I am here to tell you the WSL is dead. They will crash and burn. No doubt.
I have spent the majority of my career in and around Silicon Valley as a founder, advisor and consultant. Over the last decade, I have learned what makes a startup successful and where the warning signs for failure are.
I have for years been saying that the WSL has the hallmarks of a rapid-growth startup- venture backed, charismatic leadership, desire to change the world, etc. That being said, the startups that the WSL is following aren’t the FAANG high performers. Instead, the startups that the WSL is emulating are the ones that have Netflix documentaries made about them, the Theranos, the WeWork, the Fyre Fests.
These startups have all followed a simple playbook of promise innovation, create a cult of personality, lie about success, silent dissenters, under deliver, allow execs to self deal, and ultimately burn in a blaze of non-glory and scandal, below is a sampling of how the WSL fits this mold and will ultimately crash and burn.
Initially, the WSL promised innovation and reinvention, much like WeWork, Theranos, and Fyre Fest, but much like those startups, failed to meet the mark. Teranos never delivered on the promise of the Edison the same way the WSL has failed to deliver on the promise of becoming a media company, elevate the sport, innovate competition, or doing really anything. The innovation that was promised has never been delivered upon and in the same way that the Edison was a shittier version of a Becton Dickinson Blood Reagent Analyzer, the WSL is a shittier version of the ASP.
In the same line of thinking, Silicon Valley has a long history of CEOs who become synonymous with their companies, like Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos and Adam Neumann of WeWork. WSL leaders have been treading a similar path. Markedly, Erik Logan had moved from an administrative role to an omnipresent figure at WSL events, eclipsing even the surfers at times, demonstrated at peak self-aggrandizing with a Filipe Toledo shirt wearing debacle . Similarly, Jesse Miley Dyer, through leadership seminars and public events, is actively molding herself as a poster figure for the sport. Additionally and in the same regard, Dave Prodan, via his podcast, doesn’t just commentate on surfing, he often sets the moral and ethical tone of surfing, becoming an arbiter of what’s right and wrong in the sport and making things about him when they’re not.
Much like Silicon Valley companies that allegedly suppressed internal critics, including the documented instances of Theranos counsel harassing whistleblowers, the WSL has shown similar tendencies. The controversial decision to prevent surfers from sporting Bethany Hamilton jerseys signaled an authoritarian streak in this same regard. Moreover, Logan’s public warning against raising concerns over potential judging bias displays an intent to control the narrative at all costs. Additionally, Prodan’s approach, particularly his political name-calling and the quick removal of dissenting “Dave Prodan Killed Surfing” stickers at Trestles hints at an intolerance for alternate viewpoints.
Misrepresentation of success metrics, a tactic Silicon Valley snake oil salesmen, such as Holmes’ fudging of the Edison’s accuracy or Fyre Fest’s misrepresentation of Fyre Fest preparedness, has often been criticized as a quick way to convince investors that all is well and appears prevalent in WSL’s strategy. Logan’s optimistic portrayal of viewership figures, often without substantial evidence, mirrors the inflated claims that led to the downfalls of many tech startups. Prodan’s feigned excitement of the mid-year cut seemed to put lipstick on a pig and signal the same, even when rebuked by Connor Coffin to his face and while actively rebutted by tour surfers.
These Silicon Valley startups also have a history of self-dealing. A prime example is WeWork’s Adam Neumann, who had questionable real estate dealings with his company that ultimately didn’t pass the smell test. These dealings find a counterpart in Logan’s endeavors with Apple TV. Logan’s dual role as a WSL CEO and the executive producer for Apple TV’s “Make or Break” rings alarm bells about potential conflicts of interest, reminiscent of many a Silicon Valley scandal.
When it comes to pushing narratives, Holmes’ unwavering faith in Theranos’ flawed Edison machine is paralleled by WSL’s insistence on wave pools, mid year cut, and the unpopular finals day format, even in the face of clear community opposition across all levels of leadership.
At its core, the WSL, by seemingly adopting a Silicon Valley playbook marred with controversies, is setting itself up for an inevitable downfall. Silicon Valley’s history is littered with companies that were driven by ego, suppressed criticism, misrepresented success, and lost touch with their user base, eventually leading to their implosion. The WSL’s current trajectory appears ominously familiar.
As the surfing community watches, the hope remains that the WSL will recalibrate its compass, but it’s unlikely and I fear that the coffin nails are being hammered for competitive surfing. For a sport so deeply connected with nature’s rhythms, its governing body’s alignment with flawed corporate strategies seems stupid and disingenuous. We are a community that yearns for WSL leadership that resonates with the sport’s core values, but its seeming more and more that the League will crash against the very waves it seeks to champion and, well, die like Theranos and FyreFest or even worse, rust like a WeWork.
We deserve better.