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Pay-per-view possible for webcasts?

When the ASP released its official 2012 World Tour schedule in November, Fiji's happy return and the memories of last year's Teahupoo and New York City comps promised a riveting season. When we lost New York in December, half of us said good riddance to the so-called "City Tour." A few days later, an upgraded Cold Water Classic at Santa Cruz added some diversity in the form of an iconic and challenging American break. People were ogling the roster, going, "Dayumn, Tour, you look fine. Where you been hiding these past couple of years?

But then J-Bay dropped off. And now Fiji may vanish.

This is not a down-with-the-man, anti-ASP rant. Despite the fact that surfing seems to be reaching a broader audience than ever before, the industry as a whole is evidently strapped for cash.
We (myself especially) daren't presume the role of financial adviser to, well, anyone, but we have heard a couple of ideas that may keep the Tour from disintegrating. The first one is to tap into one of the surf world's few inflating resources: audience.

"A pay-per-view webcast/broadcast model has been discussed in depth at the ASP Board level, and is an option for moving forward," says ASP international media director Dave Prodan.

The major question here is whether people would pay -- to watch surfing -- which struggles to be classified as a sport.

"There is obvious resistance to moving away from the free model towards a pay-per-view model in regards to the risk of reduction of fans," Prodan continues. "However, if the pay-per-view model were to result in continued premium event locations and perhaps an enhancement upon the delivery of the current product, then one could feasibly estimate that the fan base would be happy to pay for the experience. The sport, in all aspects, is maturing and the next evolution could involve a pay-per-view model. That may just be part of the maturation process."

We can download music and movies for free, and yet iTunes not only still exists, it thrives. In the first fiscal quarter of 2012, which ended Dec. 31, iTunes revenues reached an unprecedented $1.7 billion. Yes, it's illegal to download these products without permission, but let's be honest: it's also pretty easy. (Or so I hear.) So why would we spend $.99 to listen to Florence + The Machine and $9.99 to watch Florence getting barreled? Two reasons: a high-quality, comprehensive product and user-friendliness that suits everyone from groms to Dane Reynolds' grandma.

Major League Baseball fanatics can now watch every game their hearts desire -- even preseason and "out of network." They can watch at their desks, in HD for a mere $109.99 per year.
Right now, you may be thinking something along the lines of: "But our content is already free. Why should we have to pay now?"

Well, to keep the Dream Tour dreamy, for one.

"At present, the events activate the media rights at a significant expense to themselves and essentially provide the product to the audience for free," Prodan says. At the most basic level, less expensive is more doable. Profitable is even more doable.

One issue is that the ASP doesn't own the rights to their broadcast like an NFL, NBA or MLB in the states.

"There's been a lot of talk and focus on media rights over the past couple of seasons and I think all stakeholders: surfers, events, ASP staff and the fans are in agreement that a consistent platform is what we should strive for," Prodan says. "Whether that be through organic agreements between the events under the current paradigm or a third party media rights activation or the ASP reclaiming the media rights and activating this initiative themselves."

Andrew Porter, a new media specialist and professor at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, says the success of a pay-per-view system is largely dependent on the strength of our desire to watch surf comps in real time.

"It's like Foxtel (the Australian cable provider). If you want to watch the NAB Cup, the preseason Australian Football League game, you have to have Foxtel. If you don't have Foxtel, you can't see the games," explains Porter.

"If [paid online viewing] was a large-scale, commercial operation, and it had previously been given away for free, then we're talking about the models that big companies like News Corp. are trying: to put up 'paywalls,' to get people to pay for content that's otherwise been free. And whether or not that's going to work still remains to be seen. They've been doing it for about 12 months now and there's not an awful lot of data around. But I think certainly for a small-scale operation that's got a really strong following, the best thing to do is just be up-front about it. Tell the people who follow that sport, 'Look, the only way you can see it is on the web, we're not a great big company, and if we don't start charging a bit of money for this, you're not going to see it.' I think if you've got a loyal following, then people are going to say, 'OK, well, fair enough. We'll help you guys out.'"

One hundred dollars may be a bit steep for an annual subscription to surfing via cyberspace, so let's examine a randomly selected, less imposing number: $7.

The Vans Triple Crown of Surfing's live webcast garnered 10.4 million views in December. If half the viewers who tuned in for that series ponied up $7 for a subscription, which could allow unlimited high def webcast viewing for the year, the powers that be could earn an additional $36.4 million. Each year. And that's only based on viewership from a single event.

Now, let's get mathematical. The Quik Pro New York: highest purse in history, event of astronomical proportions. Total cost? Estimates of about $11 million have been floating around. The average Tour stop costs $3 million to $5 million.

So, in theory, $7 per annum would provide enough money to hold … well, a full Tour schedule, that's for sure.

"My personal and professional opinion is that we wouldn't likely see the free webcasts halted 100 percent," says Prodan, "If there was a decision to move to a pay-per-view model, then you would likely see a version of the free webcast running, perhaps the low stream or the audio, and the high-quality version would be pay-per-view."

We're willing to pay $14 for a single cinema screening. Why not pay half of that for a year's worth of the best procrastination the Interweb has to offer?

Not to mention -- Kelly Slater making [more] history, Julian Wilson inventing [more] maneuvers, and Mark Occhilupo commentating, like only Occhilupo can.