The Stakes: How The WSL Is In “The Best Position It’s Ever Been”

“Our sport is growing!” 

Something bizarre happened at the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach this year. With the mid-year cut looming, 29 of the 51 (at that time) CT surfers signed a petition asking the WSL to get rid of the new system’s guillotine. A boycott at the next event was threatened. Storm clouds swept in at the event site. “Hells Bells” played on the speakers, though that’s nothing out of the ordinary… 

The line quoted above came from a private letter WSL CEO Erik Logan wrote in response to the surfers and the petition. Which, of course, we got our hands on and published here.

The gist of it was simple: There’s no fucking way this is changing. 

In the letter, Erik also stated that Bells viewership was up 35% from 2019, the last year the event ran. And the closer? “I want to reiterate that we are in the best position we have ever been.” 

We’ve now seen two events post-cut, and the WSL reached out saying Erik had more stats to share. It provided a fine occasion for my first conversation with him, and we caught up while the second day of the Surf City Pro El Salvador was on last week. 

Now, let us. 

Erik, perhaps un-showered, in the WSL HQ. Photo: WSL

Stab: So, what’s your day look like?

Erik Logan: Well, after I spend quality time with you Buck, I’m gonna turn my chair sideways and continue watching the competition. A lot of people ask me what my day-to-day looks like. Today, I have client meetings, a KSWC (Kelly Slater Wave Company) meeting, a meeting with some new partners — we do so many meetings going into Brazil. Then I’ve got a schedule review and then I have a strategy meeting. Then maybe get a bite to eat for lunch, we’ll see.

I’m trying to help you out and cherry pick a little surf window in there, but I’m having a hard time.

The surf window happened before we started. Summer in Los Angeles means that I can get in the water at around 5:00 AM, so I’ve already got salt in my hair and I haven’t showered. That’s probably TMI. 

Gotta love the long days. 

I love the long days. I mean, listen, it doesn’t feel like work if you do what you love. When I left working for Oprah to come do this, she was so excited because it’s rare that you can find an opportunity to marry something that you love with your profession. And when you do that, it just feels joyous all the way around. It was a very unique opportunity. 

You found surfing later in life and now you’re tasked with trying to grow the WSL. There’s a difference between the act of surfing and watching a competition. How did you go from someone who started surfing, to somebody who knew about the WSL? 

Well, let’s be very clear about how we define my surfing — it’s a 50-year-old guy trying to see what’s the smallest board he can ride, that he shouldn’t be riding, and begging for tips from all of our CT athletes.

I reached out and approached the WSL in 2019 with such a deep level of respect for what these athletes do. When you come into something that you love and that you read about and invest in — which are all the things that I’d done before I even contacted the WSL — you go in with reverence, humility, and respect for where it came from. I think that I was really fortunate to be able to step into it that way versus, you know, someone calling me up and saying, “Hey, we want you to be the CEO of the professional bowlers association.” That might be a good job, but I don’t have the same connective tissue for that sport as I do have for this one.

Kingpins, if you will. Photo: Instagram/@elo_eriklogan

How did you first hear about the WSL? What was it that clued you into the fact that there was a surf league? 

It was Kelly. Kelly was — he still is — the top of the top of the pyramid in terms of mass appeal, especially in the United States. When you hear about him, you’re like, ‘OK, he’s a world champion. What’s he a world champion of?’ You go down the rabbit hole. I think for people who get introduced to the sport, the narratives around the athletes becomes the jet fuel for their passion. That’s part of the reason why I was so focused on the studio when I started at the WSL, before I became the CEO. I wanted to tell those stories. Today, we’ve got a couple of really great ones in the marketplace. If you look at Make Or Break, it’s like 20% surfing and like 80% narrative. That is a really important strategic thing for us, because it allows you to get under the skin of our athletes. Another example is The Lost Tapes, which is something that we shot in 2019 while trying to bridge that gap of freesurfing and the Tour. 

As a fan, that’s a little bit of my journey. And I do think it’s indicative of the journey that casual fans who get introduced to our sport will go down. 

In the recently announced partnership with Box To Box, there’s a line about the potential for a scripted series. Can you expand on what a project like that could look like?

Sure. There’s two ways you can tell stories. There’s the documented, unscripted version, which is what Make Or Break is. Then there’s the scripted version, which allows you to curate a much longer story in a shorter period of time and really control the narrative. 

As an example on the fly, Mathew McGillivary needed to surf out of his mind to make the mid-season cut and he did it. We’ve got cameras that can document that, but in a scripted world you can really unpack that and contextualize it beyond what the cameras captured at the moment. 

Another example could be a scripted series about the origins of the ASP. We don’t have the ability for cameras to document what already happened in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s on the North Shore, but the stories are all there. Scripting it could be a way we bring it forward. 

We don’t have anything in development yet on that front. Our focus in the near term is doubling down on Make Or Break

The podium at Bells, shortly after the mid-year clip controversy. Photo: Matt Dunbar/WSL

It’ll be interesting to see how the show covers the mid-year cut controversy at Bells this year.

Well, you’re talking to the Executive Producer. I’ve seen footage of Season 2. And I can tell you to get ready. All of those moments that people are talking about are definitely in there. 

And there are a couple more things I wanted to share with you. One of the things that we look at in terms of measurements of success is our digital audience. We want to be in a place where when you wake up and watch Pipe, or you can engage with our content anywhere you want depending on your time zone. 

