On July 19, Mick Fanning and Julian Wilson were paddling out at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa to face each other in the finals of a World Surf League event. Suddenly, during the live broadcast and before either had caught a wave, a shark popped up behind Fanning. What happened next lasted only a few seconds: Fanning struggled, disappeared under the water and out of sight, then popped up quickly and climbed on the back of a jet ski that had made its way over to help. The champion surfer got away with just a snapped surf leash strap and a close call.
The World Surf League understandably expressed its relief at Fanning’s safety, and its gratitude to the South African safety crew’s quick response. The event was covered breathlessly by CNN, BBC, and other major media around the world, and the WSL’s YouTube clip of it alone has more than 22 million views. Given that level of exposure, it should come as no surprise that the WSL’s new global marketing campaign is dubbed “You Can’t Script This,” and uses the sport’s inherent unpredictability–like, say, a shark attack–as its primary selling point.
It’s the first major marketing campaign for the WSL, which was born out of a 2014 rebrand of the Association of Surfing Professionals, two years after it had been acquired by ZoSea Media Holdings, and put under the new leadership of former NFL exec Paul Speaker and Terry Hardy, a former manager of legendary surfer Kelly Slater. From the start that deal was about making pro surfing a broader sport that would attract a mainstream audience.
Unless there’s a shark attack, you’ll rarely see surfing highlights on SportsCenter or other sports coverage alongside the NBA, NFL, or MLB, but the WSL has used its app and overall digital presence to build an impressive and sizable global audience. Its 2015 Pipe Masters event attracted more than 10 million fan visits so far, according to WSL. And the league is hoping that tapping into the power of unpredictability will further boost its numbers and reach.
“I think it resonates because it has a feeling of this moment is special and unique, and this moment in pro surfing may not happen again,” says WSL chief marketing officer Scott Hargrove. “In a basketball game, the court is always the same size, and the nets are always 10-feet high. In surfing the waves could be 60-feet high one day, or 20-foot barrel waves the next, it’s completely different than traditional sports and I’d argue it’s that unpredictability that makes it so compelling.”
Hargrove says that the momentum behind surfing overall has incredible potential for the WSL. He says that over the last decade participation has gone up 50%, and when you ask kids 13 to 25 what spot they want to learn, surfing is the No. 1 choice. According to WSL research, there is 125 million people interested in the sport. Here’s how the brand hopes to reach them.
Perhaps the WSL’s biggest strengths right now are the combination of its target audience and how it engages with the brand. “We’ve got a very strong millennial core, it’s global with roughly half our fans coming in from mobile devices,” says Hargrove. “Out of the gate ownership really focused on getting the product right. When they acquired it, we always had great surfers, venues and content, but the broadcast just wasn’t there. so we’ve invested heavily in making the broadcast professional quality, the latest technology, so I’d argue if you tune in it’s a world-class sports broadcast but across multiple platforms.”
But the brand’s isn’t resting on its digital-first laurels. In April, the WSL signed a multi-year broadcast deal with the Globosat network in Brazil that will bring WSL events to 50 million Brazilian viewers.
For each event, the WSL has a three-part social strategy that Hargrove says it tailored to specific platforms. “First is anticipation, ‘Are you ready? It’s coming,’ that kind of thing, with a heavy focus on app downloads,” says Hargrove. “Second, is when we’re live and at that point the social team starts driving snackable content.”
On Facebook that means putting a strong emphasis on video highlights from every perfect 10, every heat, and getting fans caught up on the action and the day’s coverage in five minutes. For the Instagram feed, it’s about using stylish photos to bring to life the exotic location, the ocean, and the chaos. And on Twitter it’s all about real-time coverage. “Then we hold back the third wave of creative for something epic, a particular day where the waves are huge, or there’s two legendary surfers facing off in a heat,” says Hargrove. “That’s the rhythm to any given event. Obviously we’re constantly re-evaluating, but that cadence has worked for us this year.”
Right now, the biggest challenge facing the WSL is finding the right balance to satisfy and stoke both the core surfing community and a more mainstream audience. A glance at the comments on any Surfer article about the WSL will quickly illustrate the conflicted feelings among surfers.
“The surfing core can be a prickly, insular group,” says Hargrove. “There’s often a feeling of, ‘We don’t want to be exploited, we don’t want to be too big.’ So we have to be very careful in treating that audience the right way to remain authentic and never lose sight of that core. At the same time, we have a real goal of continuing to bring the sport to new audiences around the world. We just have to do it in a way that feels authentic to both, and ‘Chaos Theory’ does that.”