Surf’s Up – And So Are World Surf League’s TV and Digital Media Rights

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World Surf League (WSL) negotiating future TV/media rights.
Photo Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The sport of surfing will be part of the Olympic Games for the first time in Tokyo in 2020. The timing couldn’t be better for the World Surf League (WSL) to commence negotiations for future media deals, with an eye toward richer rights fees and greater visibility.

The surfing governing body currently has a linear TV deal with Fox Sports and a digital deal with Facebook. As the exclusive U.S. broadcaster for the WSL’s Men’s and Women’s Championship Tours as well as the Big Wave Tour, Fox and FS1 are expected to televise more than 500 hours of WSL programming this year.

But those deals expire after this year. WSL and Fox announced a one-year deal in February. Previously, WSL and Facebook announced a two-year deal in January, 2018. The league is expected to reap $30 million from that deal, according to Forbes

Pri Shumate, the former Nike marketer who joined WSL as chief marketing officer earlier this year, confirmed the governing body has begun negotiating its future media deals.

“We can’t disclose a whole lot of what’s happening because we are having media rights conversations at the moment. But we have had incredible success with both Facebook and Fox,” Shumate said. “Facebook has expanded our audience in the digital universe in a huge way. Obviously, our linear audience has grown as well through Fox. Both of those have been incredible partnerships for us. We are in the process of figuring out how do we move forward for 2020 and beyond.”

Given ESPN’s global reach, they would seem to be a natural contender for WSL rights. But Shumate declined to name possible bidders outside the incumbents.

“We’re looking across the board. It is absolutely an important objective for us to grow our audience,” she said. “We love our owned and operated channels as well. And we want to continue to invest there. But growing our audience, and expanding our content to other forms of distribution, is a really important piece of how we move forward.”

A Fox spokesman confirmed the network is talking about a contract extension with WSL but declined further comment. ESPN declined to comment.

The unpredictable sport of surfing has always been a tough challenge from a media standpoint. You don’t know when there’s going to be great waves for competition – and when the ocean’s going to be flat. 

That’s where digital platforms like Facebook come in. When the waves rise, they can instantly jump on a competition and stream it to a global audience.

“The WSL is a digital-first sports league thanks to the nature of the sport where events don’t happen until the waves roll in and last for 10 to 12 days,” noted Kurt Badenhausen in Forbes. “WSL can leverage Facebook to notify a global community of surf fans whenever events begin and reach people no matter what devices they’re on.”

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With a young, funky and opinionated audience, sports insiders view WSL as a league with plenty of financial upside.

Most U.S. sports league media rights deals are locked up for years. The WSL, on the other hand, could be available in a few months. The league reaches a young audience and punches well above its weight on social media. 

WSL’s Facebook page has drawn 6.8 million likes. The league boasts 3.4 million followers on Instagram and another 2 million on Twitter. The addition of experienced global marketers such as Shumate has WSL thinking big. 

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WSL Chief Executive Officer Sophie Goldschmidt has recruited top executives like Shumate from Nike, Cherie Cohen from NBC and Sarah Swanson from the NFL to strengthen her management team, noted John Kosner, the ex-ESPN executive turned founder of Kosner Media.

“Goldschmidt is a top executive. They are doing lots of interesting things. Global sport. Opportunity to rise on direct to consumer as well,” said Kosner.

WSL’s ethos is the best surfers, the best waves. Shumate wants to expand surfing beyond a niche sport into a global passion. 

“We’re expanding from competition to community. If before our goal was to have this amazing home for core surf fans, we’re expanding into creating a community through surfing. Those people don’t have to necessarily be surfers. They need to love what it is we represent.”