What a difference a few months makes. Back in November, the announcement that the Association of Surfing Professionals had signed a 12.75-million-dollar media and marketing deal with London-based SportsWorld Media Group (SMG) was greeted with confusion and controversy.
Some manufacturers worried that giving SMG exclusive marketing and media rights to the ASP brand would dilute their control over the events they sponsored. Others wondered if SSM Freesports, the SMG division responsible for the ASP’s television shows and news feeds, would be able to understand the unique culture of surfing and its professional organization.
But if the latest ASP Executive Board meeting in Jeffery’s Bay, South Africa, is any indication, those worries were unwarranted. In fact, the pro tour now has the type of television reach not seen since the mid 1990s, when Dynocomm produced and distributed WCT shows. Back then, ASP surfing reached more than 100 countries and 250-million households.
With SMG’s help, the ASP now also seems to be in a good position to land the type of umbrella tour sponsor to take the ASP — and pro surfing — to the next level.
“It was a joy to be in J-Bay,” says Stuart Sawyer, founder of SSM Freesports, “because we’re satisfied with the speed we’ve been able to turn things around and the speed of pickup — particularly from the media, because we were so late to market.”
In August, SMG released a work-in-progress worldwide television schedule for the ASP — a multipage document that includes thirteen countries, and counting.
“There are a couple of things to look for,” says Sawyer, referring to the schedule. “One is the quality of the broadcasters — there’s now a number of terrestrial stations taking it — and secondly is the airing times within those terrestrial broadcasters. We’ve made a significant jump from 2:00 a.m. on some god-forsaken satellite channel to weekend slots in France, Saturday morning shows in Australia, and Thursday afternoons in America on terrestrial networks. That’s good, and we believe it will get better.”
The schedule — along with the four solid television shows SMG has produced for the ASP so far — is a major milepost for SMG.
“Our first priority was to put together a team of people who could understand the culture of the ASP and marry it to traditional commercial and broadcast disciplines,” says Sawyer. “We’ve seen what happens when just surfers make TV, and we’ve seen what happens when just pure outside third parties in the broadcast industry make surf programs. The thought was that never would the two meet. Our job is to tread that balance.
“The next step was to decide what type of TV show we wanted to do,” he continues. “The first show — the one for Bells — was the most difficult because we had to turn paper ideas and research into actuality. Once that was done we could say, ‘What does it sound like? What does it look like? What does it feel like?'”
And while Sawyer says he’s generally happy with the results, he views the entire process as a continuing evolution. “We’ve changed our commentary team with every show. We believe we’ve got it right now for J-Bay, but we’re prepared to keep changing it until it’s spot on.”
Once the television show was nailed down, Sawyer says the next goal was getting the program out to the key markets — which were decided with the help of the ASP and the industry.
“Simultaneously, we were building our news-production team so we could send daily local news feeds and a minimum of three international news feeds per event,” says Sawyer. “Part of that was educating the news media. We had to tell them, ‘This is surfing, it looks great, and it’s reliable — the feeds will come through when we tell you they will.’
“Our final goal was to build a highlight service where we provide free-to-air summaries of the events,” he continues. “That’s also coming along nicely, and we’ve made several deals with syndicated news shows — everyone from Bluetorch to Europe’s Transworld Sport.”
A few months ago, SMG also had a big breakthrough when the EBU The European Broadcasting Union picked up our shows, which pipes the ASP shows into every terrestrial channel on the EBU network.
All this foundation building is leading to one primary goal: The acquisition of a major umbrella sponsor. “The program gave us a guarantee. A guarantee gave us a valuation. A valuation gives it inventory,” says Sawyer. “Based on that information, we gave the details of the ASP property to an independent media evaluation company and asked them, ‘How much is this worth?’ That sum I will not disclose to you, but we put ourselves through the same acid test any potential sponsor will give us. We’ve also been fine-tuning what the proposition is. On the whole it’s in better shape at this point than we expected.
“Without doing that process,” he continues, “you’re just back with your cap out saying that surfing is a sport with great potential, instead of, ‘It’s a great sport with great potential and look what it’s already delivering.'”
But Sawyer says the process is just beginning and they want to take the time to do it right: “We’ve never been in a rush. We’re working with it for five years. We’re doing 60 events and we’re at event four. We’re not going to knee-jerk. We’re going for the slow build.”
ASP Executive Director Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew also seems happy with the results thus far. “There’s a great vibe emanating from this cross-pollination of ideas and conceptual design. Sportsworld is a fun crew to work with, and it’s completely comfortable with ASP’s injection of sports-specific expertise. It’s a good mix, and we’re only four shows into a 60-show relationship.”
Sawyer admits getting the deal signed was a little rough: “It was hell for leather and we could have done with a lot more sleep.”
And although he’s happy with their progress, he says there’s a hell of a long way to go. “We’re not relaxed or slapping ourselves on the back,” he says. “What we’ve been doing is building the necessary foundation. Now we’re starting to build. Now we’re getting some momentum. You could say the work has really just begun.”