Surfline Gets $30 Million: Our Deal Concerns, the CEO on Growth, and the Future of Water Sports

December 22, 2020 by  Chris Erwin

EXEC SUM

We closely follow TCG’s investments, as their portfolio includes some of the best-performing upstart media-X-commerce brands. The list includes Barstool Sports, MeatEater, Food52, Exploding Kittens, and more (the links direct to RockWater’s analyses of these companies).

But initially I was skeptical about their $30 million Surfline investment. As a surfer, and with friends who work in the industry and who’ve observed first-hand its steady decline over the past two decades, I’m intimately aware of the industry’s many challenges.

Though as our team learned more about Surfline’s overall business, reflected on the needs and behaviors of water sport enthusiasts both in and out of the water, and applied TCG’s growth frameworks from past investments, we realized there’s a large and missed opportunity for the overall marine and action sports industry.

Breaking down these learnings will educate us on how different niche fandoms are best serviced by modern media-X-commerce companies, and how these companies can grow to service adjacent fandoms and broader audiences over time. It will also provide a framework for how investors and growth seekers can spot fandoms in need.

Overall, we at RockWater believe the TCG-powered Surfline will be an incredible steward for water sports. And building off an 86% uptick in surfing’s participation during COVID, there’s quite a wave of momentum to build from.

 

WHAT Happened?

Last week TCG announced a $30 million investment in Surfline / Wavetrak (“Surfline”), the 35-year old surf forecaster turned subscription media business.

 

WHAT Is Surfline? The 35-Year Surfcam Rewind

 

Founder Story

Surfline launched in 1985 out of Huntington Beach, CA as a “pay-per-call” hotline business, where for 50 cents one could listen to a 90 second message about local surf conditions. All serviced by a network of nearly 50 surfers who provided daily reports with real-time news from your go-to surf break. The company had 6,000 calls in its first month and quickly expanded to other coastal states like Florida and Texas.

The early team included Surfline’s star surf forecaster, Sean Collins, a future Surfer’s Hall of Fame inductee who pioneered the art of surf forecasting (more on Sean’s incredible backstory, including his use of fax machines in the Baja desert, here).

 

Riding the Dot-Com Wave

In 1995 Sean, who took over Surfline in 1990 and merged it with his other company Wavetrak, expanded Surfline online to offer more frequently updated surf reports at Surfline.com. Soon after, the company provided streaming video from more than 24 surfcams to illustrate local reports.

Rapid traffic growth led to Surfline’s acquisition by Swell, Bluetorch, and Hardcloud. With new access to growth capital, Surfline invested in editorial staff and expanded into a news source for its readers and customers. In 1996 the Surfline website had 500,000+ visits per week, and made revenue from both digital advertisements and premium membership fees.

But the dot-com bust in 2001 resulted in Surfline being sold back to previous owner Sean Collins. And as the Internet became more widely adopted, Sean helped Surfline become profitable through digital advertiser and membership fee growth.

 

Surfline Today

Today, Surfline provides forecast data and a network of over 600 live HD coastal webcams to surfers, as well as fishermen, offshore cruisers, anglers, and a growing variety of boating, fishing, and surfing enthusiasts. Its motto is “know before you go”, with a mission to “help users find fish, waves or safe, flat water.”

Surfline has an audience of over 3 million across its media portfolio, which includes its tentpole Surfline subscription forecast product (this 2012 article reports 40,000 paying users, which is likely multiples below 2020 actuals), and four other digital maritime brands:

  • Coastalwatch: an Australian-based surf forecast and surfcam operator with over 100 cameras in Australia. Was acquired by Surfline in July 2019 from Three Crowns Media Group, after a few tumultuous years including layoffs of its reporting staff and the cancellation of a $20 million licensing deal with SurfStitch’s portfolio of companies including Magicseaweed.

