STAB HIGH: The View From This Side Of The Paywall
20 world-class surfers, a chlorinated pool, $9 and a little perspective.
The reliability and predictability of a wavepool has always fascinated us at Stab. In 2004, we rented our first wavepool in Kuala Lumpur (click in above, from Fair Bits).
We visited a few times after that and have since taken more than a dip in pools in South Africa, Canary Islands, and now Texas.
In September, as you’ve probably seen, we’ve rented the Waco pool again for our first surf contest.
Stab High is the biggest swing we’ve ever taken as a business. A six-figure sum on the broadcast, flying surfers from around the world—there’s not much change from that $500k. Which is crazy, but we’re excited to see 20 hypebeasts jump in the pool and to try a new format.
And, we’re charging a Pay-Per-View fee for it (40 percent of readers will now skip to the comments).
“The pushback on paying is loaded on the front end,” says Kelly Slater, who rapped out with us about it earlier this week. “It’s nothing for people to pay $10 to watch something they enjoy. It’s not a ripoff if you’re supporting people they are fans of. I think there would be an initial shock to people for any Pay-Per-View for online service, because it’s always been free.
“But I suppose it was historically offset by sponsors paying for their marketing by having events*. I don’t know whether WSL events will ever have a cost for viewers, but I pay to watch UFC all the time, and don’t have a problem with that. They also have free ones, so that probably sustains me as a fan.
“I would probably pay for the major golf events I want to watch. Augusta, British Open. I look forward all year for those events, and am happy to support them from my POV.
“For [Stab High], it’s just a numbers game, if you charge to watch: What are overall costs to run, and prize money and all that, and how many people will watch combined by what they will pay.”
"It’s nothing for people to pay $10 to watch something they enjoy," Slater tells Stab. "It’s not a ripoff if you’re supporting people they are fans of."
Statistically in the game of media, about three percent of your audience will flex their credit card for a paywall subscription. When it comes to sporting events, it’s reported you pick up about one percent of your audience. Which likely comes down to payment friction more than a distaste for spending on the broadcast. If a charge came via Netflix, or Apple, or Google or even Spotify who already have our plastic, the decision would be so much simpler for us.
Recurring revenue models are a dirty subject and no segment in the world expects free content more passionately than us surfers, nor expect open access to all things in the world of surf, just by virtue of their membership in the so-called tribe.
“When people feel excluded from anything they get upset,” says Kelly
Take the WSL’s recent partnership with Facebook that ignited extraordinary keyboard fury. The premise? Sporting events should be free viewing offset by advertising, and our eyeballs are worth something. When it comes to mass market sports, this is mostly true. The economics are simple to follow: More eyeballs equal more sponsorship dollars.
The other challenge in surfing is that, as mentioned, we all got hooked on for free, back in the wild and buoyant times of the Surf Industry Fuck Yeah of the mid-noughties, when business was so good that surfing's governing body had to cap the number of events a brand could sponsor.
These were heady days and when you’re posting annual EBITDA numbers north of a quarter of a billion dollars, two or three mill to run a surf event wasn’t a big deal. And, both Quiksilver and Billabong reached the max number of events they could support.
At the end of the cashed-up days, Owen Wright won $300k for beating Kelly Slater at the Quiksilver Pro in New York.
The problem now is the audience isn't as big as some would like to think it is.
Watching surfing on the WSL can be hard to follow – even for us enthusiasts – and mainstream audience appeal is limited. Surfing is a long-tail sport, and even with wave pools probably always will be—it’s likely unsustainable long-term as a free offering.
But we’re all kinda guilty of tricking ourselves into thinking that our clicks, our comments, likes or followers actually represent real value.
To be frank, they’re a vanity metric that mean three-fifths of fuck-all.
We’ve directed Stab videos that have had 1m, 5m, 20m views... but that’s a long way from putting money in the till. Does it sell more boardshorts, or surfboards, or sunscreen? Does it get you more work? Maybe.
But once you set playcounts as your north star, it creates a race to the bottom after a comma-laden playcount Badge of Honour.
Chasing playcounts gives you the Kardashians, surfing dogs, sharks biting models, Jackass appropriations, and babies in barrels. If playcounts represented the most value, then the novelty wave surfer Ben Gravy and his YouTube page NUB TV represent the single best investment in surfing. Especially compared to Stab.
