Behind Oakley’s big bet on Bali and pro surfing

Oakley Pro Bali champion Joel Parkinson surged back into the world title race with his victory at Keramas. Parkinson has been a regular visitor to the region in the off season, and has fallen in love with the waves and people. The feelings seemed to be mutual. Photo: Hennings

Oakley Pro Bali champion Joel Parkinson surged back into the world title race with his victory at Keramas. Parkinson has been a regular visitor to the region in the offseason, and has fallen in love with the waves and people. The feelings seemed to be mutual. Photo by Hennings

“This was absolutely amazing,” said a jubilant Joel Parkinson, after being crowned Oakley Pro Bali champion. “For this event to live up to all the hype we built up around it is incredible. I’m so proud to be standing here as champion.”

Minutes earlier, Parkinson was carried up the crowded beach on an elaborate throne held by four big Balinese men. The royal treatment was unprecedented for a surf event, but in the end Parkinson wasn’t the only winner.

Pro surfing fans feasted on levels of high performance never seen in an ASP event, and Oakley’s broadcast team didn’t miss a beat. Every milestone move was captured in super-slow motion, illustrating in hyper-detail surfing’s elegance, athleticism, and sheer beauty. All the while Ross Williams and Nathan “Noodles” Webster (two very connected former ASP stars) offered fresh insights that were articulate and authoritative as anchors in the webcast booth.

Kelly Slater was on point during the early rounds, but was upset by CJ Hobgood in Round Five. He surrendered his ratings lead as a result.

Kelly Slater was on point during the early rounds, but was upset by C.J. Hobgood in Round 5. He surrendered his ratings lead as a result.

Of course, the punchy wave at Keramas played the biggest role. The righthander, which has been a favorite vacation getaway among ASP stars for years, is a high quality track that tests every aspect of the surfer’s approach. As playgrounds go, there’s none better to showcase state-of-the-art contemporary surfing. And with both the waves and surfers in top form, the daily highlight reels ended up looking more like surf movies that take six months to make.

Watching highlights go viral was especially sweet for the team at Oakley, whose bold move to stage this event (the biggest in their brand’s history) was a big bet.

“Coming to this wave is all about pushing the edge of performance surfing,” said Pat McIlvain, Oakley’s vice president of global sports marketing. “Reaching peak performance is what drives our whole brand, and our products, so any event with our name on it had to carry that ethos. We want to move the needle for pro surfing.”

Yeah, well, mission accomplished.

In fact, McIlvain got his wish on the opening day of competition the moment John John Florence pulled one the biggest acrobatic moves in pro surfing history. Florence propelled himself 6 feet above the lip while rotating a full 360 degrees. By sticking such a landmark move (in competition no less) it became an instant classic online, netting over a million views in less than 24 hours across major media portals such as Yahoo and MSN.

McIlvain could finally take a moment to exhale after that, for the days and weeks leading up to ASP events like this are beyond stressful for the title sponsors. The list of things that can (and often do) go wrong is long and torturous, especially when your brand is on the hook for the entire fan, media, athlete, and VIP experience. The ASP, after all, is still an utterly powerless organization when compared to the NFL or NBA, who do all the heavy lifting on game day. In pro surfing the title sponsor is responsible for everything.

So when, for example, the satellite needed to push the broadcast to surfing’s millions of fans worldwide fails to even show up, guys like McIlvain are the ones who have to put on their firefighting hats. The ASP staff is powerless, even for the small stuff, such as if the Internet connection doesn’t work in the media hut, or if waiters in the VIP cafe haven’t been trained on which wristbands matter. Add the title sponsor’s essential mission of getting its brand message out and you begin to understand the scope of the job.

John John Florence's massive aerial went viral, even hitting the home pages of major media sites like Yahoo (above) and MSN in the United States.

John John Florence’s massive aerial went viral, even hitting the home pages of major media sites like Yahoo (above) and MSN in the U.S.

