THE WSL PIVOT
For surfing fans, 2020 had been shaping up to be one of the most pivotal years in the sport's history.
Alongside Erik Logan (@eriklogan_elo) being named the new CEO of the World Surf League (WSL), 2020 had promised that the sport of a new lease of life. As it had been slated to be included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, opening the sport to millions of new fans across the world.
However, plans have changed the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed and last month the WSL announced that it had chosen to cancel their 2020 World Championship Tour and Qualifying Series.
Therefore, forcing the WSL to pivot on what it can offer its community, to keep them engaged.
After the COVID -19 pandemic hit the WSL initially paused their season and aimed to keep their community engaged through by significantly increasing its content output.
“We’re exponentially creating more content today than we have done, arguably outside of live competition, than we’ve ever done in the history of the sport,” Logan said. “The opportunity in front of us is golden, and we’re trying to, from our perspective, do a couple of things.”
As the organization set to accelerate its content offerings, the WSL chose to utilize its athletes. WSL's main social media channels began to highlight its professional surfers, featuring videos such as their at-home workouts.
In an attempt to increase fan engagement WSL also focused on promoting the #HomeBreakChallenge initiative.
The social content strategy proved effective. On Instagram, WSL identified an increase in engagement by 35%, within the first month of the initiative. While views on the platform also increased by 40%, during the same period.
“Surfing is a very close, tight-knit community,” Logan stated. “The relationships that over the years we’ve developed with all of our athletes have been phenomenal. My view is that our athletes are a big part of our business. I view them as shareholders, as the beneficiaries, and the better we become as an organization, the better we become as a business. If the platform grows, that affords more opportunities for our professional athletes.”
Furthermore, the WSL chose to prioritize other content offerings including its podcast, The Lineup with Dave Prodan. The podcast which launched in late 2019, has managed to see downloads reach 15,000 per week. While also promoting the second season of the show All In, which gives fans a behind the scenes look at their favorite surfers on the tour.
When the WSL officially canceled its 2020 Championship Tour and Qualifying Series seasons, in July, they also announced their plans for the future.
“After careful consideration and extensive discussions with key stakeholders, we have made the decision to cancel the 2020 Championship Tour and Qualifying Series seasons due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Logan in a video statement. “While we firmly believe that surfing is amongst the sports best suited for competition to be held safely during the age of unresolved Covid, we have huge respect for the ongoing concerns of many in our community as the world works to resolve this.”
Although the WSL was unable to salvage the 2020 season the organization did announce a revamped competitive format for when the sport returns, in November.
The 2021 women's tour will kick-off first, on Maui. Followed by the men's tour holding their first event the following month, on Oahu.
After kicking off in Hawaii, the 2021 tour season will include competitions in Portugal, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, and Tahiti, among other locations.
The 2021 Championship Tour season will finish with the WSL Finals, which is a new single-day world title event, that will take place in Sept. 2021.
The major change the WSL is making to its Championship Tour, comes in the form of a one-day final event, in September 2021. The WSL will invite the top-five male and female surfers in the points standings to compete to be crowned World Champion.
“I’m really excited about these new format changes,” said two-time World Surf League Champion Tyler Wright in a statement. “As someone that has spent a lot of time out with injury and on the couch in the last few years as a professional spectator, I feel that change is good and needed. Having Tahiti come back on the schedule will be interesting and challenging. It will take us a few years to get our feet and positioning in. However, with the next generation of strong and talented women coming through I think we’ll soon have Tahiti specialists.”
In addition to the redesign of the Championship Tour, the World Surf League schedule will be updated to create distinct seasons between the championship tour and challenger series. Starting in 2021, the challenger series will run from August through to December. The qualifying series will run through to the end of June 2021 and determine who has qualified for the Challenger Series.
WSL has proven that they see the growth of the sport by embracing the idea of being a media company that offers the surfing community robust content.
With or without live events the WSL is setting itself up to be bigger and stronger than before.
“I’m very bullish that the other side of this is going to be a more robust media property with the World Surf League and a more inclusive media property for our endemic partners, our surfers, and our fans,” Logan said. “And, I think, a more widely consumed product than we’ve ever had before because of the platforms, so I’m energized by the opportunity we have to think about the business.”
While the new revamped WSL Finals has received extraordinarily positive feedback. The opportunity now makes the property vastly more attractive for new fans, sponsors and broadcasters moving forward.