  • Magicseaweed: a UK-based free global surf forecaster. Has 1.5 million monthly users, and was acquired by Surfline in October 2017 out of bankruptcy from Australia-based SurfStich Group. SurfStitch had acquired Magicseaweed and Stab collectively for AUS $13.8 million two years prior in 2015.

  • Fishtrack: a US-based provider of deep sea fishing reports for many of the world’s top sport fishing destinations. Launched in-house by Surfline in 2012.

  • Buoyweather: a US-based provider of marine weather forecasts for boaters, sailors, anglers, and divers. Acquired in 2003, Buoyweather boasts a network of “Virtual Buoys” that provide focused marine forecast data for coastal and offshore areas throughout the world.

Let’s now zoom out and assess the broader surfing and action water sports industries. And then we’ll unpack why my skepticism about venture returns for a sport with physical growth barriers turned into excitement and optimism.

 

WHY I Was Skeptical About Growth: The Unique Challenges of the Surf Industry

Physical Barriers to Growth

A sport that is widely accessible to participate in will galvanize more fans, competition viewership, and broad audience appeal.

Yet surfing has two large physical barriers in driving participation.

First, one must live nearby, or travel to, ocean coastlines. And second, the ocean and weather conditions must coordinate, which as every surfer knows, happens much less often than desired.

The result? Around 25-30 million global surfers. That’s less than 10% of the world’s 265 million estimated soccer players, who can literally kick a ball around a dusty baseball diamond, asphalt basketball court, or the office break room.

While many sports benefit from more players — more people to share the experience with, co-watch competitions, etc — many surfers don’t want to see the sport grow. Surf “lineups” are already overcrowded, and good surf conditions are fickle, so growing the surfing population can actually worsen a surfer’s water experience. Which has led to aggressive localism at select surf breaks.

In turn, the surfing industry has been investing aggressively to bring surfing beyond the coast.

 

The Emergence of Man-Made Wave Pools

11-time world champion Kelly Slater spent over a decade building Surf Ranch, which is now home to the world’s best artificial wave. Surf Ranch has received wide press coverage, become an official stop on the professional tour, and can also be rented out for $25,000+ per day (I’ve done the math, and it equates to $275 – 375 per wave per surfer).

More artificial wave projects have since emerged, like BSR Surf Resort based in Waco, Texas (specially known for its “air section”), and the DSRT Surf pool in the Palm Desert slated to open in 2021.

These are exciting developments to help bring surfing’s stoke to more people worldwide, but the scalable model is not yet here.

The Surf Ranch required 8-figures of investment capital and lots of land, and is expensive to maintain. It was also slated to expand to Florida in a joint project with the World Surf League, but those plans fell through in June 2019 due to too much water. And while the next summer Olympics will feature surfing for the first time, the Olympic Committee opted to showcase “natural” surfing instead of Kelly’s new wave pool tech, a major blow to building more global awareness and interest in man-made waves.

Wave pools have the potential to be a game changer for surfing. But it’s going to take a bit.

 

A Participant Sport, Not a Spectator Sport

A beautiful top turn carve in a World Surf League competition by John John Florence means little to most, even on a big HDTV screen. I’ll ooh and ahh in those moments and text my friends during live competition because we know, from direct experience, how technically difficult and “high-consequence” those maneuvers are in waves that can be double or triple overhead.

But that excitable feeling just hasn’t translated to non-surfers via traditional broadcasts.

In contrast, a hail mary NFL touchdown catch with just 20 seconds left on the clock has broad viewer appeal. You don’t need to know the rules of football to feel the excitement in that game-defining moment.

It’s a function of the sport’s inherent “physical expression”, or viewer wow factor. But it’s also how these moments are amplified by the video, audio, and storytelling infrastructure built around the competition. Like the range of camera and close-up angles, stimulating graphic and data overlays, mic’d up players, and on-the-ground commentators.

Surf broadcasters and the WSL could make investments here that would significantly improve the viewer experience.

