Last week the WSL announced that all broadcasts of WSL events —including the men’s and women’s WCT schedule, ‘QS 10,000 events, and the Big Wave World Tour would be exclusively live-streamed on Facebook in 2018 & 2019.

It’s not the first time Facebook has dipped its toes in saltwater. In 2017, the tech giant linked hands with the WSL in a non-exclusive partnership. A couple of events were live streamed on Facebook but you could still watch it on the WSL site and mobile app if floating emojis weren’t your thing.

But for the next two years Facebook will be the only place you can watch WSL events live.

According to Forbes, the deal will net the WSL $30 million over the two-year agreement. A deal reportedly the biggest and most lucrative in WSL history.

“Facebook fosters a global community and, as surfing is a sport that celebrates and centers around community, we are proud to announce our media rights partnership with the platform,” Sophie Goldschmidt, WSL CEO, said in a press release. “This is game-changing for the sport in many ways and, with current and new fans front of mind, we can retain the free offering to fans, and it allows us to deliver the world’s best surfing to even more people on Facebook’s platform.”

The good news is that heat analyser will remain available on the WSL site according to WSL’s SVP of Global Brand Identity, Dave Prodan. So, we can all take a collective sigh of relief and put down our pitchforks for now. Also, the transition to a Facebook live-stream won’t happen immediately. "We're not migrating off platform until the viewing experience is as good, if not better, than it currently is."

Oh, and this is a digital only deal so if you’re a Foxtel subscriber in Australia you won’t be affected.

So, what ever happened to the proposed pay-per-view?

Cast your mind back to late last year and you may remember receiving an email survey from the WSL asking how much you would pay to watch pro surfing. Surveying their existing fans before switching to a ‘premium’ pay per view service was a smart move on the WSL’s behalf. And one might assume they received a less than rousing reception hence the digital deal done with Facebook.

Like it or not the WSL’s goal is to reach new audiences, rather than appease its existing fans. The Facebook deal allows them to connect with a massive on-tap audience, develop a greater understanding of their target market (the average age is 32 according to Forbes), and ride the wave of popularity of Facebook Watch—a new video platform that aims to drive video-viewing consumption by users and provide a home for longer-form, episodic content separate from Facebook’s News Feed.

In 2018 the WSL will launch a new show called ‘WSL Surfing Sundays’ aimed at recapping the week that was in surfing. The show will be limited to Facebook Watch audiences in the US only. However, it will be interesting to see if the WSL focus on professional surfing only or as they have across their social channels, showcase the freakish freesurfing from around the globe. 

Surprisingly the WSL ranked third among sports leagues around the world in social interactions and video views, sitting just behind the NFL and NBA, according to data from social measurement firm Hookit last year. It also had the most watched video globally in leagues around the world with this dolphin swimming clip below. If only dolphins could surf heats.

More staggering is that according to the WSL more than 13.9 million people watched a World Surf League event on Facebook in 2017.

It’s unclear whether those statistics reflect people logging in to catch a few seconds or a whole heat. However, they do command authority if you’re walking into a boardroom with Silicon Valley tech giants it appears.  

How Facebook mines surfing for mass appeal with the WSL will be interesting to watch. As we gear for the sport’s debut in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games both parties will want to grab the attention of advertisers along with new fans.

If successful and new audiences are unearthed and revenue suddenly pours into pro surfing it’ll be a win for both overlords. The Holy Grail has always been mainstream recognition, growth and big bucks from non-endemic brands.

Strike a balance between a high quality livestream and entertainment by  delivering great content as Amazon (who outbid Facebook for rights to exclusively livestream Thursday Night Football) has with its NFL show ‘All or Nothing’ an original docuseries from NFL Films that followed the Arizona Cardinals over an entire season and translate that to our favourite surfers or up and coming QS grinders and they’ll do a service to the core while attracting new fans to the sport about to make history on the Olympic stage. 

Do that, starve off a pay-per-view model even if pro surfing’s future is linked to Facebook algorithms and the ‘likes’ will flow. One thing’s for sure, surfers will bitch, moan and talk about these sweeping changes on social media all day long.