How far will the WSL go to attract a mainstream audience?
The recent departure of Sophie Goldschmidt and appointment of Erik Logan as CEO signifies a pivot from sport to content becoming the focus for the WSL.
Goldschmidt arrived at the WSL after a successful career with Adidas, the NBA, WTA and professional Rugby in the UK. She also had a short career as a professional tennis player. One can speculate that as WSL CEO she was tasked to make the Tour cost-neutral following Paul Speaker’s departure.
At the time rumours swirled that the WSL was running at a $30 million-dollar loss. We can also presume that part of her directive was to generate revenue off the back of the WSL acquiring the Kelly Slater Wave Pool.
Overnight Surf Ranch was added as a CT event. With the Future Classic event behind closed doors providing the dress rehearsal for the big reveal. Mainstream media were courted and the WSL leveraged their new technology to appeal to mainstream audiences. Core surf fans were divided. Was surfing selling out?
After the KSWC acquisition, the WSL stated that six developments had begun or shortly be underway in the next couple of years. To date only Surf Ranch in Lemoore is operational. Applications to build more pools globally have either been abandoned or continue to be delayed. Meanwhile, wave pools from other players continue to spring up from Waco to Melbourne. Newly appointed WSL GM Andrew Stark is currently spearheading a $100 million-dollar Surf Ranch proposal for Coolum on the Sunshine Coast.
What happened behind closed doors with departing WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt will be left to WSL insiders. However, billionaire WSL financier Dirk Ziff looks to have been fed up with his league haemorrhaging at the seams. Whether it was due to her inability to make the CT more profitable or the failure to launch more WSL owned wave pools and secure one for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics we’ll never know.
On her watch, we lost the Big Wave World Tour which would have saved Ziff some dough. Cloudbreak and Trestles also dropped off tour despite Kelly signing a three-year naming rights deal with his brand Outerknown in 2017. No explanation was offered for Trestles. Goldschmidt also exposed her naivety of the nuances required to negotiate permits for events with her failure in Hawaii which at one point put the Pipe Masters in jeopardy and scuttled plans for a rumoured shorter CT season and world title playoff in the Mentawais.
It’s no secret the WSL has relied upon tourism dollars to bankroll events on the CT. The once deep pockets of the surf industry that propped up events have shrunk. Now the commercial success of the CT hinges on naming rights from mostly non-endemic sponsors and governments getting behind events and footing the bill.
So where to next for the WSL?
Surfing has been noticed by mainstream audiences for decades. The Endless Summer captured hearts and minds in 1966 on the big screen. While the Wide World of Sports, ESPN and traditional media outlets have featured pro surfing for the masses in varying depth and analysis in the same time span.
Striking the right balance between mass appeal and turning a profit on Ziff’s pro surfing gamble in 2020 and beyond will be a tough sell. The surf industry made hundreds of millions of dollars in the heady days of the 90s and noughties by marketing to the core fan base first and foremost. KS/WSL wave pools have failed to launch and the CT hits Dirk’s back pocket with two of the 11 events on the Men’s CT still unsponsored this season.
Departing CEO, Goldschmidt, outlined the WSL was changing course and focusing on “content” describing the organisation as a media house, not just a sports league, in the announcement of Logan as new WSL CEO.
“With the WSL now ready to become a more focused content and media company, the Board and I have mutually agreed it is the right time to make a change,” Goldschmidt said. “Having worked closely with Erik, he is the right person to lead the WSL into its next era. I am excited about what lies ahead for the organization.”
Erik Logan admits he’s a newcomer to surfing. He was the former President of the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) and Executive Vice President at Harpo Studios. A meaty title and one that has zero sporting credentials. E-Lo had only been with the WSL for 12 months where he was President of Content, Media and Studios.
In that time, the WSL has delivered Surf Breaks, Transformed, Brilliant Corners and Sound Waves as part of their content suite. They also sold the TV rights for their upcoming reality show ‘Ultimate Surfer’ to ABC in the US which goes into production later this year.
Apart from the weirdly intriguing must-watch episode of Kelly Slater on Sound Waves the rest have been a yawn. Surf Breaks works to the frenetic pace of social media catered for shorter attention spans but is not breaking new ground. The WSL still shudders away from any controversy while other outlets pick up the slack.
The vision the latest WSL CEO has for the sport will be different from the last. Goldschmidt was only in the job for two years. Not a great deal of time for someone of her calibre. Before her, Paul Speaker lasted three. Both had sporting backgrounds. E-Lo is a wildcard. He reflects the target demographic the WSL are marketing to in 2020.
If Dirk Ziff had a 10-year plan for pro surfing as an investor we’re halfway through his reign. If E-Lo can’t turn it around in the next five years and make the WSL a profitable, well-oiled machine for his master then where does the sport go? It could mark the end of pro surf careers as we know it as the billionaire’s dollars simply dry up.
Whether changes mean pay-per-view rounds or events, more strike missions or battle royale surf-offs like UFC’s main event cards we’ll have to wait and see. A ‘superheat’ between John John and Medina in a best of three at premier locations would re-invigorate the sport. Build it up as a grudge match and give us the behind the scenes lead up. It has the potential to be Jack McCoy’s Blue Horizon Kelly vs Andy rivalry on steroids.
So too would a raw, honest look at the realities that face a fledging pro on Tour facing a form slump fighting to keep their dream alive and food on the table. Or the big-wave surfer holding down a regular job scratching to ride the waves of his life as he puts the responsibilities that anchor him to the real world like a wife and kids on hold.
Gimme high stakes and less bubble-gum.