Other niche / emergent sports leagues and their digitally-native broadcasters are good inspiration. Like FloSports and their coverage of mixed martial arts which includes breaking sports news, technique videos from top fighters, AR-driven overlays with biometric data, behind-the-scenes athlete coverage, original documentaries, a dedicated FloCombat.com user portal, and even made-for-TV spectacles — they’ve broadcasted fights from top of One World Trade Center. Or YouTube’s new deal to be the exclusive streamer for League of Legends and Overwatch, in which these two leagues will benefit from Google’s new game-streaming service Stadia and the tech giant’s massive YouTube Gaming video and social hub (which had 100 billion of watch time hours in 2020).

To its credit, the World Surf League is also investing here, and exploring novel ways to feature the surfing’s own special “wow factor”.

Specifically, competitions take place in over 10 of the most beautiful and remote beach locations around the world, the sun-kissed and highly trained athletes are easy on the eyes, and the exotic travel, outdoor training, and close camaraderie of professional surfers enables great athlete storytelling before, during, and after competition.

So the WSL now also features mic’d up surfers mid competition, “in-the-lineup” commentators, new social distribution partners like Facebook, and original documentaries like #tournotes.

All steps in the right direction, but there’s much more work to be done.

 

WHAT Does This Mean for TCG and Surfline?

The newly teamed-up pair likely isn’t betting on a near-term “rising tide lifts all boats” effect stemming from (1) the widespread roll-out of wave pools and (2) an improved and broadly distributed spectator experience.

So what are they betting on?

A highly engaged niche fandom in need. Which is increasingly serving as the type of foundation to building the highest value brands in the modern media-X-commerce economy. Per Mike Kerns, co-founder of TCG,

“What’s so special about Surfline is the combination of content, community, and utility. Not many others [media brands] have that.”

Further, Mike noted that this category includes other niche sports products like Strava (runners and cyclists) and AllTrails (trail-based activity like hiking and camping).

Let’s break down what this opportunity is specifically for the maritime sporting industry. And how the growth framework will mirror other Chernin investments, yet will also differ based on other market activity we’re observing.

 

WHY I’m Now Optimistic: The Power of Passion Brands, and How Surfline Can Win For Both Surfers and Investors

Outperformance for media businesses, from revenue growth / diversification to the ability to attract large investment, increasingly indexes towards passion brands that continuously deepen fan engagement.

Surfline’s new CEO, Kyle Laughlin, recently shared with RockWater the following quote:

“What’s impressed me most about Surfline is that it’s a story of heritage and grit. Over the decades, the company has evolved from 976-SURF, to an ad-supported web-based experience, to a mobile subscription product. I can’t think of many companies that have so thoroughly and successfully evolved their core offerings in this way, all while consistently serving its core community.

As we look ahead, I’m excited by the fact that Surfline already fosters the world’s largest surf audience, and interest in surf is growing faster than ever. We live and breathe our mission to connect surfers with their passion, and this has enabled us to maintain a massive engaged community. In other words, we’ve built an incredibly successful subscription business, based on incredible content and world-class, tech-powered products. You can expect us to stay focused on our mission and make continued investments in the content and services that make us essential to our users globally.”

Kyle’s point about connecting “surfers with their passion” gets at the company’s core growth opportunity.

Surfline has a die-hard user community not just in surfing, but also in an increasingly diverse set of other maritime sports including stand-up paddle boarding, windsurfing, bodysurfing, bodyboarding, kitesurfing, spearfishing, and more.

These distinct but overlapping sports communities leverage Surfline’s portfolio of digital brands and apps to make their ocean-going experience better. For 35 years, that has primarily been a single product — a sophisticated live forecast and reporting service of ocean conditions and weather.

But connecting surfers with their passion is a much bigger opportunity that Surfline, which has built up incredible trust with its users, is well setup to deliver. Kyle mentioned three growth pillars when we recently spoke:

  1. Train

  2. Gear

  3. Travel

For action sport participants, this is the holy trifecta. These three focus areas wrap an ocean-goer’s experience from end to end. And TCG invested because that user experience currently leaves much to be desired, and is worth billions of dollars. We’ll break each one down, and also ideate on growth opportunities Surfline can begin pursuing immediately.

