“Live streaming offers a whole new platform for sponsors”
For the latest installment of caytoo’s “Pitch-side” interview series, we speak to Biff Lancaster, operations director at the UK Pro Surfing Association – organisers of the only British surfing tour which visits six wave locations including an inland wave pool.
2018 is a year of transformation for the UKPSA and as he sits at the helm of operations, Lancaster is challenged with modernising the tour’s traditional format and raising the profile of its athletes for greater commercial impact.
Having implemented a series of changes at the start of the year, he tells us how a new streaming service has grown the tour’s engagement beyond the beach to half a million viewers as well as their vision for future technology partnerships.
caytoo: What is the UKPSA Tour’s focus?
Biff: The UKPSA Tour has always been a platform to enable our surfers to raise their profiles and compete on an international level. Interestingly, we can do that in reverse. Because we’re an open tour, anyone from anywhere in the world can enter. You don’t have to be British or UK-based, we have surfers from the Netherlands, Belgium, Israel and Greece joining us next year, giving our surfers more experience of competing at an international level. That means when they go onto the World Qualifying Series or Championship Tour, they’re better prepared for it.
“‘Hardy’ is probably the best word to describe British surfing
and that attracts a whole different type of brand”
What we’re all about is celebrating surfing in the UK. “Hardy” is probably the best word to describe British surfing and that attracts a whole different type of brand. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know there’s a professional surfing squad in the UK. That’s our biggest focus, to make people more aware and promote the athletes.
caytoo: Why did you start streaming your tour events live?
Biff: It seemed like a natural progression. Audiences are quickly moving to an on-demand lifestyle where they can pick and choose what they want to watch. We needed to be able to reach larger audiences in order to attract bigger sponsors and more money. But it’s also how we engage with those audiences, who we reach and how effective that audience is that matters a lot. Streaming made sense.
caytoo: Were there any particular demographics you wanted to target through streaming?
Biff: Honestly, we’re targeting the more mainstream side of things. People who are into other outdoor activities like mountain biking, who’ve tried surfing before or who are getting more and more into it.
“Our biggest audience are 25-45 year olds but about
44% of our audience is female”
Our biggest audience are 25-45 year olds which is indicative of the general UK surfing demographic. About 44% of our total audience is female and that’s not bad at all, compared to some of the other sports you might associate with being male-dominated. Certainly, we need to make up some more ground on the younger generation, the 16-21 year olds. That’s where we’re lacking at the moment and that’s an area our greater digital presence could help reach.
caytoo: Tell us about how the streaming service works
Biff: We set up multiple cameras down on the beach. Each camera has its own 4G feed, so we’re using technology to encode that video and audio live, send it via a 4G network to a purpose-built edit suit and production units offsite. The scores for each wave ridden are overlaid on that real-time because everything is digital now and the presenters can talk away on top. Before, we just had one camera pointing at the beach streaming live to Facebook. Technology has come on so much now that this type of system is within our reach budget-wise. Before we had 4G networks, there was no way we could have done this.
“Live streaming offers a whole new avenue of content and a platform
for sponsors to get involved in – our audience has grown 14x”
caytoo: What impact has streaming the tour events had on your audience size?
Biff: The live stream offers a whole new avenue of content and a platform for sponsors to get involved in. Our audience has grown beyond the beach from around 30-40,000 to 500,000 per event. We did a survey at the end of last year and had about 1,000 responses to simple questions such as, how often do you go surfing? How far do you travel to go surfing? We found that almost 30% of the UK’s surfing population live over two hours from the beach. So there is a whole army of weekend warriors who live in cities like Bristol, Birmingham and 10% of our audience is in London. Surfing to them is an outdoor activity and it’s a similar audience interested in mountain biking. Traditionally, when we were doing things just on the beach, we were missing out on that whole audience whereas now we can reach out to them.
A major step forward for us was partnering with a third-party distribution company called Push, who enable us to send out one live broadcast across different channels, including 3rd party partners. For example, we can send live broadcasts through the Surf Snowdonia social media channels, watermarked as their own content as if it was their production. That also allows us to analyse our total reach through the collaborations. It’s going beyond just having flags on beaches and logos on equipment. We can offer them time slots during the live stream, they can put together content which we can play during the live stream, they can come down and be interviewed from the beach and discuss their products. This is a whole new avenue for product placement. We have a studio now containing presenters talking about all things competition and surfing.
