At the mercy of Mother Nature, 24-hours-notice surf contest boasts year-round comms efforts
On February 8, 2006, the burgeoning Mavericks Surf Contest attracted as many as 60,000 spectators who watched 24 surfers riding 40-foot waves in Half Moon Bay, CA.
Not bad numbers considering spectators and surfers alike only found out about the event 24 hours earlier. Mavericks Surf Contest, the so-called "Super Bowl of big-wave surfing," is growing each year as a result of the innovative communications strategies from organizers and its marketing firms.
Surfing depends on a confluence of meteorological occurrences that can shift the balance of an event from perfect activity to fruitless endeavor. People speak of a perfect wave like it's the gospel. And while surfers learn to expect off days for waves, a competition that flies in 24 of the greatest surfers for one event can't settle for mediocre conditions.
The only guarantee that Mavericks Surf Ventures, which runs the competition, can give constituents is that the event will take place during a three-month window, but it cannot narrow down the exact date until the conditions are perfect.
"In a perfect world, we would not call the competition until that morning, but you need to give people enough time to get here," says Keir Beadling, CEO of sports marketing firm Evolve Sports, which co-owns Mavericks Surf Ventures.
Getting all stakeholders to the event, including the media, requires deft planning, a three-month high-alert period, and strong bonds with all involved parties.
"Everyone is on high alert as the waiting period begins," Beadling explains. "From January 1 on, we were prepared."
Not content to depend merely on luck, Mavericks shares information about storm patterns and encourages others to keep track of the conditions. Even spectators send in tips.
"We can see [the waves] brewing five to seven days out, but there are plenty of times where we watch storms, and they fade over the course of the next couple of days," Beadling notes. "There's a fair amount of luck involved."
Once the team notices a potentially favorable storm pattern in the distance, Beadling says the communication machine is ready to go, with everyone's roles and responsibilities clearly defined. Mavericks Surf combines a well-oiled communications team, a partnership with a direct e-mail marketing firm, a constantly informed and energized fan base, and the compelling media narrative of an event that begins and ends in 24 hours.
But just because the actual event date is not determined months in advance, it doesn't mean the communication team idles in between seasons.
"It's a year-round process," Beadling emphasizes. "We were already preparing for 2007 before the 2006 event happened."
Despite the logistics, this is the first year in Mavericks' three-year history that it tapped external help for the communications process: SNL Communications to handle media relations and VerticalResponse to handle direct e-mail marketing.
"During the first two contests, we didn't have a PR firm," notes Beadling, who handled all media outreach duties for those events. Given that the final pitch is basically "show up tomorrow to get your credentials and assignments," he says he was especially pleased with this year's turnout.
"We had something like 75 to 100 media personnel that showed up this year on 24-hour notice," Beadling reports. "We also had to get security clearance quickly because they went up to [nearby] Pillar Point Air Force base," which gives photographers an opportune vantage point. Mavericks also set up media boats in the water.
"Outreach doesn't suffer [because of the time constraints]," he says. "It motivates editors to make it happen."
Beadling calls the surfers personally to make sure they are en route.
As difficult as it might be to get the media and surfers to the event, it is another logistical nightmare to inform the spectators that the event is a go. Spectators, Beadling jokes, are waiting for the day when they get to call in sick.
"When I tried notifying the thousands of fans [in the past], there were all kinds of spam restrictions," he says. "I was sitting at my home office, trying to send out e-mails in batches, sending out 20 to 50 at a time."
Beadling notes that even in such small batches, communiquŽs would still make their way into people's spam boxes. So he tapped VerticalResponse.
"Mavericks used us to queue up its campaign so it could send it out right when it was ready," says Janine Popick, CEO of VerticalResponse. "In Mavericks' case, it builds up the subscriber base throughout the year because it has to be comfortable it can get its stuff out the door at just a moment's notice."
While the event comes and goes quickly, media outreach is a year-round event. Beadling says the Bay Area dailies ran advance stories, The New York Times covered it, and Wired, Outside, Playboy, and ABC's Nightline are either doing or contemplating pieces to run in the future. NBC will broadcast the event for the second year in May.
"We're continually figuring out how to shine a spotlight without taking away the street credibility," Beadling adds.
AT A GLANCE
Mavericks Surf Ventures
Evolve Sports CEO Keir Beadling, Jeff Clark, and Doug Epstein
Key Trade Publications:
Director of marketing, Margo Malowney
Marketing services agencies:
PR: SNL Communications
E-mail marketing: VerticalResponse