 

TRAIN: A Revolution in Specialized Maritime Training

Training enhances the sport experience. It makes you physically and mentally fit, increases skill, and boosts confidence. And whether you’re a first-time participant or a seasoned professional, there’s always room to improve.

For action water sports, where optimal conditions can be infrequent or a plane ride away, fun and engaging training programs can significantly extend the sports’ participation and cultural relevance.

Surfline could play an important role here. From helping beginners who want to learn the “pop-up”, to helping expert storm chasers refine tow-in techniques for Tahiti’s next Code Red.

This starts with a top-of-funnel content strategy that engages and inspires all levels of water sports enthusiasts. Accessible on social media, the app’s freemium version (both web/mobile/CTV), and even linear FAST channels, the content mix would include short-form edutainment content like how-to’s and new gear reviews, as well as mid-length docuseries about exotic surf destinations and notable surf happenings (think ESPN’s 30 for 30). Featuring a network of water-native creative talent like Chris Grow from YouTube’s Shred Show Channel (who in 2016 was brought in-house by surfboard manufacturer FireWire, who saw the power of his digital marketing expertise).

Surfline’s widely distributed social and app-based content funnel would aggregate demand from a variety of water sport enthusiasts, funneling them into Surfline’s training ecosystem spanning the physical (a hybrid of O&O locations and Crossfit-like franchisees to balance quality control vs rapid, capital-lite expansion) and digital worlds. In this training ecosystem, users would have access to a verified trainer network, branded training facilities with custom water-training equipment and gear retail outposts, digital video and podcast tutorials for at-home learning, the ability to watch self footage from Surfline’s proprietary surfcam network via Surfline Sessions, and customized programming based on wellness and performance data tracking by the Surfline app and companion wearable tech. Users could buy comprehensive packages, or pay as they go via app upsells.

All in all, helping take beginners from a Surfline level 1 to 4, or experts from a 7 to a 9.

This would be a major breakthrough in specialized maritime training, that builds off comparable market activity.

Numerous new fitness and wellness platforms have emerged in the past decade that cater to broad audiences. They range from Mirror and Peloton, to Whoop and Calm, and rapid user growth has earned them valuations that collectively reach the billions.

But specialized maritime training is an untapped and growing opportunity as action water sports continuously expand and diversify. Surfline will delight users by providing access to a wide variety of water training, from elite training brands like Laird Hamilton’s XPT Extreme Performance Training and Mark Healey’s Healey Water Ops, to the wide variety of local surf action water sport schools on the world’s coastlines. A win for users, and a win for the maritime training community who struggle to get in front of trainees in need.

Lastly, training is also a powerful social connector.

This is an important dynamic for individual water sports like surfing, kiting, fishing, foiling, et al that are often much more enjoyable (and safe) when shared amongst small groups of like-minded enthusiasts. The fostering of community amongst Surfline users would lead to more specialized group trips (see Surfline travel section below), skill-sharing, and a better overall social and shared experience for the sport.

 

GEAR: The Power of Data-Rich Commerce for Niche Fandoms

Buying action water sports gear as a newbie or even professional ocean-goer can be daunting. The knowledge gap is expansive, the equipment is expensive, and high-end products are often only available at specialized retailers.

Enter Surfline.

Imagine a middle aged woman who’s been a short boarder for the past five years. She recently suffers a second torn rotator cuff, and her doctor tells her that she needs to stop surfing or risk permanent damage. Dismayed, she turns to her Surfline app in hope of another solution.

She finds videos about shoulder rehabilitation specially for surfers. The videos also recommend other board sports that provide lower shoulder impact like SUP, foiling, or longboarding. She starts clicking through in-app gear reviews from other Surfline users. She books a sales appointment at her local Surfline training facility / retail outpost, as well as a session with a Surfline-verified trainer who specializes in SUP-based shoulder rehabilitation for women.

