How World Surf League is striving to ride the engagement wave

GM shares the digital, onsite and sponsor activations he's looking to build out in order to improve engagement with the sport

Few sports let you get just meters from Olympic athletes while standing with sand between your toes.

So when surfing makes its Olympic debut at the 2020 Tokyo games, it will be an important milestone for a sport that has steadfastly refused to bend to the kind of corporatisation that has beset many others.

However, World Surf League Australia’s general manager, Andrew Stark, is keen to ensure it does nothing to take away the grassroots element that has led surfing to become one of Australia’s most popular pastimes.

“If you are attending a surfing event you can get really close to the athletes,” Stark said. “When they come down the beach they are literally just walking through the crowd. When they are training, if you are a surfer you can go and sit out there or surf with them because it is a free public space.

“It is a bit like saying you can have a free hit with Roger Federer at the Australian Open or jump in an F1 car with Danial Ricardo and have a lap.”

Part or Stark’s role is to oversee all the world tour events in this part of the world, which includes the Quiksilver Pro on the Gold Coast in April, and the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach later that month. He is also the general manager for wave pool development company, Kelly Slater Wave Co.

This year will see a number of changes to how events are organised, including selling VIP passes to the public for the first time, along with greater use of grandstands and new activations with sponsors to create a better fan experience onsite. This year will also make the first time the World Surf League has offered equal prize money to both male and female participants.

Speaking at the Business of Events conference in Melbourne, Stark described how he is aware of the need to be constantly providing a better experience to fans, but without taking away from the experience they have grown up with.

“One of the things people love about surfing events is they can come down to the beach with sand between their toes, with boardshorts or bikinis on, and stand at the water’s edge and watch,” he said. “We are just trying to work with sponsors and partners to create activity and engagement for the audience when they are there.”

Stark estimated there are 2.5 million recreational surfers in Australia today and another 6 million aspirational surfers. While the audience skews young, Stark said surfing is a whole of life sport, with some unique attributes to set it apart as a sponsorship opportunity, as well as a plethora of ambassadors such as Layne Beachley, Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson.

“We’ve got to stay true to our roots, which is it is born and bred out of the ocean,” he said. “And it is raw and its fun and it’s a lifestyle. We are lifestyle business as much as we are running the professional sport aspect. And that ability to play in both sport and lifestyle is what holds us in good stead.”

One of the challenges of surfing as a marketable sport is the notoriously fickle circumstances under which it is conducted. Surf contests are entirely reliant on the cooperation of the oceans to provide ridable waves,  hence World Surf League events are scheduled over a 12-day window, which generally provides four to five days of good conditions. This however makes them difficult to sell as a broadcast event.

“Because of the nature of surfing we can’t really schedule a broadcast,” Stark said. “We still broadcast on Fox Sports in Australia and linear TV, but it is pretty hard to say that a broadcaster that we might be on Saturday, but we might not.”

As a result, Stark said the World Surf League is highly reliant on digital platforms, and as a result has built up a strong social audience engagement to ensure its digital broadcast has significant cut through. This is likely to grow further when surfing makes its debut as an Olympic event on Japan’s Tsurigasaki Beach in 2020.

 “That will present an opportunity for the World Surf League to talk to and audience that are watching surfing potentially for the first time,” Stark said. “And then it is up to us strategically about how we retain that audience and tell them the story of the world championship tour and the World Surf League.

“It is around telling our story through our athletes and making sure our athletes are as authentic as they can be.”

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