This Is What the WSL Will Do Next – An Exclusive Interview With CEO Erik Logan on the Future of Pro Surfing

29 Apr 2020 2 Share

Italo Ferreira gets chaired up the beach after last year's Surf Off style World Title showdown at the Pipe Masters. Photo: WSL/Sloane

Italo Ferreira gets chaired up the beach after last year's Surf Off style World Title showdown at the Pipe Masters. Photo: WSL/Sloane


Hopes to hold some sort of tour in 2020, according to WSL CEO Erik Logan

Interview by Marcus Sanders

- Call on year held off now till June 1
- Re-set likely for 2021, with surf-off style World Title finale
- CT and Challenger Series to own different timeslots
- Ownership support apparently “unbelievable”

The World Surf League is still hoping to fit enough events into 2020 to make a tour happen, according to CEO Erik Logan.

In an interview with Surfline’s Marcus Sanders (below), Erik says that while a couple of CT events have been cancelled, enough CTs are still in a postponement state to “backload the rest of the year with options”.

He also outlines some results of the WSL’s tour brainstorming over the past few months — including a 2021 tour that sounds an awful lot like the framework they tried to roll with back in 2017, with a shorter CT season culminating in an elite shoot-out style showdown that Erik’s currently calling a Surf Off. The CT and the QS’s top end Challenger Series will also split into different parts of the year, so the two tours don’t overlap.
Read Sean Doherty’s take on all this here. Meantime, let’s hear from Marcus and Erik:
MS: So…what’s happening over there now?
ELO: The first announcement is that we're going to stay on hold. No surprise. We’ll do another update on our call for the 2020 season on June 1. Our view is that we still have time to get enough events in for the 2020 season to run a tour if we can. One of the things that we haven’t been doing is cancelling events. We cancelled the Gold Coast and G-Land - but we've postponed Bells, Margaret River and Rio. What we're doing is trying to backload the rest of the year with options. We're going to try to keep optimistic and our options open. 
The other part of the announcement is that we’re making some structural changes to the tour. When I became CEO, one of the first things I did was grab Patchy [Pat O’Connell] and tried to figure out how to do a Surf Off. Because we were coming off that euphoric high of Gabriel and Italo’s title-deciding final at Pipe, and we don’t get that in our sport very often, we started working on it. Then COVID broke out around the world and turned everything on its head. It seemed like to me - and to all of us - that this pause that we have right now was a good opportunity to get the attention focussed on really doing the right things for professional surfing. 
In terms of the Surf Off, can you speak to any of the specifics now? 
On the CT tour, when we get to the Surf Off, what we’ll do is we’ll have a limited number of men and women and they’ll be in a seeded bracket. That way we're ensuring that as you end the season, if you're number one, you have an advantage over somebody who would be number X. Once the seeding is determined we begin paring down the field through surf offs until you’re down to the last two. And it is a winner-take-all moment. And that’s how we're going to crown champions. 
How would that look at a place like Pipeline?
Those are the details we’re getting into right now. That’s what we're working with the surfers on right now. We’re working with our partners on it. It’s going to be a really big part of the July announcement when we get there.
And you’re going to also implement some structural changes to the tour?
We want to create two distinct seasons with the Championship Tour and the Qualifying Series, specifically the Challenger Series. As you know, the Challenger Series sort of exists somewhat in the background of the CT. And what happens is that if you fall off the Championship Tour you have to spend a full year on the QS to requalify, missing a year of surfing on the CT. So, what we're working on in 2021 is to have a condensed the Challenger Series season. 

