The Upcoming Apple TV Series That Could “Make Or Break” The WSL

by Brendan Buckley December 16, 2019 6 min read

In 2017, an American media company called Liberty got the keys to Formula 1 in exchange for $4.6 billion. Last year, Forbes reported that Liberty had “burned up” $105 million due to increased operational costs since then. 

A well-funded company coming in and pumping money into an esoteric but potentially entertaining sport…does that ring a bell? 

We don’t have visibility on the WSL’s bottom line — where you at, Forbes? — but it’s widely believed that the League has been operating at a loss since being acquired by the Dirk Ziff-backed ZoSea Media in 2013. We, the fans, get to watch a top-notch broadcast for free while ZoSea bleeds money trying to crack the code. 

Meanwhile, Liberty’s F1 investment could turn out to be a home run. 

Viewership of Formula 1 has skyrocketed in the last few years, thanks in no small part to a hit Netflix series called Drive To Survive. DTS is three seasons deep, and Season 3 held Netflix’s global #1 spot after its release. The show’s viewership has only been growing, and more seasons are on the way. 

Tread carefully — it’ll suck you in.

As a result, F1 is attracting more US fans than ever before. 

I went through a nearly-nightly ritual of smoking an indica strand of marijuana and watching an episode — when Journalism calls, I respond — and it fascinated me to an extent in which I began to keep tabs on the sport, even watching a few races. I’ve spoken with a few others who’ve had the same experience. A friend became a self-described “F1 addict” after watching the series. 

The production company behind Drive To Survive, London-based Box To Box, spent 2021 behind the lines of the WSL while filming for an upcoming Apple TV series. With a consistent and commendable effort in the art of titling, the surf series will be called Make Or Break. It’ll be released at some point in 2022, though no official date has been announced. 

What might that mean for surfing? 

It’s hard to know now, but we can start by understanding what it did for the F1 world. Recently, I spoke with Luke Smith of AutoSport magazine, who has covered the sport for the New York Times. 

Bright skies in the F1 World. Photo: Abed Ismail

My first question: From an insider’s perspective, has the show really changed F1? 

“There’s no doubt it’s brought more people into the sport,” Luke said. “A recently released fan survey done by F1 and Neilson showed that, since 2017, the average age of fans has fallen from 36 to 32. Female respondents doubled, and the fan base is becoming more diverse. That’s the Netflix effect. It’s been such a big catalyst for change. Especially in the US, the series really put F1 on the map.” 

Surfing is unlike F1 in the sense that’s it’s considerably easier to purchase a soft top and a back-zip wetsuit (not one of the trendy ones that have inexplicably, against all odds, against performance standards in general, stumbled their way back into vogue) and go flounder around than it is to commandeer a 12 million dollar car and drive it 230 mph around a track. And we’ve all seen a boom in lineup, but how would we respond to a boom in the fan base? 

It turns out our online snark does not make us unique. 

“F1 fans have always been quite active on Twitter,” Luke told me. “And now you see some of the more avid fans doing some gate-keeping on there, poking fun at new fans who don’t understand the sport to the extent that we do. I was sent a meme by a friend who works in F1 last night that was like: ‘Oh, I’m an F1 fan, I’ve watched all three Netflix seasons.'” 

“How Drive To Survive Will Portray…” memes are popular on YouTube, taking shots at the way the series sometimes dramatizes not-so-dramatic happenings. This one has 875k views.  

Make Or Break likely won’t be detailing why you want more west in the swell at Pipeline or breaking down John John’s new signature fin. 

“It’s clear that Drive To Survive focused on the personalities involved in the sport, rather than the technical details that ultimately decide things on the track,” says Luke. “Because the broader fan — which is what they were trying to attract with the series — would have no interest in tire temperatures, wing levels, and things like that.” 

We’ll wait and see if surfing’s personalities can command the world’s attention. 

