Pitch-side: interview with Surfing England’s COO Nick Rees
For the latest installment of our “Pitch-side” interview series with sports rights holders, we talk to Nick Rees, chief operating officer at Surfing England.
Since the 1960’s, from the fringes of society, surfing has influenced modern culture, lifestyle, fashion and even language. But now it’s about to go mainstream, taking its place on the world’s greatest sporting stage at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. As COO of a brand new governing body Rees tells caytoo how it has developed from the ground up, without funding, to boost British surfing and bring the country to the forefront of technology able to create waves in inland lakes.
caytoo: Give us a brief overview of your organisation.
Nick: Surfing England is here for the support and development of surfing. We are a not-for-profit membership-driven organisation created by surfers, for surfers. I’m the COO and we’re a small team with a big remit, led by a committed and passionate board of directors.
caytoo: How is Surfing England helping prepare surfing here for its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020?
Nick: Our organisation covers all the way through from grassroots to elite surfing. So, from a parent who wants to take their child surfing to England’s best wanting to represent their country on the world stage.
When it comes to the elite end and the Olympics, it’s actually been a really testing phase. We’ve worked as closely as we can with UK Sport who are not offering any support for British surfers to prepare for Tokyo and beyond.
“We can’t prove there’s any British surfer who could legitimately
get on the podium in Tokyo so there’s no support”
Our athletes need to show a guaranteed trajectory to podium performances at the Olympics, and if they can’t then the funding/support isn’t provided – which is the current situation. That’s not to say their isn’t hope or chance, as we believe in our surfers – but we need to provide them with the tools to achieve their potential. A commercial sponsor could bring that.
caytoo: What was the process like for gaining governing body status?
Nick: It was a lengthy process. It took around eight years in order to build the organisation enough and establish a national governing body. Lots of volunteers got together to build it and with a complete focus on transparent, fit-for-purpose, organic organisational growth. So, working through the process bit by bit, ensuring that we serve the sport and the members and grow within our means. We consistently work to secure the pillars of the organisation and then step up, platform by platform, to ensure that behind every decision there’s a good solid process set for the long-term.
caytoo: What impact is the Olympics having on surfing from a potential sponsor’s perspective?
Nick: It brings a new light onto the sport for companies that maybe in the past hadn’t considered it as mainstream. We estimate there are around 20 million surfers in the world, 350,000 surfers in England alone and pushing up to half a million across the UK. So as a sport we’re actually extremely popular and it’s just going to grow from there. Our job is to channel that energy and inspiration people get from the Olympics into engaging with the sport.
“There’s a unique cycle that people go on within surfing, lasting 60 years
plus so the benefit brands have is the longevity of an investment”
We also recognise that there is a unique cycle that people go on within surfing, lasting 60 years plus. You can just move between the disciplines within our sport, from shortboarding to longboarding to stand up paddleboarding and supporting their local surf club through to volunteering or becoming a surf coach. The idea is that the Olympics could bring in a new generation of people from a young age and it’s our job to then engage with them. Then the benefit you have from a company perspective is the longevity of an investment. You can create a customer for life through the right engagement in the next couple of years.
caytoo: In addition to the longevity, what else does surfing offer potential brands looking to invest?
Nick: Surfing offers a unique, direct lifestyle that is desirable but also achievable. We aren’t a sport that has extremely high costs to enter. You’ve got 11,000 kilometres of coastline in the UK, most of which can be surfed on in some form. Therefore, the engagement opportunity for a brand is about being able to take their product or service to a receptive audience as long as they can connect with the right sort of brand values that surfers hold. The community of surfing is a growing one and brands can extend beyond their normal boundaries. The industry is widely tourism-dependent with surfers travelling to wonderful surfing destinations, so the core of surfing operates all year round. Furthermore, our sport is also lucky enough to take part in nature itself.
“The engagement opportunity for a brand is about being able to take
their product or service to a receptive audience”
caytoo: How is Surfing England approaching topical issues in the sport like inclusivity, equality and sustainability?
Nick: With open transparency and a willingness to listen. Our pioneering Adaptive Surfing Championships really came from a disabled individual four years ago saying, “do you know what adaptive surfing is?” I was like, no, let’s do it! So having an open approach and knowing that you’re always in a constant form of adaptation and development and constant learning. That’s one of the wonderful things about our organisation and it’s quite a unique selling point. We’re not entrenched in any historical or deep-rooted process. We are a modern organisation – only one year old. I think of us as a hybrid of a startup company meets national governing body.
We’ve got this awesome support from surfers, we know the market and we’re looking for partners that can help the organisation grow. We don’t get any support from the government and we have no funding. We are completely commercially and membership-driven, those are our only two forms of income. So when commercial partners come to us and say, “hey, we want to do this”, 99% of the time we’re able to say ‘great let’s do it.’ If you help us we help you and it’s all about having a good relationship. That’s why we have around a 90% renewal rate from sponsors year-on-year.
“We’re always in a constant form of adaptation and learning –
we have around a 90% renewal rate from sponsors”
caytoo: Who are your current partners?
