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Facebook Streaming Deal Comes as Pro Surfing Rides New Wave Technology

Facebook, which is moving aggressively into the business of live sports, locked up a two-year agreement last week with the World Surf League.

The deal brings more than $30 million in licensing revenues to the league, and also comes at a pivotal moment in the history of professional surfing. Last fall, the WSL held an event at the Kelly Slater Wave Pool, a facility in Lemoore, Calif., that creates artificial waves. The league is now working to build several similar facilities around the world in hopes of making the sport less dependent on ocean currents and more amenable to TV viewing.

“It’s a bit of a game-changer for us,” says Sophie Goldschmidt, the league’s CEO, during an interview at the company’s Santa Monica headquarters. “These facilities we’re gonna be rolling out are hugely important to the world of surfing.”

Surfing is not available on American TV, though the league does have agreements in other territories, including Australia and Brazil. Since its rebranding a few years ago, the league has fashioned itself as being “digital first” — offering its events on YouTube and through its mobile app. Last year, the WSL signed a non-exclusive deal with Facebook. The new agreement provides for exclusivity, meaning that live events will no longer be available on the WSL app.

In part, the digital strategy is about attracting surfing’s younger audience, and reaching a fan community that is spread across the globe. But the strategy is also borne of necessity. Waves are unpredictable, so surf events are impossible to schedule with precision — a nightmare situation for traditional TV.

The wave pool could change all that. Developed over the past decade, the pool provides predictable, manmade waves. The WSL plans to include the Lemoore facility on its professional tour for the first time in September. The technology has the potential to revolutionize the sport, making it more accessible to fans and more relevant for TV providers.

“From a broadcast perspective, it’s definitely changed the level of conversation and the narrative,” Goldschmidt says. “We’ve had a lot of interest in the last six to 12 months.”

In addition to the scheduling issue, the wave pool will allow the WSL to create its own stadiums, bringing spectators much closer to the action than they would be if they were standing on the beach. The predictability of the waves will also open up the possibilities for camera angles. The league can also host nighttime events, with floodlighting to illuminate the surfers.

The WSL’s moves have riled some traditionalists who see surfing as a spiritual communion with the ocean. Goldschmidt is careful to stress the league’s support for ocean conservation efforts, and also emphasizes that ocean surfing is not going away.

“It’s not about wave systems or the ocean,” she says. “I think we can have our cake and eat it too. The values and culture of the sport have never been more important, but we can be innovative and push the boundaries.”

The WSL has broken ground on a second wave facility in Florida, and has plans to build more in Japan and Europe. Surfing will be in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, which the WSL sees as an opportunity for a broader audience.

“We’re planning to build a wave system (in Tokyo) in time,” for the games, Goldschmidt says. “Maybe there’s a chance they’ll do it in the wave system.”

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