“It’s going beyond just having flags and logos, we can offer sponsors
time slots during the live stream, it’s a whole new avenue for product placement”
caytoo: Why is streaming particularly suitable for surfing?
Biff: In other countries you can have world-class waves in crystal blue water which can be captured through cinematic brilliance. But we don’t have that in this country. We do, however, always have a competition on regardless of the quality of the waves. And our athletes surf all year round and we crown a champion at the end of it. They are committed to this 365 days a year. It’s not that they’ve gone off to Indonesia and filmed an edit of amazing waves. I think that’s what audiences are wanting now. You can watch amazing surf edits all day on YouTube and Facebook, but what we want to get across is that there is a competition here. These guys train hard and work hard all year round. From that we can produce content that keeps on going way beyond the event itself.
caytoo: How is the UKPSA working with current partners?
Biff: The way we do things is changing and brands want more. They’re not just interested in putting their logos on things anymore, unless of course we had 20 million reach.
“Nerf wanted to reach out to kids so we produce content for them at events
filming kids in sponsored vests having a Nerf gun fight”
Until this year, the UKPSA was run on the format that there were so many events per year which needed a title sponsor for each event, based around flags on beaches. At the end of last year we got Nerf involved. They wanted to reach out to kids achieving things in cool areas. What we do now, in addition to the flags on the beach, is produce content for them. Every event we’ll get the kids together with their sponsored vests on and shoot them having a Nerf gun fight. Parts of that will make our highlights reel and that’s an example of the branded content we’ve started creating, rather than just relying on blatant adverts.
We still have Korev involved as a tour sponsor, we’ll do more traditional product placement with them. They’re a Cornish-based brewery, they want to support Cornish things and surfing is inherently Cornish. They sponsor Luke Dillon, who drives around in a Korev van and does very well on the tour.
caytoo: What sponsor/partner opportunities exist to get involved with the streaming service and the UKPSA generally?
Biff: There are a lot of opportunities for environmentally-conscious companies to get involved, such as Ecover. They’re really pushing the clean ocean thing and we are literally on the front line of the clean ocean debate at the moment. We are living and breathing it. Our 2018 Surfaced Pro Championships was the first plastic-free competition and we can change and adapt to work with a brand. We’re a platform for those sort of issues.
“There are a lot of opportunities for environmentally-conscious
companies to get involved”
The way we deliver the live stream is only achievable because of the advances in technology. Because we’re bringing footage in over 4G, there are opportunities there for 4G networks. We’re heavily computer-based now so there are also opportunities for software across the board. We’ve built a bespoke heat scoring and results-based system. All the entries and scoring is done through the website which enables real-time updates. The cost of production has come down to a level within our reach and that’s thanks to the 4G providers. We use Vodafone, they’d be a great one to get involved with because they offer the best 4G coverage in the country. There’s also the hardware providers, the dongles we use are made by Huawei, who make this possible for us.
Mainstream brands are now more interested in surfing than actual surf brands. Money in surfing has almost dried up. It would also be great to have a surf brand get involved but most of them, like Quiksilver, Billabong, Rip Curl, are based in Europe so their focus is on the continent. We get a bit forgotten about over here.
We can align our content to the values of these sponsors. We have a whole network of videographers and editors for live and non-live footage who will come on board to produce bespoke, branded content that’s subtle and creative for brands.
caytoo: How will sports sponsorship and partnerships between rights holders and brands change going forward?
Biff: Surfing is everywhere as a lifestyle choice now. Car brands like Jeep and Land Rover are very interested in the surf lifestyle, but that’s different to what we do, which is competitive surfing. What we find is that event surfers themselves are struggling to find sponsors from within the surfing industry. For example, Lucy Campbell’s main sponsor is Olympus Cameras, not something you would automatically associate with the sport.
This is where sponsorship changes, because rather than just sticking their logos on something, we can produce content which becomes a case study about what we’re doing for them. We can film behind the scenes and explain how this wouldn’t be possible without, for example, 4G technology, Huawei’s hardware or Vodafone’s networks.
“Surfing is everywhere as a lifestyle choice now. Car brands like
Jeep and Land Rover are very interested in the surf lifestyle”
caytoo: In broad terms, what does the UKPSA Tour offer sponsors?