Surfline’s Content, Train, and Gear business will coordinate for total user delight.

The company’s content network will be a powerful education and purchase-intent building machine for water sports fans. And Surfline can activate that intent across both physical and online marketplaces.

These marketplaces will only feature high quality products from Surfline-approved vendors. Over time, as Surfline learns about its users’ buying behavior and unmet product opportunities, it will introduce its own line of branded products. This is a major opportunity, as few new surf gear brands — other than maybe Wavestorm, Catch Surf, and FireWire — have broken through in the past decade.

Just like how MeatEater, another TCG investment, started out selling 3rd party products, then introduced branded lines by its star personality Steven Rinella, and then doubled down on the ecommerce opportunity by paying $50 million for First Lite, a highly reputable hunting apparel brand. All with the goal of earning more share of wallet from its core fans.

But Surfline has an ecommerce angle MeatEater doesn’t. The surf company’s tech and app infrastructure. Making Surfline’s commerce opportunity even bigger.

Surfline could house all your fitness and training data, like where you live and your nearby surf breaks. Meaning it can recommend complete surf gear packages uniquely designed for your surfing situation, and highlight product reviews from surfers at a similar skill level and geo proximity.

And shoppers could watch local surfcam footage of other app users riding the same equipment. Because while I love watching Rob Machado make smooth-as-silk carves on FireWire’s Seaside model, Rob’s just not a realistic benchmark for me. But Mike, who’s also a Surfline level 2 surfer, weighs 150 pounds, and is a regular at Cardiff Reef, definitely is.

Buy online. Pickup at your local Surfline training facility / retail outpost. Forget to order fins? You’re covered, as a Surfline sales clerk will help you match either a Futures or FCS setup.

And when users decide to upgrade or swap our their gear, they can leverage Surfline’s peer-to-peer marketplace to sell their used items. Just like Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist, but made uniquely for water sport participants. The proceeds then become credit on the Surfline app to seamlessly enable a user’s next purchase, invest in more training, or book their next big surfing adventure…

 

TRAVEL: A Natural Extension for the “Know Before You Go” Company

Water sport enthusiasts travel extensively.

Sometimes it’s about finding supreme sport conditions, like a “strike mission” to the Mentawais during a solid South swell in April. Or it’s about shared adventure and exotic getaways with close mates and loved ones, where great conditions are always welcome, but not required, for an amazing surf travel experience.

Like golf tourism, which is a $20+ billion market in the US alone and billions more abroad, global surf tourism is a large revenue opportunity and has much more headroom to grow.

Currently, booking a surf trip is an extremely high-friction experience. It requires lots of research and planning time, which takes place across a disjointed physical and digital network, and there’s a massive trust gap in navigating high vs low quality service offerings.

For just surf conditions alone, one needs to know which international surf breaks “work” at what time of the year, check if upcoming swells intersect with planned trip days, and assess what the weather conditions will be (e.g. do you bring your 3/2 wetsuit or just rash guard and board shorts?). For many surfers, this process happens in Surfline as well as other digital destinations like wannasurf.com, weather.com, and resort websites like this one for Macaronis.

Then with a destination and time window set, users must then coordinate travel and lodging, sometimes just a few weeks in advance, and for highly remote locations. And also hire local surf guides and boat captains, coordinate with local sporting shops for equipment rentals, figure out dining and alternative on-location activity options, and more.

Today, Surfline supports the research phase of the user travel journey, and then features “partner content” like Surf Travel Specials / World Wave Expeditions, likely as part of an affiliate or sponsor program. But the company should own the experience, from intent-creation, to check-in and check-out.

An interesting comparable is Airbnb, which has expanded from a lodging company to an experiences company. With Airbnb Experiences, launched this past April, travelers use Airbnb.com to both book their trip and arrange host and professional-led on-location activities through a trusted digital marketplace. The one-stop-solution is a big win for users, who already trust the Airbnb brand, as well as vendors who want to target prospective customers.