It’s interesting to note that Mercedes and Ferrari, who were the two best teams at the time, refused to be a part of the first season of Drive To Survive. F1 teams are good at keeping secrets, and the big dogs didn’t want to risk any leaks. Plus, they figured they could do without another pointless distraction — until the point of that distraction became quite clear. 

After the success of Season 1, they got on board and gave Box To Box access to their world. 

Curiously, Max Verstappen, who just won this year’s World Championship in a controversial finish, opted out of being involved in Drive To Survive this year, saying the show tends to “fake rivalries.” 

Max Verstappen, saying hello (just not to Box To Box). Photo: Jose Pablo Dominguez

“He’s really the first person to push back against it,” Luke explained. “The rest of the drivers have been pretty engaged and are keen to be a part of it. It’s not like they’re completely fabricating storylines. However, they don’t always get everything exactly right. Last season, there was a technical story that they got a bit wrong. It would only be the die-hard F1 fans realizing it wasn’t 100% correct, though.” 

The details can be easy to miss, according to Luke. 

“For example, at the start of a race, they’d cut to the cameras inside the car facing drivers’ helmets. If you look closely, you’ll see that they’re different tracks — you’ll see a shot from Austria, then from Spain, then one from Italy. It’s just the small details.” 

You might imagine how this might manifest in surfing. A sudden 6,000-mile trip from J-Bay to Bells, anyone? 

The first F1 race I watched was the US Grand Prix in October, which broke attendance records. After watching every episode of Drive To Survive — making me a fan, per the meme — it still felt like I was watching nothing more than fast go karts going around a track. The drama of DTS roped me in, but I still had no idea what was happening on the track. 

I asked Luke what he made of that. 

Multi-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton, doing the Ranch.

“I think it speaks to what F1 is doing on a broadcast level — the assumed sense of knowledge that fans coming in with. It’s not like soccer, where one team beats the other team simply because they’re better. Mercedes might be dominant and win a race by 20 seconds, then Red Bull might win a race the next weekend by 20 seconds. You can’t just be like, ‘Oh, well they just had an off day’ because they’re both using the same car from the week prior. So then it becomes, ‘Why does the Mercedes car perform better than the Red Bull at certain tracks and vice versa?’ It’s the technical details that the new fans might not understand.” 

We tested this in the WSL by having a non-surf-fan watch the WSL Finals. “It’s weird how good he is,” Toniann Fernandez wrote of Gabriel Medina. Technically, I don’t know what I’m looking at, but I know it is different from anything else I’ve seen all day. He looks like the only guy with a spoon at a soup party. ” 

No soup party made itself apparent to me at the US Grand Prix. Luke could see it, though. 

“It was a really dramatic race, even though there wasn’t any massive overtaking up the front,” he said. “It was all very strategic. As I’ve been working in the sport for a decade, I fully understand why that race was exciting, how the strategies were playing out, and what the teams were trying to do. You need an extra level of understanding to fully appreciate and understand what’s going on.” 

Don’t expect Make Or Break to provide that to newcomers. 

Coming soon, to Apple TV… Photo: Pat Nolan/WSL

And, don’t expect it to reach as many of those newcomers as Drive To Survive does. Earlier this year, it was reported that Netflix had over 200 million subscribers and Apple TV + had less than 20 million. However, it’s not like a show from the world’s largest business is incapable of commanding international attention. 

Make Or Break is a fitting title in more ways than one. All up, the series seems to represent the WSL’s biggest growth opportunity to date, and perhaps the best chance they’ll get at captivating the mainstream. More people surf now than ever. Regardless of how much we like to make fun of it, there is something compelling about what we do — or at least what Italo does. 

Allowing a talented and proven production company to showcase the inner workings of our world can have a major impact on how the rest of the public perceives us.

To end this with a telling detail, Box To Box will be at Pipeline for the season opener in 2022. I’ve arranged to meet with the Showrunner, Warren Smith, there. 

More to come. 

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