Commentary

Pro Surfing Can Be A Sofa Sport

Surfing isn't easy. It looks easy but it isn't. I've tried it. The board always turns sideways and bitch slaps you when a wave rolls. Then you have to paddle out, which completely exhausts you, but then you have to climb on the board and sit there waiting for a wave while trying not to hum the theme from "Jaws." And when the wave actually comes you have to suddenly lie on the board and paddle again, but twice as hard this time. For what? You stand up and fall off the board. WHAT FUN.

But I love to watch it. It's fluid, action-packed, balletic, there are no huddles, and the wipeouts take care of my "fail" jones. That makes me a great target for The Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), which is moving to grow its global fan base. The company's CEO, Paul Speaker, says people like me (though younger) who don't live where the waves break are the major fan pie-slice. I don't buy it. My image of a surfing audience is still an updated version of beach-blanket bingo and a couple hundred hardcore surfers living in vans watching their brethren ride the waves.

Speaker, who acquired the ASP a couple of years ago, would say that my perception of things is as old as "Endless Summer" — which is a great movie, by the way, and mandatory viewing for any surfing fan.

"One of the first things we did was invest heavily in research by Repucom," he said of his post-purchase activity. "We learned there are some 120 million fans worldwide; they are incredibly sought after by advertisers; they engage in social 2.5 times more than any sports fan; are loyal to sponsors of the sports; and their average age is 34." He said the major markets are the U.S., Europe, Australia, Japan and Brazil. "Inside those markets [the fan base] is not just coastal, it's across the country or continent. Which means many of them are seeing surfing as spectator pro sport. And the average income is $75,000 plus."

Mark Noonan, chief commercial officer of the enterprise, tells me that in general, we're talking about an affluent, educated audience that is digitally native — and a portion of them are very, very wealthy people who will fly anywhere for a good wave.

"The takeaway on that is [just] because you live in Chicago or Paris, and a fan of surfing does not mean you are a surfer. There's competitive drama in the water, and it takes place in beautiful places and it is hugely aspirational." He also mentioned that you can actually surf in Nebraska because of the artificial wave pool phenomenon. I don't know if they have one of those in Nebraska but they should. Corn surfing hasn't been perfected. 

It's also easy for me to cognitively lump surfing competitions like this week's Vans U.S. Open of Surfing (which the ASP is involved in, though the event is owned by IMG Worldwide) with things like pro skateboarding and even BMX and motocross. The U.S. Open does, in fact, have skateboard and BMX components, but Speaker tells me there's one major difference. No, it's not the water. I mean, it's not ONLY the water. It's that surfing is a lifelong sport. And I would venture to say that it is becoming more so, not less, as Boomers refuse to give up the idea that they are 17-year-olds with receding hairlines. I know this professionally. So if you're riding a BMX bike at age 50 you've got Teflon knees and your lower back is a gift from God. Heck, Jimmy Buffett is on the board. He has even done a concert at one of the surfing competitions in SoCal. Millennials haven't even heard of him. 

The deal on the ASP is that it has been around in one form or another since 1976, according to Speaker. But only since he unified the organization with the acquisition two years ago, has it become a coordinated global league both in terms of events and marketing. It used to be a pro sport characterized by isolated, one-off competitions. Now the organization has nine offices around the world and owns the events, produces the content, and sells the sponsorships, media rights and distribution. He told me that right now there are 11 men's events and 10 women's events and 6 big wave competitions. 

The centralization of the sport means global sponsorship deals. Right now Samsung Galaxy is global title sponsor of the "Samsung Galaxy World Tour." And the sponsorships also include a deal with GoPro, which is doing a content program comprising 30-second to two minute interstitials with content grabbed from board-mounted GoPros. And there's Orbitz travel, a couple dozen regional partners like bank of Queensland in Australia and Pacifico beer. And there are also deals with a dozen or so endemic brands like Quicksilver, Roxy and Vans. 

An interesting point here is that while the events happen at the same places every year — places like Rio, Fiji, Tahiti, Australia, Portugal and France — Mother Nature's fickleness pretty much drives the "when" aspect of it. Speaker said that basically they don't officially nail down the program until three days before, when they have a handle on the wave conditions. A global relationship with Google and YouTube lets them stream the whole thing live, and international broadcast partners get a highlight reel that airs five to ten days after the event closes. And there is a lot in the way of at-event activation. Sponsors get that, plus enhancements during broadcasts — the Monster Energy "Monster Moment," for example. 

As for the numbers — well, at the events it's not just a couple hundred surfers and a truckload of kegs. Tens of thousands come to the surf off in Rio. And the fan base is growing, with a 52% increase on ASP's social network year-over-year and 1.2 million live-event viewing on YouTube. Noonan said the league has gotten a 420% in unique fan engagement online. Maybe I'll try it again. Speaker said you can hire someone to paddle the board out for you. But then I'd have to swim. Maybe another person can tow me, my sofa and my beer out, kind of like Hodor from "Game of Thrones," but in the water.
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