Q&A: World Surfing League CEO Erik Logan on growing the sport, Olympic participation

Erik Logan is CEO of the World Surf League, a global sports, media, and entertainment company.

The WSL was established in 1976 and oversees more than 180 contests across its platforms each year. In September, the WSL will crown men’s and women’s champions for the 2021 Champions Tour season.

Prior to joining the WSL, Logan served as President of the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) and Executive Vice President at Harpo Studios.

Previous stops include XM Satellite Radio, Citadel Broadcasting, and CBS/Infinity Broadcasting.

Sports Section sat down with Logan to discuss the current and future states of surfing, the effort to make it a mainstream sport and much more.

What is the biggest challenge you face in growing the World Surf League?

No. 1, I think a lot of people don’t know that there actually is a professional league for surfing that’s been around since 1976. We crown world champions. Kelly Slater is our 11-time world champion. We’re the entity that does that. 

It was funny because when I left my job working in television, I said, “I’m going to the World Surf League,” and the first reaction of half the Hollywood people I talked to was, “Is that a thing?” I’m like, “Yeah, it’s actually a thing. It’s been around for a while.”

There are some 380 million-odd people interested in surfing globally. My job is to find those people, introduce them to competitive surfing, and get them to watch our content. 

How are people primarily watching?

I think the most powerful thing I can talk about is just the massive explosion in the digital ecology, in terms of how we’ve streamed our events. Many millions of people come to our events via global streaming.

We give our content away for free. We basically run an ad model, and we go to scale. An average event for us in terms of our digital and also linear distributions is about 10 million.

It’s truly global (and) the consumption continues to go up year over year. We’re seeing the sport really grow in terms of its youth. We’re one of the youngest sports on the planet, and we’re probably one of the most global sports. Surfing really is a global sport.

The goal obviously is to bring surfing into the mainstream?

Some of our recent distribution deals are doing just that. We’re with FS2 and Fox and FS1 here in the United States. We’re streaming for the first time on YouTube globally. 

What we’re finding is that instead of always making people come to us, which is a heavy lift, we’re actually going to where they are. So we’re getting a lot more mainstream adoption.

Because of that, and also because of surfing being in the Olympics for the first time, we’re getting mainstream press on a level we’ve never had before.

How big an impact do you expect the Olympics to have?

It’s going to be transformative for the sport of surfing. First and foremost — getting back to our prior point — is that when someone says surfing is going to be in the Olympics, there are people who will be like, “Wow, I didn’t even know surfing was a thing.”

The Olympics are introducing us to the balance of those people who would be interested or even aspire to be in our sport — to be like, “Oh, wow, OK.”

The exposure on that platform is everything for us. We’ve seen that in terms of sponsored growth, in terms of fan engagement, and in terms of our socials and our athletes.

We’ve already seen their sponsorship deals, their Instagram followers, and their socials all tick up as a result of the Olympics. 

It’s already had a massive impact, and once we actually get the Olympics up and going that amplification will continue. 

Is this an opportunity to hook a new generation into surfing?

A thousand percent. One of the things a lot of people don’t know is that we also control the leagues below. There are three tiers of surfing. There’s the championship tour, where the Kelly Slaters and the pros would be, but like baseball there is the equivalent of a Triple-A team and even a feeder team below that. 

We put on all these events, and we’ve created what we call a Pathway to Pro. We control the pro juniors for kids under 18, and we show them how you can become a professional in the sport. 

The exposure and the attention we’re now driving from a media perspective actually gives you what you need as a surfer to go get the media deals and sponsorship deals so you can make a living on the road just like every other professional athlete.

It provides a pathway for these young boys and girls that really want to compete. 

What else is aiding the growth?

Before, our sport had crowned world champions based upon points gained over a number of tournaments. Over the course of the year, you get to a place where someone’s so far ahead that they can just run away with the world title. We’ve seen the world title actually won before the last event of the year. 

And most of the time the person who wins the world title wins it while on the beach or in the locker room because somebody loses in the water and it’s mathematically over. It was hugely anticlimactic. 

This year, we’re doing something extraordinarily different: We’ve introduced the WSL Finals (September at Lower Trestles, San Diego). 

We’re taking the Top 5 points for men and women over the course of this year, and they’re going to actually compete in a one-day ladder tournament. What that assures us is a massive media moment  — we’re going to have that world championship moment that our sport has never had in its history. 

We’ve been able to now talk to mainstream media about coverage of the world championship day. In fact, our single largest sponsorship deal was because of this. It was really profound in terms of what we’re seeing from the sponsors. 

How do you get and keep viewers who are landlocked and perhaps won’t see an ocean for a long time?

When I joined the company, one of the things that I wanted to do was to tell more narratives outside of the jersey. Because that’s my background in terms of media and running companies. So we started a studio business, and we sold two major shows. 

“Ultimate Surfer” is a broadcast show (produced by WSL Studios and Pilgrim Media Group) that ABC will air this August. It’s effectively a pivot from “Ultimate Fighter.” Seven boys and seven girls will live at the surf ranch, which is our private exclusive wave in Lemoore, California. They will then compete for a chance to get on the championship tour. And we’ll see the benefit of getting to know them.

The second thing we’re currently doing is a docuseries on the 2021 season that will be on Apple TV in 2022. 

Who are some of the big names we should get to know?

The storylines kind of write themselves — that’s what’s so great about our sport. For example, we have a rookie out of Australia named Morgan Cibilic, and he’s a little bit brash, very young, always out every night living the life of a pro surfer and traveling the world. 

He wound up beating the two-time world champion (John John Florence), not once but twice and shot up the rankings. Now all of a sudden, it’s like, who is this hot-shot kid? And the whole surfing world is focusing on Morgan. So he’s the breakout rookie. 

The other thing that’s a really important part of our sport is that we’ve made a mandate for equality and inclusion. We’ve done two really important things: We have an equal number of events for men and women, and we actually pay men and women the same. We’re one of the first international sports to do equal pay for equal work for men and women. That’s something we’re super, super proud of.

Tyler Wright, who’s a two-time world champion, is openly gay and approached us to wear the progressive pride flag on her jersey. And so she did, and she’s a very outspoken activist. 

So those stories are great because she talks about how she can use this platform to help people. And so what happens throughout the course of the year is our surfers find these really organic ways to use this platform and elevate it. 

We’re in the growth phase of our sport. And we feel like we’re really well-positioned. We perform all around the world at different hours, so no matter where you are in the world, you’re going to have an event in your time zone.

Where do you see surfing as a mainstream sport now? 

Most people look at surfing as a lifestyle activity, much like you’d see golf, for example, or tennis — an individual sport. But what’s so different about surfing than every other sport is that the golf courses aren’t moving, and the tennis courts aren’t moving. There’s nothing that’s going to eat you. We’re surfing in the raw, open ocean. 

We’re professionalizing the world’s best surfers on the world’s best waves and crowning world champions. And what I hope we do is build a bridge from the idealistic lifestyle and this aspiration that surfing has in our culture dating way back to “Gidget” back in the 1960s and beyond. Surfing has always been in the fabric of America. 

So when I think about how I’d like to see the company evolve, it’s in finding a way to harmonize this large contingency of avid surf fans and lovers and the professional side of our sport with these elite world-class athletes doing these super-human things. 

Chris Kuc is a sportswriter who covered a myriad of sports during his career with the Chicago Tribune, The Athletic, and the Chicago Blackhawks before joining Sports Section. You can reach out to Chris at Chris.Kuc@thesportssection.com or on Twitter: @ChrisKuc.