Fortunately pro surfing has been part of the Oakley DNA for more than 30 years. Tom Carroll, the 1983/84 world champion, was one of Oakley’s first sponsored athletes. And inside Oakley’s Southern California headquarters wave riders occupy a good chunk of the office space. For them, the opportunity to finally put their stamp on an elite event was an opportunity they relished, especially at a time when other big brands are looking for escape clauses in today’s challenging economy.

Some of pro surfing's newest fans made headlines of their own in Bali. Yup, that's the Oakley global PR machine at work.

Some of pro surfing’s newest fans made headlines of their own in Bali. Yup, that’s the Oakley global PR machine at work.

And Oakley’s global PR squad went into high gear, leveraging relationships with key media around the world to showcase the ambiance of pro surfing, its fans, athletes, and of course its products. Hollywood starlets Ashley Greene and Vanessa Hudgens came to watch and participate in Oakley’s “Learn to Ride” program. Not surprisingly, the carefully cultivated images of movie stars surfing in their black Oakley bikinis hit all the tabloid sites. They were also spotted lighting up the dance floor at Oakley’s night surfing event, and taking in the competitive action.

Meanwhile, at the grass roots level, dreams were coming true for several of Oakley’s loyal surf retailers. Seven regional champions were flown to Bali to compete in the finals of the Oakley Surf Shop Challenge. Competitors enjoyed the same star treatment the pros did, and scored the same dream-like conditions while being featured on the broadcast.

“That was surreal,” said Evan Thompson afterward. Thompson was on the winning Sunrise Surf Shop team from Jacksonville, Florida. Given the faces of all the retailers that day, it’s safe to assume Oakley product will be getting special attention in their doors.

While the DJ was keeping the party going on land, surfers took advantage of the stadium lights.

While the D.J. was keeping the party going on land, surfers took advantage of the stadium lights.

And to be perfectly clear, title sponsorship is about moving product. At the Oakley Pro Bali the Blade 4 surf trunk was among those being pushed to center stage during commercial breaks. True to brand form, the Blade 4 is designed for performance. It’s lightweight, stitch-free shell is supplemented by a compression short underneath. The compression short was added to keep muscles fresh for extended periods of time by keeping much-needed oxygen in, and lethargic lactic acid out.

Oakley athletes having been utilizing compression for years in sports like biking and running. That said, getting surfers to wear underwear, let alone biker shorts, is a significant challenge. But by design, the outer shell of the Blade 4 is there to satisfy the surfer’s aesthetic. Truth be told, the combination of form and function makes the Blade 4 the ultimate “surf-trip surf-trunk.”

After all, when real surfers venture to places like Bali, Costa Rica, and Fiji, it’s not to sample the cuisine. They go to surf, and surf hard, and surf as much as possible, and surf for as long as they can. Sadly, even in this age where we can put robots on Mars, nothing ruins a surfing vacation like a debilitating rash or total muscle fatigue. The Blade 4 is a much needed remedy.

At the end of the day, all events are about pushing product. The incredible talent being displayed was the perfect platform for Oakley to push their performance driven line.

At the end of the day, all events are about pushing product. The incredible talent being displayed was the perfect platform for Oakley to push their performance-driven line.

I explained all this to Sung Han, a video producer for gearpatrol.com brought in by Oakley’s PR team to experience the Oakley Pro Bali. Han came all the way from New York City, where he rarely gets to use his surf trunks. The viable attributes of the Blade 4 sunk in immediately after his first session in the tropics. “So it’s a surf trunk for people who actually go surfing?” … Exactly, Sung. Crazy concept, eh?

Hawaiian surfer Sebastian Zeitz tested the trunk in Fiji last year. After marathon sessions doctors measured the lactic acid in his blood. The differences behind compression and no compression didn’t surprise him. “It’s crazy, you can absolutely feel the difference,” says Zeitz.

This year, Zeitz is one of the most talked about rookies on tour. Unfortunately for Zeitz, he became a casualty of his friend John John Florence midway through the event, but not before winning over a few more fans. “It’s impossible not to love this place. The people are incredible, the waves are perfect, there’s plenty to do. This is one of the best events I’ve ever been a part of.”

