leading a break away. Looks like he might have his way in the end.

wally's picture
wally's picture
wally Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 11:28pm

A very good summary of the state of play, Stu.
I like the WSL events but, as everyone says, it needs to be shorter.

But, it won't ever get a consistent mass market viewership for a world tour. Just like all those other action sports that rode a surge of hope, and big speculative money, that were almost big, but then have dropped back as reality has bitten.

Like windsurfing, or half-pipe snowboarding, or skateboarding, or those stadium trick motor bike events, or just about every X game sport, and they are all not subject to the vagaries of good surfing waves. In fact, most of those sports can build their sport's equivalent of big perfect waves on tap, but still, the mass audience looked at it, enjoyed it for a few minutes, but it just doesn't sustain their interest.

ringmaster's picture
ringmaster's picture
ringmaster Saturday, 6 May 2017 at 11:13pm

Nailed it perfectly Wally.

Joel Eugene Slater-Burrows's picture
Joel Eugene Slater-Burrows's picture
Joel Eugene Sla... Monday, 8 May 2017 at 12:59am

The future?

amb's picture
amb's picture
amb Wednesday, 10 May 2017 at 3:06pm

When ive watched WSL events on TV with non-surfing friends they cant get there heads around why the surfers dont go for all the waves. I Try to explain they dont want to loose priority as there might be a better wave coming or they are ahead on points ect ect. They go "all well and good for them but i'm bored put the footy back on" I reckon there should be 2 groms out at the same time that are allowed to get non ridden waves. Might take a bit of the exposure of the pro's but will keep the action happening.

thermalben's picture
thermalben's picture
thermalben Wednesday, 10 May 2017 at 3:09pm

Overlapping heats (i.e. Pipe) works wonders in this regard I reckon. I am surprised they don't use this more often - would halve the number of days required to run each event and would thus maximise the best swells in the waiting period. 

simba's picture
simba's picture
simba Wednesday, 10 May 2017 at 6:29pm

Why not run the womens heats as well as the mens together over lapping even when its big,be a good contrast and more interesting.