What worked. What didn't.
Tough, tumultuous end to the year, rocky start to the new. Losing Rory Parker and then Paul Speaker, hard break for the Grit.
No doubt Chas will make vodka lemonades out of it. Maybe a year of wearing black. Friday the 13th is 13 days sober for me, not even a little crushed up Ritalin in an orange juice to push through a dog day afternoon.
It’s appropriate then to take a sober look at the legacy of Paul Speaker, former head of the NFL and what he leaves for the next sucker/CEO.
Just a little historical clarification first to clear up what is becoming a common error. When Speaker and Terry Hardy as Principals of ZoSea acquired the ASP it was a more or less hostile takeover according to someone very senior on the ASP board at the time.
They didn’t buy the ASP; they threw it a lifeline. Thirty years of professional surfing under the banner of the ASP had a market value of exactly zero dollars. Therefore calculations about Speaker’s motivations in stepping down based on his continuing part ownership of the WSL are a moot point.
Of course he still owns it, unless he finds a buyer to divest him of his share he continues on being an owner. What the current market value of the WSL is to a buyer is a separate issue. Someone gives you a car for free, whether that’s an asset or a liability depends on if you can sell it or it breaks down and you need to pay someone to tow it to the wreckers.
Lets begin the analysis. No purple prose, no semi-colons, no torrid mangled metaphors. Just real talk.
- Vision. Speaker had a crystal-clear vision. He wanted to turn every surf spot where a contest was held into a stadium, control access ruthlessly and have total control over every aspect of branding and content. To that end he fenced off contests, made a (legally dubious) ambit claim on public property as to what could be done and claimed total ownership of everything happening within, on pain of being ejected by hired security. This strongman tactic put the surf media off-side immediately and he subsequently avoided all contact with the surf media. God knows why, he would’ve been softballed by compliant hacks within minutes if he had the balls to show up with the plebs. Was this vision the correct one for the sport? I say no. Surfing and fascism don’t mix. His parting lament for a surf league in Kelly Slater’s wave tubs shows he hangs on to the stadium dream.
- Business Model. The ASP functioned as a tax write-off and marketing arm for the surf brands and thus as a sporting league was worth nothing. It has value to coastal communities as a driver of economic activity via tourism and this has been most fully recognised in Australia where taxpayers via government agencies underwrite all three CT events. This is the only recognised and functioning business model for pro surfing: big-top surfing at high-traffic locations financed by governments. The dream of big dollar broadcast rights remains just that. Journalism by Stu Nettle at Swellnet showed the WSL was inflating viewer figures, the reason a broadcast rights deal has not eventuated. Merchandising looks like a cheesy add-on at this stage.
- Centre of Gravity. One of Speaker’s first moves was to move the WSL headquarters from Coolangatta to Santa Monica, ostensibly to crack the much bigger US market. This has been an abject failure. America with roughly 325 million people has one CT event, despite a highly successful attempt to colonise the massive east coast market in 2011 with a second event. Australia with 24 million people has three CT events. Pro surfing remains a primarily Australian phenomena, accepted as a mainstream activity and bankrolled by governments at all levels. Sans the wavepool expansion into buttefuck middle America the dream of US acceptance of pro surfing remains a money pit. What business folks call a sunk cost.
- Expansion into new markets. It was Brodie Carr who made the initial push into China and Taiwan. Speaker has not lost ground there. A little league QS in Israel counts as a minor accomplishment. Japan remains a glaring omission. Indonesia, even moreso. Oakley, following their CT event at Keramas, were ready to ink a much longer term deal for a continuing event there. They could not come to terms with the WSL over branding issues and the deal lapsed. A major opportunity squandered.
- Stabilisation of the Tour. Speaker stabilised a Tour that was looking increasingly shaky when he took over. He added J-Bay, an event that finally gets a naming sponsor, and has retained the Fiji Pro, the best event on Tour which remains without a sponsor. This has drained capital but provided credibility to the WSL. He has to get a pass mark for keeping the schedule on an even keel. Throwing the hail mary pass now to Ziff is a move that smacks of weirdness. Ziff knows less than Speaker about surfing. He’s an angel investor. A guy who inherited a pile and turned it into a bigger pile.
- Women’s Surfing. This has to be the great golden achievement of Speaker’s reign. Turning what was really an expensive hobby for a few gals into a bona-fide sporting powerhouse with pay parity (sort of) and massive media exposure. He was lucky in having a generational harvest of talent to showcase but nonetheless the decision to back and bankroll women’s pro surfing is a mighty achievement.
- Performance. The greatest let down of Speaker’s reign is the maintenance of the status quo as far as the actual product of pro surfing is concerned. There was the golden opportunity for renewal and reinvention when ZoSEa took over. The same product had been rejected by the market for thirty years. No point repackaging it and trying to sell it again. It had been tested and tasted and passed on. The problem: too much low consequence dross taking up too much time, a format that rewarded conservatism and safe surfing. The solution: not even attempted by Speaker. A monumental failure of leadership. The last performance world title, where a surfer blitzed his opponents was Slater in 2011. Following that we got Parkinson and the consistency formula, perfected by Fanning and then adopted by Medina, De Souza and now JJF. JJF’s freesurfing clips should be the greatest wake-up call for the WSL’s moribund format and claims to be showcasing the best surfing from the best surfers. They’re getting 70% of the JJF performance envelope, if they’re lucky.Did we miss anything? Fan engagement? Lets thrash it in the comments.