Is Pro-Surfing On A Mainstream Wave?
December in the continental U.S. ushers in big holiday shopping, but out in the Pacific Ocean the end of the year means big waves and the wind-down of the World Surfing League (“WSL”) Championship Tour.
The water sport has been riding an explosive digital wave in recent years, engaging fans with stunning images and videos of surfers taking on the untamed ocean. Today, the WSL’s social media footprint touches a larger global audience than the NHL, PGA, ATP, or MLS. Its fanbase is the youngest in all of sports.
The league itself is roughly 40 years old, having started out as the International Professional Surfers organization and eventually morphing and rebranding into the WLS in 2015.
This year also marks a corporate milestone with a new CEO at the helm- Sophie Goldschmidt- whose resume includes executive positions at the Rugby Football Union, NBA, Women’s Tennis Association and Adidas.
The WSL showcases the best surfing talent in a variety of formats that include the men’s and women’s Championship Tour (“CT”), Qualifying Series, Longboard Championships, Junior Championships and the Big Wave Tour.
The annual CT schedule takes 11 surfing events around the world to places like Australia, Brazil, South Africa, California, France and Portugal. The competitions culminate in December with the Billabong Pipe Masters event in Oahu, Hawaii.
Male and female surfers with the most points at the end of the year are crowned World Champions. The judging criteria of their performance at each event are based on the level of difficulty, creativity, maneuverability, speed, power and flow.
Kelly Slater (USA), named Greatest Surfer of All Time by Surfer Magazine, is the CT historic leader with 11 titles since 1992. Layne Beachley (AUS) is the women’s champion with 7 victories.
While surfing has attracted millions of borderless fans through online traffic, its purse winnings remain considerably lower than the more established sports.
Next to the U.S. Open (tennis) and the Masters (Golf), which in 2017 paid out prize money worth $50 million and $11 million, respectively, the Billabong will distribute only $579,000 this year to its leaderboard winners.
The surfing industry- boards, wetsuits, clothing, accessories, etc.- is estimated to be around $13 billion worldwide. Though, at the ocean contests there are no gate receipts or lucrative multi-year television contracts.
The nature of surf competitions makes it challenging for traditional broadcasters to air live events, since poor weather and water conditions can often delay starts.
Surfing first grabbed the imagination of Europeans when their ships explored the South Pacific in the 18th century. Honolulu's Duke Kahanamoku, born in 1890 when Hawaii was still a kingdom, is regarded as the father of modern surfing.
A recreational wave rider and 3x Olympic gold medalist in swimming, Duke’s clout helped popularize the water sport around the world.
Surfing’s dreamy lure and ocean-going lifestyle eventually made its way to pop-culture in the form of music (Beach Boys), film (The Endless Summer) and fashion (Billabong).
But still a niche sport with its own subculture ethos, executives at the WSL are attempting to steer surfing closer to a mainstream following.
After several failed attempts, the International Surfing Association finally succeeded in bringing the sport to the Olympics. Surfing will make its debut at the 2020 Olympics in Japan with a field of forty men and women riding on shortboards.
In 2015, WSL was the first sports league to live-stream on Facebook and going forward, a creative digital engagement with non-surfers alike will help propel the sport further.
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