Change is inevitable. It is bound to happen no matter how hard you try to resist it. Surfing has gone through many changes throughout the centuries and it continues to evolve as the world around us evolves. The surfboards have changed from long logs to powerful thrusters, quads and bonzers. The pro surfing heats changed from using three best waves down to using only two best waves for heat scores. The sport has changed from being just a specialized sport to becoming an Olympic sport.
If we were to list down all these changes, we’d end up with a long list. The bottom line is that surfing will continue to change. So what does the future look like for the sport?
The Failed Mega Business Plan
A couple of years ago, the ASP became the WSL and it was part of a big game plan to turn the sport of surfing into a mega business. ZoSea media, a Santa Monica-based sports marketing vehicle, designed the mega business plan upon acquisition of the ASP at the end of 2012.
Under the leadership of Paul Speaker, the world tour has been revamped and hyped up with goals to attract World Tour partnership deals with major brands of cars, electronics, cosmetics, travel, airlines, beverages and a lot more. The WSL has worked hard to improve its media production and expanded its reach to the rest of the world with over 5.2 million Facebook fans by end of 2016.
But there was a lot of money involved in making the tour look glorious and attractive enough to lure big brands into partnership deals. The cost involved in one CT event alone is beyond what the WSL makes from the sponsors. And WSL has been operating at a loss for years now.
They had to spend about $50 million dollars a year on the World Tour to cover staff pay, accommodation for the surfers, equipment, permits, and the list goes on. But the WSL has not really made enough money from the events to break even. They even lost Samsung as one of its major sponsors, hence the 2017 tour is no longer called the Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour.
So the people running the business had to make changes and that was evident in Paul Speaker’s resignation earlier this year and with WSL’s major stakeholder Dirk Ziff stepping in as interim CEO, the league was expected to have some overhauls. And just recently the WSL has named a new CEO, Sophie Goldschmidt who will steer the company into the direction of growth and profitability. We can now see some changes happening in the background such as the change in next year’s Championship Tour and Qualifying series format.
Wave Pools and Surf Parks
If you want to make a profitable business in surfing, you have to find a way to control the variables. There is a two-week waiting period for a CT event because there is no way that anyone can control the ocean. What’s unique about the sport is unlike basketball, baseball and football, there is no level playing ground. You have to adapt to what the ocean throws at you. No two surfers get the same exact kind of wave every single time and no one can run a surf event on a specific day and expect the waves to be perfect. And that’s the problem.
From a business point of view, there is just too much cost involved in running a CT event, not to mention doing 12 of them in a year for the men’s division alone. Because they can’t control the waves, the WSL had to spend a lot on the long waiting periods. Therefore, the income generated from sponsors is not enough to sustain operations. But what if they could control the waves? This is where wave pools come in.
Now that wave pools are being built in places where there is no surf, the possibilities are limitless. The reason why basketball is so popular worldwide is that anyone can build basketball courts almost anywhere and it isn’t too costly at all. Which brings us back to why the sport of surfing is still a far cry from being a major international sport, raking in billions of dollars in revenue – there is no level playground. The waves are not always accessible to people. That is going to change with wave pools coming into play.
Imagine being able to surf in the middle of the desert or in the mountains. There are many places that have no surf but have a lot of people influenced by the surfing culture. Now instead of being board-short wearing wannabes, they can actually become real surfers. And when the waves are consistent, a surfer’s success will now rely on his surfing skills and not just on getting lucky enough to catch a good wave. Then it will be easier to develop, coach, and train new surfers because everyone can catch a good wave anytime.
Current pro surfing executives see Surf Parks as predictable and TV-friendly venues for surfing competitions, which means they can run an event on a certain date and nobody has to worry about no waves pumping. Everyone can expect the event to run on time on a given date, therefore it can be aired live on television. There can be more viewers because there is no longer a long wait between sets of waves, so there is no dull moment and it is therefore exciting and entertaining for the average person to watch. And what do more viewers mean for the surf industry? More revenue.
When a surfing event is aired live on TV, the broadcasting companies earn money from advertisements and WSL earns from partnership deals. When millions of people watch and follow the sport, and wave pools are accessible to the public, a new breed of surfers will be born, and the number will rapidly grow. And these new converts to the surfing religion will be buying clothes, equipment, accessories and much more. It will create a huge opportunity for lucrative deals between major brands and WSL. This test run of Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch in California proved that it is possible to run a pro surfing competition efficiently in a wave pool.
When the surf industry balloons into a multi-billion dollar industry, it will also mean better pay for professional surfers! Compared to other professional athletes, pro surfers don’t make much, but that is about to change when surfing grows at a massive scale. John John Florence could probably earn somewhere near the income earned by Lebron James if this becomes a big hit.
Sure, wave pools will be the biggest change in surfing history, but replicating nature is not as easy as it sounds. Over the past two decades, the wave pools built were not able to give an experience anywhere near that of what the ocean’s waves can give. But it has started to change, and we can now see a lot of these mean wave machines being constantly developed to perfection.
It is only a matter of time before the wave pool technology is perfected. And when it happens, the influence of surfing culture will reach far beyond the coastlines. And this could be just the best Plan B for the WSL after a failed Plan A (to make the Championship Tour lucrative for sponsors) that cost them millions of dollars over the past few years.
This is the future of surfing. And many surfing purists may oppose it, but it will happen. Wave pools will become the norm in the next decades. And the good thing that could possibly come out for purists is that the lineup will be a little less crowded because by then, people from the landlocked cities will no longer need to travel all the way to the coastline to catch some waves. Locals in the surf breaks can get the ocean waves to themselves just like the good old times.
So what does the future of surfing look like? It might really look like this very soon.
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