Biff: We are aware we don’t have the size of viewing figures which are of enough interest to big brands. But what we are is the only Pro Surf Tour in the UK. We’re about professional surfing and the surfers dedicating their whole year to compete on the circuit being paid. What we can do now is produce stories around what we do, about the athletes. We can produce content around how the tour is put together, about the title races, around particular athletes like Lukas Skinner who’s only 10 years old.
caytoo: What challenges do you face in attracting sponsorship?
Biff: In terms of social media reach, it used to be easy to expand social audiences but because of changing algorithms it’s becoming almost impossible to do that without paying. We’re paying to boost posts. On the plus side, that means we can average our engagement in those posts and can then add a value to that when approaching potential sponsors. Social media is a full-time job in itself and it’s hard to grow your audiences now without paying in some way, shape or form.
We’re also putting a lot of effort into raising the profile of our surfers because they are competing with mainstream sports. Surfing is much more of a niche, content-driven marketplace. There are no top-level coaches in this country and very few of our top-level surfers are actually getting paid a living wage from a sponsor. That’s where we need a real shake up in the British surfing sponsorship industry. How do surfers make a living in this country? Surf brands are giving sponsorship deals that simply involve handing out free kit and in return, surfers have to do photo shoots and modelling, things like that.
“Social media is a full time job in itself and it’s hard to grow your audiences
now without paying in some way, shape or form”
We need a greater range of sponsors involved. Some of our surfers like Luke Dillon, whose core sponsors are Cornwall-based, are only really interested in what he does in Cornwall. This means when he goes overseas to compete, Korev becomes almost irrelevant because they don’t sell into that market space.
caytoo: Surfing seems increasingly susceptible to wider issues like gender equality and sexualisation. How is British surfing approaching these issues?
Biff: We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. We’re really trying to support women’s surfing and are at the beginning stages of a recruitment drive to get more girls and women competing, because we find there’s a drop off once you get to the age of about 15. Also the brands supporting women, unfortunately, seem to be the ones selling clothing and retail. And we all know what’s going on there.
When we have competitions we always run them alongside the men’s. We’re also trying to get equal prize money. Our Surfaced Pro event was the first competition globally to offer men and women equal prize money and will always do so in the future. However, the problem was that only eight women were competing. And the bulk of the prize money actually comes from the entry fees. Female surfers capable of competing are out there in the surfing marketplace but they tend to get picked up by brands and pulled into the modelling side of things. This is one of the challenges we’re facing. We’ve had lengthy discussions about how to get more women involved. This year we’ve had Jo Dennison, head coach at Surf Snowdonia in Wales, come down and compete which was amazing. She’s a real champion of women’s surfing, performing at the top of her game.
When we interviewed her, she said the reason she came down was because it promoted equal opportunities and prize money. But because of her experience with that event, she’s now committed to doing the whole tour.
“The Olympics will show what surfing can do on a global stage
and together with the rise of wave pools will open up a bigger market”
caytoo: What effect will surfing joining the Olympics have on the Tour?
Biff: Mainstream perception of a surfer has always been of blonde hair, baggy shorts, laid back surf bum. It’s not always true, and when you think about British surfing it’s a very different image! It’s mainly big coats and woolly hats.
The Olympics will be an opportunity to show what surfing can do on a global stage. There are stories we can build about the athletes who have their sights set on getting into the Olympics. Emily Currie for example is very focused on getting into that Olympic team. Unfortunately, there isn’t going to be much support from the sporting organisations like Sport England because they’re focused on medals.
New technologies like wave pools will also play a huge part. We have Surf Snowdonia on the tour and it’s our third year. Inevitably, this is the way surfing is going, It’s a much more commercially viable model. I see wave pools being great for a variety of reasons, training, bringing people into surfing through lessons and being able to regularly practice surfing. This opens up a bigger market because distance can be an issue if you have to travel to the beach all the time. And, from a competitive side, it solves so many of our problems – ensuring there are waves when there’s a contest on. Being able to contain it and certainly from the point of view of recording it live we can set up static cameras. We don’t have to worry about getting it up from the beach in remote locations. But people do still want to watch ocean-based action. So I think it’s going to be a combination of the two.
If you’re interested in sponsoring or partnering with the UKPSA and/or the Pro Tour, click here.