More than five million people tuned in to the Oakley Pro Bali webcast. The time difference meant audiences in the U.S. got to watch in prime time. Add multiple mainstream media hits, celebrity gossip sites, endemic media feasting on highlight reels, and ongoing fan debates across social media, and you have one massive event payoff for pro surfing, and Oakley.

Day 9 of the Oakley Bali Pro saw some of the best conditions. The daily highlight reel looked more like a surf movie that took months to make.

The big question now is whether Oakley will be back in 2014. The ASP is undergoing a serious overhaul in an effort to become a more legitimate global brand. To attract a global backer for the tour they’ll be taking over all event logistics and media distribution next year. How far the ASP will go to please existing title sponsors, who will no longer control day-to-day on-site events, is still very much TBD.

McIlvain is hopeful, but pragmatic. “I haven’t heard a single word from the new ASP,” he told me midway through the event. “But that makes sense, because until we know exactly what we’re getting for our investment, there’s really nothing to talk about, and I just don’t think they have that answer yet.”

Diane Thibert, Oakley’s global PR director, has worked with every major sports league in the world, not to mention global franchises like the Olympics and the Tour de France. The Oakley Pro Bali was her first time seeing an ASP operation up close and personal. As I shared the many nuances of ASP world tour events with her (waiting periods, non-elimination rounds, media control, athlete access, etc.) her extensive background in mainstream sports sponsorship provided me some valuable insight on the ASP’s biggest challenges.

It's hard to say whether the surfers enjoyed Bali more than the fans, some of whom enjoyed poolside seating.

It’s hard to say whether the surfers enjoyed Bali more than the fans, some of whom enjoyed poolside seating.

Thibert began telling me about her days doing sales for the Los Angeles Clippers, “And mind you, this was during their rough years,” she explained. “When you’re a team like the Lakers, it’s easy to say, ‘Okay, for that price here’s your signage, your footprint, and your commercial spots … have a nice day.’ It’s the Lakers and people will pay. But when you’re selling something that’s unproven, it’s a completely different situation.”

Fans around the wold got to see pro surfing at its finest.

Fans around the world got to see pro surfing at its finest.

"What they face is no simple task," she continued, "because there is a constant need for surf to push the envelope, and it must be done in the most efficient and effective way to maximize sponsor spending while creating a link between a brand and the viewers. It will be interesting to see how they leverage their expertise."

"Beyond the issue of maintaining a platform for successfully launching products, they have all the added possibilities for shaping the scope of the approach, such as night surfing, beach cleanups, celebrity surf… and then there's the need to stir excitement at retail with promotions like surf shop challenges and so on. Aside from viewer numbers, those layers are what add to the intangibles — the things you can't measure. That's the brand experience. The ASP respects that, and I think this thrilling era of surf will be fueled by their upcoming changes."

Oakley certainly proved one thing in Bali, and that’s that they understand surfing, sports, fans, and marketing. These are all things the new ASP brass claim to cherish as well … and if it’s only half as well they may be better off. But if they know what’s good for their long-term health they’ll be keeping brands like Oakley close.

John John Florence made history more than once during the Oakley Bali Pro. Once for his landmark aerial. Again for his valiant effort against the eventual Oakley Pro Bali winner Joel Parkinson, who needed two 10-point rides to get past Florence. John John's 19.2 score was among the highest ever for a heat loser.

John John Florence made history more than once during the Oakley Bali Pro. Once for his landmark aerial. Again for his valiant effort against the eventual Oakley Pro Bali winner Joel Parkinson, who needed two 10-point rides to get past Florence. John John’s 19.2 score was among the highest ever for a heat loser.

ASP star Jordy Smith took time out to teach local kids about the value of protecting Bali's precious coral reefs.

ASP star Jordy Smith took time out to teach local kids about the value of protecting Bali’s precious coral reefs.

Venues like Bali are why the elite ASP events are considered the "Dream Tour."  Nothing against the NFL, NBA, or MLB, but this sure beats competing in Detroit or Cleveland.

Venues like Bali are why the elite ASP events are considered the “Dream Tour.” Nothing against the NFL, NBA, or MLB, but this sure beats competing in Detroit or Cleveland.