The Next Big Spectator Sport: Surfing?! (or) Time we had new startup sports!?

Article by David F. Flanders

“The future is already here – its just not evenly distributed”

Over the past couple of decades we’ve watched as the music sector has experimented with new business models.  This change primarily due to new competitor technologies which have lead to new business models (iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud, etc.).  Following in the footsteps of this sector-wide change have been the likes of the stock market sector (eTrading) and banking sector (mobile banking), followed by the television sector (Netflix); and so forth and so on. As sectors are challenged by new ways of packaging information there is the opportunity to innovate new business models.

Drone footage of the long ride the Bell's Beach cliffs give surfers.

New technology brings the opportunity for new business models, will they sink or swim?

One of the more interesting sectors to have *not* changed (or been disruptively innovated), has been the sports sector.  This is because sport are primarily (by their nature) conservative in terms of changing their rules.  Most large sports organisation have a monopoly: they have no real competitive desire to change their rules rapidly.  The mentality of large sports organisation like the NFL, AFL, NBA, PGA is one of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  There are ‘signs of the change’ through the likes of GoPro, RedBull and other “extreme sport” providers.  I believe in the next five years we’ll see these new experimental ‘sports business models’ pay dividends.  These innovative sports will lock in on new psychologies and demographics which will come to compete with the older more conservative sports in terms of widespread popularity.

Accordingly, my start-up-scouting brain has been searching through YouTube channels for niche spectator sports emerging because of crunching technologies together.  Of specific interest, have been sports which would benefit from technologies not previously available:

  • Sports which are highly visual in nature requiring ‘Ultra High Definition’ (UHD) of 4K+ pixels.  These are usually sports which are either very fast in nature making it hard to watch them on traditional “low definition screens” (i.e. roller hockey pucks, squash balls, speedskating, etc); or, sports which would benefit from crisper “true white” and “true black” UHD colors (snow sports, water sports, etc.).
  • Sports which would benefit from being delivered in smaller packages (3-15 min) segments over mobile phone screens; able to be consumed in the small breaks throughout a day (so as to fit with our scattered social media lives). NB I’m not necessarily advocating for this kind of “shiny bird syndrome”.
  • Sports which inspire ‘awe’ because of new viewpoint-angles (panorama, 360 helicopter) which have not been possible to video record (rockclimbing, surfing, etc) because of new hardware like cheap cameras which are water/shock proof and drones with GPS (“follow the leader” tethering) technology.

There are two sports which have drawn me in of recent (from a incubator investor viewpoint): squash[1] and surfing.

I’d like to talk about the possibility of surfing as one of these niche sports which are on the rise; hopefully you are willing to tweet me (@DFFlanders) and the World Surf League (@WSL) to provide feedback on if you think surfing could be a sport which grows in popularity? Could surfing as a sport compete with other more conservative mainstream sports?!  The data below would suggest so?!

Alexa traffic comparison for sport league websites.

As a disclaimer: I currently live in Melbourne where the World Famous Bell’s Beach (oldest running surf competition) is currently taking place at #BellsBeach.

The remainder of this post provides some speculation on how surfing could become a more popular spectator sport to generate more business revenue (potentially we’ll see some start-up companies doing some disruptive innovation to increase “fanaticals” even more.).

The first disruptive business model I want to talk about is the ability to have a truly participatory fan-base; not just spectating but actually affecting the outcome of the event (real fanatics go to games, dress-up and scream because they think they are somehow participating).

Currently surf judges are picked from the ‘good & great’ of the ‘whose who’ in surfing.  Which I’m not against as a qualitative metric, however it would be very easy to provide a “popular vote” alongside the ‘official judges’ scorecard.  Furthermore you could significantly help improve the fan’s *participatory* vote through further computer generated commentary of wave riding.  For example commentators could provide new graphics thanks to drone footage:

PoV: Drone flying directly overhead of surfer providing an actual shot of "how radical (mathematically) was the turn"? Rad dude!

Drone PoV: directly overhead showing the surfer cutting up wave thereby providing an actual shot of “how radical (mathematically) was the turn” from top to botton? Rad dude!

Drones provide the commentators with precious new footage and photography angles by which to provide spectators with an informed decision.  Whereby an overlay atop the YouTube video could provide a quick 5xStar survey poll for viewers to immediately provide feedback.  These votes might not actually count (due to gamification by the fanbase), but they could feed into new prizes which accumulated throughout the season: “most popular surfer” – “best carve of the year” – “best air of the year” – etc.

Drones can provide that "bird's eye" view of the entire pitch/field which a competitor has to transverse to win.

Drones can provide that “bird’s eye” view of the entire pitch/field which a competitor has to transverse to win.

Also, there are other “tactics” which could be used to engage the fanbase in being more participatory (ergo buying into the lifestyle of surfing and all the merchandise that goes along with that lifestyle):

  • Twitter/Instagram handles of all surfers as part of the onscreen media [increased sponsorship for each surfer in terms of branding via their own channels – healthy marketplace competition].
  • All-female commentator panels able to talk about psychology, lifestyle, health-living, etc. [target the growing female demographic in surfing].
  • Less “all-american” male commentators, embracing the world culture which surfing embraces and having culturally-inclusive commentators [increase in sponsorship from governments to attract tourism, new fan bases as developing countries come online like Brazil, India and China].
  • More “off-pitch/field” commentators showing the lifestyle and friendly-competition which surfers abide (or don’t abide) by as part of a community that travels together worldwide. [more sponsorship opportunities from local communities, as well as greater diversity in purchasing clothing for varying seasons/temperatures throughout the year].
  • Greater indepth analytics and weather reports for the sports geeks in a hipster world who want more sports data [more technologies being sold for use in the water for hobbyists and spectators].  NB there are often as many pro surf photographers in the water as pro surfers these days.

So what do you think, could surfing be the next sector to be disruptively innovated by new technologies?  Let me know your thoughts on Twitter (and ping @WSL while you are at it) 🙂

Authored by David F. Flanders, a “hobbyist surf geek photographer” and innovation entrepreneur currently based in Melbourne (other previous residencies include USA, UK & Portugal).

[1]= I’ve also been taking squash lessons and experimenting with a GoPro UHD 4K camera to do ball tracking (a squash ball moves on average 150KMH).  More on squash anon.


~ by dfflanders on April 4, 2015.

One Response to “The Next Big Spectator Sport: Surfing?! (or) Time we had new startup sports!?”

  1. I have mixed feelings about promoting sport as spectacle rather than something people participate in. For the most part, I don’t find the end result that edifying. But maybe that’s due the the conservative nature of established sports that you mention?

    On the topic of participatory judging, how does the “strictly come dancing” (?) model of panel+audience judging fit with your thoughts?

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