Go on. 

Right now, our live digital audience is up 62% from the last time we ran a full tour in 2019. Think about that for a second, 62%. We’re reaching that many more people. Our job, from a League perspective, is to create the biggest platform not only for our partners and our advertisers, but also for our surfers. When you get to know the surfers, you get to know the narratives. And now the length of time people are spending with us is up 25% as well. We have more people watching, and watching longer. 

At the end of the day, our job is to create a sustainable business for professional surfing, which hasn’t been done in five decades. When you have that sort of audience growth and trajectory, what winds up happening is that you get to a new position from a revenue perspective. When I look at the revenue pre-pandemic and the revenue today, we’re up 20%. And that is a hugely important statistic because it demonstrates how sponsors and partners are voting with economics. 

Another thing I’m really proud of is the roster of clients that we have. We’ve grown the roster of advertisers by 35% and that is hugely significant. That’s great, but here’s the real headline for me. When you zoom out of both of those, the business flywheel is working. There’s more growth, more excitement, more fan engagement, and then more interest from the partners. Our job is to continue to take that flywheel and make it spin. At the core of our business, we are in the healthiest spot we’ve ever been in the history of the sport. It’s something that I think that a lot of surf fans should be excited about.

This year’s WA event, won by Isabella Nichols, had 19 sponsors — that’s almost as many as Gabriel Medina. Photo: Matt Dunbar/WSL

I’ve been loving the new system. And I’m a huge Challenger Series fan. How is that tour going?  

The intention of the Challenger Series was to create a new elevated tier to profile these surfers. The numbers are profound when you compare our new Challenges Series to the average 10,000 events in the old system. The digital audience is up 95%. And then the consumption — meaning the people who watch — it is up 330%. We’ve given birth to a brand new tour. 

The CT has changed a lot lately. Are things at a point now, where you feel like everything seems to be working? Is there still a desire to tweak things or is the general consensus that you’ve found the sweet spot? 

Look, we’re always making tweaks. You can’t see around every corner and we haven’t gone through a full year of this redesign yet. So what I would say is that we’re really pleased with where we are, and the numbers have shown that this is the right path to be on. But, we’ve been tweaking the sport since the beginning, so we’re always looking for ways to evolve. What’s really important for us is to stay focused on executing this year and then pause, have conversations with our surfers, our surfer reps, our partners, people like yourself, get feedback and figure out how we continue to move forward. There’s been a lot of thought that brought us to where we are today. And I think we owe it to the strategy to see it play out. But one of the things I am really happy with is that we saw the stakes come to fruition with the mid-season cut, and you could certainly see that in the numbers.

When we look at what makes a successful event from a business perspective, there’s three things that we think about: the surfers, the waves, and the stakes. You can’t control mother earth and you can’t control who wins, but introducing a mid-season cut or having a cutoff for the final five or relegation to the Challenger Series allows us to control the stakes. 

You became the CEO in 2020. In that time we’ve seen a pandemic, a new system,The Ultimate Surfer, and Make or Break.Is there anything that you’re most proud of since you’ve taken over this role?

I think the success that we’re enjoying right now is the byproduct of a lot of work from the entire organization and a lot of work from our surfers. To look at a holistic redesign of the sport and bring that to market is something that I think all of us at the League are happy about. I was trying to highlight to our team and to the surfers that this is a historic moment for surfing. We have changed the way we’re crowning a world champion. We have changed the way that the tour format works and changed the way that Pipeline will be viewed as the first stop versus the end. It’s history. To be bold is a very scary thing. And I’m proud of the entire organization for being bold and being thoughtful for the redesign right now.

Now the flip side of that question. Is there anything in hindsight that you identify as a mistake since taking on this position?

When you look back over the last, let’s just say five to seven years, I think there’s been a lot of different versions of the WSL. I think that it wasn’t totally clear on what it was trying to be as a company or clear on what it was trying to be as an organization to the surfers. Our social media team, many years ago, was posting pictures of surfing dogs and things that were all cute. When I became CEO, I had just come off of building the studio and was focusing on some of these narratives that we’re enjoying today. To be fair to your question, I probably could have moved sooner as a CEO back in 2020 to really sharpen the saw to get to where we are today. At the core of who and what we are as an organization, the World Surf League is designed to create the largest competitive platform for professional surfing and crown undisputed world champions. That is what we do. Going all the way back to Busting Down the Door with Rabbit and PT and everybody, that’s what the vision was. And I think that I could have gotten us to that place sooner. I’ll give myself a little bit of a break because of the pandemic, maybe. I think intuitively when I was running the studio, I knew we didn’t feel as focused as we are today. 

And so I think working through the pandemic and being really honest about that with the organization got us to the place where we are today — which is, from a business perspective, a financial perspective, and an audience perspective, the best place we’ve ever been in five decades.

No Ferrari Boys here.

Last question: I saw a video of you in which you talked about your introduction to surfing. You said you were 40 years old and felt a weird itch and started looking at Ferraris, and your wife got you a wetsuit instead. Do you ever wish you got the Ferrari? 

I have often fantasized about having the Ferrari. But every time I see a Ferrari, I think to myself, ‘I probably wouldn’t be in the job I’m in today — with this extraordinary opportunity — had I got the Ferrari.’ And I love the fact that I got a 4/3 back zip O’Neil wetsuit that I still have…that I’ll never get rid of. It has a lot of holes in it, by the way.

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