Nick: We currently have around 18 partners in total. Five are headline sponsors, Korev Lager, Caravan and Motorhome Club, SurfDome, The Wave (who are building inland surf destinations in Bristol and London) and also Jeep. Then we have an additional second and third tier partners, all of whom can be viewed on our partners page.
A lot of what our packages focus around is brand and product awareness, service, and engagement with our audience. So, if we look at a partner and understand their goals, then we can tailor packages to include events, or Team England or content or unique engagements etc. We implemented our tier-system about five years ago before we had governing body status and it provided absolute clarity as to what people can get through working with us. This year we revised it, because as our value increases as an organisation, so does our desire to step up a level in partnerships.
caytoo: How do you try and work with partners?
Nick: We try and be bespoke every time. When we enter into any partnership we just really clearly lay out exactly what each party wants to get out of it and then tailor our offering. We can have an honest conversation then as to whether this can be achieved through us and and if there’s a way of us adapting something we do to ensure they get it, that’s what we’ll do.
“When a partner invests in surfing, whether it’s in money, in time or
in resource, the direct product of that is a positive impact on the world.”
caytoo: What does Surfing England get out of these partnerships?
Nick: The complete ability to operate. As I said, we only have two forms of income at the moment – partnerships and memberships. When a partner invests in surfing, whether it’s in money, in time or in resource, the direct product of that is a positive impact on the world. We’re using surfing as a positive tool for change to make an impact on people’s lives. When brands give us that backing we’re then able to go out and support more. This year we’ve managed to pretty much double partnerships income and the direct result of that was we were able to employ people and get out on the road.Growth is the key. The more established we can get, the bigger we can feed into the community and create local, domestic and international movements – ideally with brands who have an awareness of their sustainability and impacts. That sort of culture fits with what surfers are about. This year we’ve made a push towards health and wellbeing. So, for instance, we’ve linked with Hippeas and organic companies that are able to engage with our audience. We’ve been approached by companies like Sports Direct in the past which haven’t really fitted with our values. So, what we’re looking for are companies who are progressive and wishing to work with our audience.
“We’re looking for achievable, long term relationships – two or three-year
contracts that allow each party to develop”
caytoo: What challenges do you face in attracting sponsorship?
Nick: We have a small team and, therefore, we’re looking for achievable, long-term relationships – two or three-year contracts that allow each party to develop. Short term sponsorships can be good but we do prefer to be given the opportunity to commit long-term to a partner and ingrain them in our organisation. We don’t operate less than twelve months on a contract so that we’re actually able to activate fully. We know that if we satisfy what sponsors want to achieve then their chance of renewal is much better. So, I guess that’s the challenge; getting them on board and the time it takes to do that.
caytoo: What are key factors for bodies looking to market themselves and activate?
Nick: Knowing the relevance that you hold, having absolute engagement and understanding of what you’re doing and where you sit in the market. For instance, we decided at the beginning of the year it’s better that we support the environmental organisations that surround us rather than us work to lead on the subject. We work with Surfers Against Sewage, 2 Minute Beach Clean and other charities around the environment. That’s about us identifying where we sit in the market.
caytoo: Have you taken inspiration from other sports?
Nick: We’ve worked with Sport England and taken their advice. Originally they were looking at their whole sport plans and then how you plan on a four-year level. So that’s how we’ve integrated our strategy – ours is called A Healthy Surfing Community and works around a three-pronged approach, whether it’s government, participation or performance.
caytoo: What impact will new surfing technologies such as inland wave pools have on surfing?
Nick: It’s amazing, hence why we’re partnered with The Wave. Being able to offer our sport 365 days a year, in a controlled and fun/safe environment would be invaluable for the sport. Not only for the grassroots introduction but also for the elite training opportunities in the UK. Our work with The Wave is essentially an opportunity to become one of the world leaders in inland surfing. Whether it’s training opportunities or welcoming inner city kids to the sport, or just offering disabled individuals access to a wave, it tackles some of the hurdles there are around beaches. We’re very fortunate in England, we have a partner who is completely committed to the development of the sport, and together with the Olympic Games, it’s a brilliant way of opening up a new avenue around commercial partnerships.
“We’re moving into a phase where data-driven connection is bringing
more intelligence to what was previously a fairly small area”
caytoo: Do you have any thoughts on how surfing partnerships and sponsorships might change in the future?
Nick: We’re moving into a phase where data-driven connection is bringing more intelligence to what was previously a fairly small area. For surfing, that could mean that whether you’re a secluded coastal surfer or elite performer, you’ll be able to engage English surfing’s wider-reaching channels and/or work with Surfing England to engage with a flourishing ecosystem and community which is spread across our coastlines and country. Our growing organisation and sport welcomes new partners as we work to support and develop surfing in England.
caytoo: Do you have any advice to share based on your experience of growing Surfing England from the ground up?
Nick: Just commit to doing the right thing for the right reasons and in the right way and enjoy the process.
If you’re interested in sponsoring or partnering with Surfing England, click here.