Today IMG released that Nike, Inc. has decided not to renew their sponsorship of the U.S. Open of Surfing, the world’s biggest surfing event. This is big news and it will be very interesting to see who takes on the role of lead sponsor and how the event will turn out next year.
This article was written by Mike Lewis and posted by Transworld Business:
Following the news this week that Nike Inc. and its Hurley and Converse brands were severing ties as the title sponsors of the US Open of Surfing, the blogosphere lit up with conjecture about the future of the contest. Everything from its location to existence were called into question by the reactionary, an incredibly short-sighted stance for an event that has been around in one form or another in Huntington Beach since 1959, when it began as the West Coast Surfing Championships.
The event went through several iterations before evolving into the US Open of Surfing in 1994 and has steadily grown into the largest surf contest in the world, drawing millions of fans and dollars to Surf City USA—Huntington Beach, California.
In 2000, IMG purchased the event from now-defunct media company Bluetorch, and IMG Senior Vice President – Director of Action Sports James Leitz sees a huge opportunity to take the event to a new level in his company’s 13th round as its steward. We caught up with Leitz this afternoon to learn more.
Did this move by Nike/Hurley/Converse come as a surprise to you? Have you had some sort of contingency plan in place in case you lost your main sponsors?
Nike, Inc.’s decision to not renew its sponsorship did not come as a surprise. Not to say that we weren’t disappointed, but considering how closely IMG and all the brands worked together on the event, it is hard to be surprised by a decision this big. As I sat with the Nike Execs, all that I could say is thank you for an amazing four years.
When you have been in the space as long as I have, you come to realize that there are beginnings and ends to all deals and lifecycles within sports, brand strategies, and objectives, etc. As far as staging other suitors, the best contingency plan for any promoter or property is to continue to build value and continue to tell the story of why and how the US Open of Surfing (USOS) is relevant to brands, the industry, the athletes, and consumers. That is the most ethical way to have someone waiting in the wings, as it were. These brands are smart, they know what’s going on.
What’s your game plan for the next few weeks/months to move forward for next year? How much of the planning for the 2013 event hinges on locking in a new title sponsor?
We are planning 2013 right now. We have already had two post mortem meetings with the City of HB, wrap-up reports have gone out to many of our 2012 partners, renewal discussions are under way, dates and sanctioning issues are being coordinated with ASP, hotel rooms are locked down, etc. It is business as usual.
Needless to say, the events of the past few days have changed our short term communications strategy and our thoughts towards re-imagining the USOS brand. From a sales perspective, a big chunk of prime real estate is now available, and being creative and flexible about what the USOS becomes from a content perspective presents many unique and fun options. The event has many tracks and sponsorship sales must move parallel to all others to ensure a timely roll out.
How much do you see this setting you back as far as planning for the 2013 Open?
In many respects, the current situation shifts the event planning into high-gear. We had developed unique ways of working with Nike, Inc. and each brand; a process we had become comfortable with that proved to be an effective formula. Well, much of that has changed now and we find ourselves building out a new foundation for a new title brand to attach to and customize.
There were 18 other sponsors for this year’s event including some brands with really deep pockets such as Red Bull, Verizon, and McDonalds. Have you discussed the changes with Nike with the 2012 Open’s other sponsors yet? Do you hope to work with some of these supporters to increase their level or try to bring in a new high-level group?
The news of the past few days is fairly raw and we have gone out to most partners. Remember, many of these supportive brands have been with IMG and the event for all 14 years now, or at least seven-to-ten years. They have seen many things with the USOS; lived through many shifts, twists and turns and yet, year in and year out they derive more and more value from this property. I’d like to believe that no matter what, they trust us to deliver upon the promises that we’ve made. Some see this as a challenge for IMG, others see it as an opportunity to expand their message, footprint and voice. I see it many different ways and will support these brands and others from outside the group, to help build upon the momentum we have created with Nike, Hurley, and Converse.
What opportunities could this open up to change and improve the event by removing some of the contractual obligations?
I like change. Not to create change for the sake of change, but to accept change as a good thing; a challenge and a new opportunity. Hey, I get bored sometimes too, so to stare it down now is exhilarating. There is a lot of opportunity, inventory, and a voice to be heard in the wake of this action. Organizing the new partners’ energy around these options is exactly what will make the event successful in 2013.
What would be the best-case scenario for the 2013 US Open of Surfing in your eyes?
For the athlete, fan, and industry to walk out on that beach in 2013 and say, “Holy Shit! They did it again. I couldn’t think of a way they could have made it better than last year, but they did.” People have said this year over year for 14 years. I expect to hear that again.
Is there any chance that you’ll move the event to another location for the right deal?
No way. The USOS and the City of Huntington Beach are tied together for all time. In fact, I have always said that this mid-summer professional surf contest under any name, the Nike US Open, the US Open, the Op Pro, the Westcoast Surfing Championships, Philips Fusion, Panasonic Beach Games, whatever the hell you call it, will live on long after IMG has left the scene. For now, we are custodians of a tradition and have built the event into a happening that is enjoying a golden age of sorts once again. If another City, State, or Country wants the USOS or something like it, we will go and build that too. The USOS in HB is not broken.
Anything else you’d like to share with the surf community about the future of the USOS?
Most of us have grown up with the USOS and the various names of the contest that came before. I am encouraged by the on-going discussion around the exit of Nike, Inc. If no one had anything to say, then where would we be? One way or another the USOS has proven to be a lasting property and one we all should continue to feel passionate about. The discussion around the fate of the event is proof positive that the event is alive and well.
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