Coastal Sports

Surfing Riding the Olympic Wave

2 Oct, 2019

By: Michael Popke

Surfing will make its debut at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, a country that boasts about two million recreational surfers, according to

Worldwide, the International Surfing Association puts the number of active surfers at about 35 million, while the Sports & Fitness Industry Association claims there are almost 3 million surfers in the United States — a number that increased 7.3 percent between 2017-18 and 2018-19.

But, as so succinctly states, “the sport appeals to a broader audience eager to embrace beach life.

Which might explain the popularity of the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing, held every year in Huntington Beach, Calif., and recognized as the largest professional sports competition and action sports festival in the world. This year’s nine-day event took place from July 27 to Aug. 4; 500,000 attendees were expected, up from 400,000 in 2018.

“Begun as the West Coast Surfing Championship in 1959, the U.S. Open has grown from a strictly surfing competition to an immersive cultural experience for competitors and attendees featuring surfing, skateboarding and BMX competitions, customization workshops, movie premieres, vendor exhibitions, art installations and music lessons,” according to

The event is sanctioned and operated by the World Surf League, and Vans has been the title sponsor since 2013.

“This year’s event is probably the best execution we’ve done so far,” Bobby Gascon, Vans global marketing director for action sports, told in August. “We’ve broken down barriers between consumers and athletes. It’s a pretty immersive experience.”

As Front Office Sports notes, “the timing couldn’t be better for the [WSL] to commence negotiations for future media deals, with an eye toward richer rights fees and greater visibility.”

As the exclusive U.S. broadcaster of the WSL’s Men’s and Women’s Championship Tours and other major events, Fox Sports and FS1 are expected to televise more than 500 hours of WSL action this year, according to Front Office Sports, which adds that the TV deal and a digital deal with Facebook both expire this year.

“It is absolutely an important objective for us to grow our audience,” Pri Shumate, WSL’s chief marketing officer, told the website. “[G]rowing our audience, and expanding our content to other forms of distribution, is a really important piece of how we move forward.”

The Olympics could be critical in moving the sport forward, too. Tsurigasaki Beach, also known as Shidashita Beach, in Chiba (near Tokyo) will be the primary surfing venue during the 2020 Games. A total of 18 surfers will qualify via the WSL’s Championship Tour, and another 18 surfers will earn a spot on the Olympic program via ISA’s World Surfing Games and Pan American Games. Two Japanese surfers will receive a wildcard bid.

Organizers of the 2024 Olympics in Paris have included surfing, skateboarding, climbing and breakdancing in the official program they presented to the International Olympic Committee, according to

“The ISA also hopes that surfing remains on the Olympic agenda, especially with Los Angeles 2028 on the horizon,” the site reports. “[ISA President Fernando] Aguerre wants to have surfers competing for medals in California, the heart of the sport as a global phenomenon.”

Event owners can expect increased interest in events; as a result, spinoff events, such as victory tours for Olympic winners, will likely become part of the sports landscape in years to come. Building in lessons and skill clinics can bring in a new revenue stream as well. And for locklocked areas, expect to see wave parks, allowing everyone to live out their surfer fantasies.


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