Nick Carroll: That's It For Plan A
COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL FEATURE
THAT’S IT FOR PLAN
A What the WSL CEO’s departure might really be telling us
“Did he jump or was he pushed?”
That was the question running through many pro-surfing-addicted brains last week, after Paul Speaker announced he would be stepping down from the role of World Surf League CEO at the end of January this year.
Speaker answered the question both publicly and privately the same way: No, it’s just the right time for me. Which probably won’t satisfy everyone, but so what? To me, it’s missing the point.
I should preface all this by saying I don't know Paul Speaker personally, like at all. I've read a great deal about his pre-WSL career, and heard many accounts from mutual colleagues. I can tell he’s run a tight ship and has the loyalty of his staff, but face to face, nup.
SEE ALSO: WSL CEO Paul Speaker Steps Down
I think our only exchange beyond the occasional email was in 2013, right at the beginning of the soon-to-be WSL’s tenure, when a phone conference with Speaker and a few reptiles of the surf press was organised.
For whatever reason — probably because I was really old — I was given first crack. And in retrospect, perhaps my question was a bit blunt: “So, where will the money be coming from?"
There were sounds of demurral at the other end, what do you mean, etc. I pointed out that the WCT men's and women's tour was at that time costing the combined sum of around $50 million, yet the new owner's plan at the time — $1 million naming rights per event — wasn't covering even half of that. So, yeah, where’s the money?
Paul didn't like that, and huffily swivelled the subject toward the business plan and away from the actual finances.
He never simply told us what was up: that a very rich family had decided to back pro surfing to the hilt, had already kicked in $25 million to set up the pre-production, and would underwrite any shortfall for at least three years.
Now the three years are up, Paul’s stepping down, and making way for Dirk Ziff, the major investor in all this malarkey. And whatever else can be said about timing, you can be sure it’s a sign that the WSL’s Plan A is done.
So what the heck was Plan A? Simple: test pro surfing's value in the sports entertainment marketplace.
The original business plan drawn up by ZoSea Media, the Santa Monica-based sports marketing vehicle that took ownership of the ASP at the end of 2012, called for a tour that earned more than its keep. There was the million a pop for each CT’s naming rights. Lucrative tour partnerships with a range of non-endemic companies would be sold across a range of categories. Cars, electronics, cosmetics, travel and airline, beverage, and several other categories were mentioned. This would all be in sync with a range of equally impressive new broadcast deals, which would work to secure the partnerships and open more and more doors for all concerned.
This was in stark contrast with the ASP’s previous plan, in which the organisation was in thrall to its big surf industry backers, and unable to move in any particular direction of its own accord — while said backers, after years of mad prosperity, were suddenly and ominously running out of moolah.
To the ASP staff and pro surfers, whom Paul had been assiduously courting behind the scenes, ZoSea loomed as a saviour. Now, freed from the iron hand of the surfing industry, professional surfing would shake off its shackles and embrace its true destiny as a stand alone pro sport. Huzzah!
It was epic blue sky thinking. And for all the shiny coherence of today’s CTs, for all the hard work of Paul and his many loyal staff, it clearly hasn’t quite worked. Deals had to be cut immediately around that naming rights fee; major CTs in Fiji, Rio and Maui remain without corporate names (or fees) attached. A fortune has been spent on trying to lure non-endemic backers through the door, with limited success; indeed three of the most prominent names on the WSL site, Samsung, Jeep and Corona, aren’t strictly newcomers — all had prior relationships with professional surfing events. The media platform is still essentially the web broadcast: massively improved from the stumbly event-to-event ASP version, for sure, but still largely preaching to the converted.
They’ve even gone back to the surf brands and asked for a little more, only to be told regretfully, no, we’re tapped out. As indeed the surf brands are.
The WSL team has been able to find some silver linings, especially in various government-funded tourism authorities, who kick down for a range of events including Portugal and the whole Australian tour, plus other bits and pieces. Paddle-in Nazare! Longboards in China!
But mostly what they’ve been doing is spending money. Just how much has been invested, well, as we’ve seen, you don’t get answers to questions like that, but if you shake through the estimates of people who’ve been behind some of the doors in it all, it’s well over US$100 million.
Why hasn’t pro surfing taken off like the rocket everyone dreamed of in 2013? I sent Paul a list of questions via the WSL media office last week, trying to get his take on it, but no luck on that score. If I were to take a wild guess, I’d say Plan A has fallen foul of the same thing that’s knackered pro surfing repeatedly through its history: the surf. The stupid Ocean! It comes and it goes with no consulting, it goes flat in the middle of major events, it sneers at schedules. I mean! What do you say about a sport whose finest event, the Eddie Aikau Invitational, goes on hold for years?
I can’t imagine what the investor thinks of all this. But it's his money, and it’s bought a fully-functioning world tour, a big wave tour, an awesome women’s tour, a slick production facility, and the best wave pool in existence. It could easily look from his angle that he now owns the sport across many facets, and it's only a matter of time before he cashes in somehow.
But who’s ever made real money out of surfing? Gordon Clark, Barry Bennett, Hoffman Fabrics, and a few other raw materials people. The guys who got the best out of the surf industry brands. Who else? That’s it, as far as real money goes. Heaps of people have made an OK living out of various aspects of it: the better pro surfers and their agents, boardmakers, surf shop owners, surf school owners, travel agents, resort owners, moviemakers, small label crew, even a couple of journalists.
Yet as Plan A has demonstrated, very little profit has been made out of running surf contests. They’re cultural events. They’re rock concerts without any ticket sales. They’ve only ever cost people money, not made it.
You only get something out of this scene by harnessing it to some other operation — like the surf brands did for quite some years, to the tune of billions.
And the signs are that Team WSL has begun to figure this out.
NEXT: Plan B!
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