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  • Ben Drain

World Surf League, the Olympics, and the Future of Surfing

Updated: Oct 2, 2020

As the world comes together for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, there will be a new entrant to the slate of competition. Surfing will make its competitive debut in the Olympics, opening up a unique marketing opportunity to the many companies that hope to advertise their products to the whole world. As of now, these sponsors are flocking to the World Surf League (WSL).

The WSL had previously secured sponsorships from Anheuser-Busch and Jeep. With the increased attention on the sport of surfing, the WSL has also recently aligned with Harley Davidson, Boost Mobile, and Red Bull, among others. Part of the attraction of the WSL for corporate sponsors is the equal pay policy. The WSL pays both male and female surfers equal prize money. The USA Women’s National Soccer Team’s success and subpar payment relative to the Men’s team at this summer’s World Cup has put increased public pressure for equal pay. The combination of the upcoming marketing opportunity of the Olympics and the progressive policy of the WSL makes for a great commercial investment.

Meanwhile, the media deals for the WSL are set to expire in the coming year. The WSL’s agreement with Fox Sports expires in February, while its deal with Facebook expires in January. For a league expecting a considerable spike in public interest following surfing’s involvement in next summer’s Olympics, it will be interesting to see how they negotiate new deals. Although it is currently growing in popularity, the magnitude of the league’s future success is still unknown. Will a media distribution company be willing to pay above current market value banking on the success of the WSL for years to come? Or will the league opt for a short, 1-year deal like they signed with Fox Sports just earlier this year and hope to get a more significant deal a year from now?

All of the investment in surfing is great, but in terms of an Olympic sport, I have questions. Surfing seems quite challenging to implement for a host city. Not all cities across the world have access to the ocean, let alone surfable waves. The assumption is that including surfing in the Olympics will increase interest in the WSL; however, if the quality of the waves is not up to par with that of the established surfing hotbeds that the WSL holds events in, will people really be interested enough to justify the increased investment? Will the inclusion of surfing as an Olympic sport exclude landlocked areas of the world from hosting in the future?

While the WSL is indisputably growing and will grow even further as a result of the Olympics, long-term distribution or marketing deals seem risky. It will be interesting to see how the WSL’s commercial and public interest continues to grow as the Olympics approach.


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