Is The WSL Dying?

Photo Credit : WSL

When WSL CEO Paul Speaker resigned and owner Dirk Ziff took over the leadership role for the immediate future, the surfing community started wondering and speculating what the future of pro surfing will be and if the World Surf League would be sustainable.

Paul Speaker, Outgoing CEO of WSL | Photo Credit: WSL

While the WSL has been projected to have been operating at a loss of $30 million back in 2015, it is believed that the league is on target to hit their numbers thanks to exceptional audience growth that is five times faster than the NFL and an ambitious and innovative sales team implementing an effective multi-tiered strategy that goes after big fish sponsors such as Samsung and even the smaller ones such as Shoe City.

VP of Communications for the WSL, Dave Prodan, recently reported, “The WSL enjoys a healthy blend of endemic and non-endemic commercial and media partners. In recent years, long-standing supporters such as Quiksilver, Hurley, Billabong and Rip Curl have been joined by the likes of Samsung, Jeep, Swatch, GoPro, Workday, Corona, etc. We anticipate more announcements in this arena in the coming weeks.”

Samsung, WSL Major Sponsor | Photo Credit: Samsung Mobile Press

But skepticism still remains and some sources indicate that the WSL is still operating at a severe loss and is only surviving with the generosity of Ziff. And if he stops spending his own money, the operation might just stop as well.

The goal of the early years of the World Surf League is to grow the audience and build the brand. Before Speaker has left the organization, the WSL was on track to achieving said goals.

“The transition from the pre-acquisition era’s disparate system to the consolidated system that we enjoy today, as well as investment into consistent product at every level has generated a considerable increase in global audience year-over-year for several seasons,” adds Prodan.

He continued and said, “The rise of Brazil as a global surfing entity, the investment and subsequent barrier-breaking performances in women’s surfing and the historic showings in the big wave realm have invaluably complemented the business enhancements for the sport from an audience standpoint.”

Prodan added, “As a digital-first company, and sport and entertainment leader in the social media space, the WSL now enjoys a global reach that was not possible a few short years ago. We anticipate continued growth across all sectors of the company in the coming years.”

The WSL operates on a platform that is extremely complex to manage. Imagine that every weekend throughout the year, somewhere in the world, there is a WSL-Sanctioned event taking place. Regardless of it being a major World Tour event or a minor Pro Junior contest, every event comes at a cost. The staff and the judges have to be paid. They have to pay insurance and secure permits.

WSL Staff at Work | Photo Credit: WSL

It is estimated that for a single Championship Tour event with a two-week waiting period, about 3-5 million USD is spent. With 11 events in the Men’s 2017 World Tour, the WSL has to spend at least 33 million USD. There are less number of events for the Women’s World Tour, and out of the ten events on the Women’s schedule, six runs in conjunction with the men’s schedule. But then the WSL still needs to spend on the four other separate events that may cost at least 10 million USD. So 43 million USD could be the approximate spending on the World Tour for a single season.

Standing by for a CT event | Photo Credit: WSL

But that is just one of the many contests that the WSL runs. There are one hundred events on the 2017 QS for both Men’s and Women’s category – 59 for the men and 41 for the women. And then there’s the Big Wave Qualifying Series and the Big Wave World Tour, the Men’s and Women’s Pro Junior and the longboard events.

WSL Schedule 2017 | Photo Credit: WSL

The capital required is extremely high to get these events running. While it is true that the competitors have to pay entrance fees and most of these contests come with varying levels of sponsorship, it is a big challenge logistically speaking.

WSL Coverage | Photo Credit: WSL

Add to it that the WSL employs around 51-200 employees as shown in LinkedIn. Regardless of the exact number of employees, there are costs involved including full-time salaries, healthcare benefits and retirement programs, etc. That does not come cheap. And with headquarters in Sta. Monica, California, the rental cost is higher too. On top of that, the WSL has offices in New York, Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe, Hawaii, North and South America. You can only imagine the costs involved. Moreover, the WSL is equipped with a state-of-the-art video production facility and that tech is expensive. Major sponsors like Samsung and Jeep obviously help bear these costs but the question remains whether it is enough.

WSL Equipment | Photo Credit: New York Times

But Prodan reassures, “Despite the seismic changes that this sport has undergone in recent years, the core DNA of the World Surf League, from the ownership level on down, has never deviated: we’re here to champion the world’s best surfing. We create environments—via development programs, events, tours, formats, career pathways, judging criteria, etc. Where this can flourish and the performance level seen in the live arena at every corner of the sport in recent years is a testament to this investment. 2017 is going to be a great year.”

Whether you are a fan of WSL or not, it is important to recognize that the organization is a vital component of today’s pro surfing. It provides a backbone to the sport, something that skateboarding and snowboarding and other action sports don’t have. The WSL has been crowning world champions for the past 30 years, and it has no plans of stopping just yet.

Kelly Slater | Pro Surfer | Photo Credit: WSL

The WSL made it clear that they intend to appoint a new CEO very soon. But for the meantime, Ziff has the fate of the WSL in his hands. His move to step up as interim CEO may be an indication of his commitment to the sport. And considering his investment into Kelly Slater Wave Co., he gives a hint that he may not have plans of going anywhere else in the near future. But whatever happens next holds the future of professional surfing. Will WSL survive and thrive in the next decade? The answer to that is yet to unfold.

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