We did one of the first official surf trips to the Waco pool. Our slick, Michael Cukr-made edit, starring Albee Layer, Ian Crane and Barron Mamiya, copped a meagre 37k views on YouTube. Ben Gravy went with Jamie O’Brien and got over half-a-mil.
For a brand, it’s gonna cost a shit tonne more to work with Stab than it is to work with Ben Gravy. A $1.5k monthly deal with Gravy would have him loaded with logos and product placement that would see millions and millions of views.
Sticking to these value metrics, the single worst investment in surfing is John John Florence.
Sure, he’s the darling of the World Tour, a two-time world champ—but at $100k a week, his price-per-click is astronomical, and simply because JJF doesn’t dig self-promotion. In fact, his Instagram account, with its 1.2m followers, was locked to private a few weeks back. John is a reserved, low-key guy, and as an antidote to having to sell himself, his IG page points to his production company’s page.
Parallel Sea creates an elevated and more produced storyline around John, cutting infrequent but polished versions of his daily life. Even with his name as owner of the page and his own page on private pointing there, Parallel Sea sits at 50k followers, despite having a body of world-class work.
It’s a frustration and major sticking point for his sponsors that he rarely connects with his 1.1m Instagram followers (20 posts this year; 26 posts in total in 2016—one shot at impressions every two weeks).
But, here’s the kicker: that’s the charm of John, and what draws us to him. The fact that a two-time world champ would make his page private reinforces the fact that he operates on a different playbook to everyone else.
In the age of prerequisite oversharing, what does the future look for a reserved and shy talent like John? To those who don’t feel they don’t want to swing their iPhone camera from outward facing to a mirror? Introverts have to overcome their reserved nature and document every move to extract value from their “personal brand”. To me, that part’s frightening.
Which is a really long bow back to this surf contest we’re running. We want to create a platform where we can really see these guys.
Ten years ago, the high water mark was all about the closing part of a surf video. That was made extinct by the Vimeo edit to rule the world; then, on March 29, 2016, Instagram launched the 60-second video, and just like that, Instagram killed the Vimeo star.
Those one or two peak moments from a surf clip were immediately exported to a clipboard and thrown on Instagram before they burnt out over a couple of days and couple of million views (Full disclosure: Stab is both a perpetrator and victim here).
Anyways, we don’t want some of the world’s best non-WSL surfers to become Vloggers to save their hide. Our goal with Stab High is to provide a platform for these guys to showcase their skill in a controlled environment. It isn’t meant to be too serious; just the world’s best aerial surfers, raw, all laying it on the line on the same section, for a couple of hours on a Saturday night.
With history as our guide, 99% of you will think this is a bad idea.
Our sense is that a surf event can have ridiculous rules and still connect. We will have a Vans Acid Drop contest before the final with an arbitrary set of rules as judged by Nathan Fletcher, who will be armed with a fistful of cash. Incensed by a boardriders win and the ensuing chairing up the beach, if our winners are hoisted from the water on shoulders following a win they’ll forfeit their prize money to a charity of their choice. And, our cameras have been instructed to avoid those flat-billed sponsors cap with their ears tucked in as they exit the water.
A Stab trip with the Oakley team back in 2010. The wedge that kicked off the wall of the Siam Park pool in the Canary Islands was better than it looked. Julian Wilson with Kai Neville looking on.
Bruce Irons, flying the Stab flag in Kuala Lumpur, 2010.
Stab High is meant to be fun.
It’ll cost $9 - $14 on pay per view (early bird vs standard rate), and we’d love to have you along for the ride. It didn’t exist two months ago and without your support, it likely won’t exist again. Come join us. Or don’t.
But our most sincere gratitude to the small group of true believers—those sponsors and readers and surfers who support us, and who have helped light a fire under us the last two weeks while we’ve learned how to throw a surf contest.
Sam McIntosh, Stab Publisher
Or, watch the 60-minute show free on ESPN early October.
Editor's note: A recent Instagram story post by Kalani Robb this morning read: Really, @Stab??? We bypass u because this is how u talk about people. not the smartest move talking shit about Hawaiians before u go there for the winter.
This perceived slighting is unexpected and misconstrued. The piece is about the state of media and the surf industry in general. It's critical of our own offering. The article was to highlight that guys like Jamie O'Brien and Ben Gravy are better investments than John John Florence and Stab. Personal brands shine bright in 2018. These guys went after something unique and we applaud these guys for finding their own niche.