The headline is that if you're a surfer and you fall off the CT, you can immediately shift focus to the Challenger Series and get back on tour the very next year. It’s a fairly significant change in terms of qualifications. That’s happening for sure in 2021.
The last thing is, it’s a bit of wet clay, but we think it's important to sort of throw out there now, too. We’re going to get back to focussing on the regional events. One of the things that we’ve seen and heard from our partners - and also from the young surfers - is it's extraordinarily expensive and hard to get on the CT because of the logistics. They shouldn't have to go into tremendous amount of financial debt travelling around the world in order to do that. 
For the rest of this season, after June 1 will you still be postponing events instead of cancelling them with the hopes that maybe they can run later in the year? International travel seems tough…and the year gets pretty short. 
Clearly, we don’t know about the international travel. I mean, it’s anybody’s guess. But what we’re starting to see is that there are some loosening of countries and some are starting to open up. What I want to be able to do is that if for whatever reasons Australia says, "Yep, you can come to Australia." We can execute two events pretty easily. Then, between the Surf Ranch in the United States and Hawaii, we can execute a certain number of events pretty easily. It’s an open question of where we’ll all be at when the time comes. It's anybody's guess. Europe may actually be okay. We may be able to move between Portugal and France by the fall. It’s on the calendar anyway, we know the waves are good, so we’ve got options and possibly enough events to actually execute a tour. The determining factor in all of this is if we are really going to be able to safely move our athletes in and out of countries. The in-and-out of country piece is really the hard part.
Do you have in your head a minimum number of events that need to happen in order to be able to crown a world champ? 
No, we, we, we're leaving that open. We're going to work with the surfers on what feels right. What we want to be able to do is be able to look at a calendar and figure out what is realistic.
What about seeding? If there’s no WCT in 2020, will everyone stay in their same seed?  
Good question. We haven't gotten too far ahead of ourselves on that because we're still really focussed on possibility for 2020. I think as, as the calendar naturally progresses, we're going to get closer to a place where we're gonna run out of calendar - and then we'll quickly have to start addressing that question. But that question is a little premature for us to get to right now. 
In terms of the tour returning, what's the medical protocol - what have you thought about just in terms of testing? How are you going to keep the surfers and fans safe? 
Our head of global health and security is working on protocols right now. And one of the complexities of establishing the those is that every country's protocols are going to be different. But prior to the Gold Coast, we started having protocols about how we were going to move our athletes around without fan contact. 
In terms of the WSL as a company, obviously a lot of surf companies have been hurting. Are you having to make tough decisions in terms of cutting staff? Has that happened yet? How is the WSL doing through all this?
A lot of our employees right now are project employees. Our broadcasts, there’s a giant crew that we use to actually execute our live broadcasts. To a large degree, we hire them per event. Clearly, they’re not working. When you’re executing a world tour in that regard you have to actually scale back. But we’ve been spinning up the new digital platforms, as you guys probably have seen, and we’re executing a lot of content. 
And what about the Surf Ranch? Has COVID stalled future wave pool projects? 
We already have a couple of projects that are active. We have the project in Palm Springs and we’re still having conversations with our partners in Australia. I think our partners are looking at this as a really interesting opportunity because what they’re able to do is offer a very secure and safe location to surf. From the wave pool point of view, that’s a beautiful thing about this, with the right partners and with the right property we can certainly tailor to fit any specification. So, that part of our business has still been continuing just fine. The only part of the wave pool business that’s been impacted has been the guest services part of our business at the Surf Ranch. But from a development point of view, we're still very active.
Have you looked at other sports to see what they are doing? Obviously, stadium sports are out for a while.
Yeah, there are not going to be any fans in those for a while. But I’ve got really good relationships with a lot of the American leagues. We’re keeping a very close eye on how they are starting to re-enter. For example, in America, you’re probably familiar with what the NBA may be doing. They’re in a very precarious situation because the playoffs should’ve started two weeks ago. So, they’re trying to figure out if they’re going to scrap the season. But some of those discussions have been around designating a city, the discussion was Las Vegas, and have quarantine hotels where teams go in there and play some regular season games and then play the playoffs and award the title.
And Major League Baseball, they’re being very aggressive in the antibody testing. They’re volunteering their athletes for antibody testing right now, but they’ll keep them under quarantine. Most of the sports are taking an approach like this where they can control the environment. But that’s where it becomes problematic for us because we don’t play in a gym or on a field. We move around the planet. The challenging part is trying to wargame this thing out and where we go - which is honestly kind of coming back full circle to the reason why we’re focussing so much on 2021. 
Finally, you’ve only been the CEO of the organisation for a few months, how are you viewing all of these challenges that have been thrown at you?
We are way out in uncharted territory on this with this pandemic. I mean, it’s unlike anything anybody’s ever seen in any of our lifetimes. I look at this moment as a tremendous gift to be honest. Within the first 60 days, to have a global pandemic and the whole world is shut down, that’s been an enormous challenge, but with the support of our ownership group, who has been unbelievable through this process, it’s also a golden opportunity to really reset a lot of things.

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