Surfline also has strong brand trust to build from. And expanding into travel is a logical extension for a company built on the “Know Before You Go” premise.

Surfline Travel could with discovery and intent-creation driven by its content network and peer user surf getaway reviews. And because the app will know if Heather from CA is checking out surfcams in Pichilemu, Chile, the company could target users with “intent to travel” editorial like “5 Things You Need to Know About Surfing in Chile” and “How to Not Go Broke On Per-Board Stowage Fees”.

The personalized editorial will direct users to trip conditions research and planning using Surfline’s proprietary data and forecasting service, and then to a dedicated portal for all travel, accommodation, rental gear, and experience booking needs. Water sport service providers can build branded digital storefronts in the Surfline Travel marketplace, similarly to Shopify Shops and Facebook Shops, and provide exclusive discounts to Surfline users.

Further, Surfline Travel could include a premium concierge service, providing custom end-to-end travel packages from its airline/lodging/vendor network, and a menu of up-sells while users are on-site, like a day of deep sea fishing during a rest day, or a visit to a local winery. Over time, Surfline could also launch its own branded travel services network, ranging from international surf schools to gear shops, for the most frequently visited and / or in-need destinations.

And this is just for surfing. The same goes for fishing and all other water-faring activity.

Essentially, Surfline can become TripAdvisor meets Booking.com meets Airbnb Experiences for all water-seekers. For customers ranging from traveling college students with lean budgets, to hardcore water enthusiasts who seek the trip of a lifetime, with no expense spared.

 

CONCLUSION: Art, Passion, Stewards, and Longevity

The entirety of this article is about evaluating surfing from a purely commercial lens. Assessing the sports’ ability to grow fans, and make more money from those fans.

That’s easily interpreted as a disservice to the essence of surfing. Which to many of its core fans, is more akin to an art form and religion than a sport, let alone a money-making enterprise.

This sentiment initially made my writing process a struggle. I worried about offending surfing’s insiders by championing a deal that corrupted the heart of the sport.

I was just too deep in it as a surfer myself. Fortunately, my team reminded me that fear of investment and innovation corrupting passion and art is an age-old quandary. Most particularly felt from insiders and legacy fans, whose judgement can be clouded with respect to rightful future progression.

We think about WarnerMedia’s recent move to distribute its films on HBO Max concurrent with the theatrical window. Industry executives, creatives, and cinephiles the world over blasted the studio, saying it would kill the revered “in-theater experience”. We also think about when TCG invested in Barstool Sports, and “Stoolies” decried the investment, calling it the death of Barstool as they knew it.

But is the current in-theater experience what most fans want? No. And not following your fans is a fast path to irrelevance.

For Stoolies, TCG proved to be an incredible steward of the Barstool brand and fandom. The investor ensured the company’s de facto Stoolie president and Barstool founder, Dave Portnoy, could continue to set the culture and creative tone. Which Portnoy has more time to do, and do well, because TCG helped recruit an expert replacement CEO Erika Nardini to run the day to day.

The reality is that the companies in any given passion category shape the sport and the fan experience. And are integral to fandom growth and sustainability for players, local economies, and other stakeholders. Like what the NBA and Nike have done for basketball. And what studios have done for cinema.

For better or for worse.

To that end, the surfing industry is desperately in need of some new stewards.

Shut-downs (RIP Surfer Mag, Oct 2020), consolidation, capital loss, and lay-offs have been rampant over the past decade. Driven by legacy founders who aren’t equipped to succeed in the new consumer economy, executive impropriety, and investors with deep pockets and lots of passion but little time to focus on building right.

Meaning surfers and water sport enthusiasts are being let down. So here’s a call to building better for the fans, and to honor and do right by the original industry stewards that gave us this opportunity. Doing so will provide the sport longevity and community delight. Ensuring the stoke of surfing lives on for many years to come.

Now that’s something worth writing about.

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