Action sports (surfing, skiing/snowboarding, skating, biking, etc.) are still a relatively new market in the business of sports. The X-Games popularized personalities such as Tony Hawk, Shawn White and Matt Hoffman but surfing has lagged behind. People may know the name Kelly Slater, but surfing gets less media coverage than the other action sports. It also doesn’t help that most of the country doesn’t have exposure to a coastline that would expose them to the sport. The limited audience makes the business of the sport different, so there is a need to cover more than the just sport itself. That has been the strategy of The Inertia.
The Inertia covers the sport of surfing and its competitions throughout the world, but it also focuses on the lifestyle. The site is more about stories, personalities and issues, and has been referred to as the Huffington Post for surfing. It’s an interesting way to build an audience. According to The Inertia founder Zach Weisberg, his audience spans beyond avid surfers.
“Research estimates vary wildly regarding the number of surfers on earth,” said Weisberg. “They range from about 1-2 million on the low end to over 20 million on the high end – globally. And what actually constitutes ‘a surfer’ also leaves room for interpretation. Is that in reference to individuals who surf before work daily – or people who have stood up once on a soft top in Honolulu?”
“It’s hard to deny that the size of audience exclusively interested in high performance surfing is extremely limited. We’re well aware of that, and partially as a result, we’ve created an outlet that speaks to individuals who have interests that extend far beyond surfing. We actively discuss the environment and even divisive moments when social or political conversations bear relevance to the world of ocean enthusiasts. Surfing has served more as a lens for how we see the world rather than the exclusive subject of focus. ”
Content strategy is extremely important for building an audience in the new digital age of sports coverage. For the Win is different from Deadspin, which is different from Grantland, which is different from The Bleacher Report. The battle for eyeballs in digital sports coverage necessitates that websites have solid content and unique differentiation strategies. Some sites like ProFootballTalk actually take an extreme focus to attract an audience. The Inertia takes a different approach and actively tries to engage people who aren’t familiar with surfing as a sport, and it could help grow the sport’s popularity.
“The video profile we produced about noted shorebreak photographer Clark Little is a great example of surf-centric content that has universal appeal,” said Weisberg. “It received more than 5 million views on Youtube in about a month, and surfers undoubtedly represented a fraction of that viewership. By focusing more on great storytelling than anything else, we’ve certainly created an inclusive bridge to the sport. And a portion of those new viewers have definitely become more involved fans of surfing and the ocean lifestyle. The growth of our committed readership proves it.”
Start-up websites have pulled large enough audiences that they are recognized by traditional media companies looking to drive those viewers to their more traditional sites. Yardbarker was acquired by FOX, ProFootballTalk by NBC Sports, The Big Lead by USA TODAY Sports Media Group. Still, building the audience comes first. For The Inertia that has meant expansion into a new “Mountain” vertical.
“We couldn’t be more excited to launch our new baby, The Inertia Mountain,” said Weisberg. “We’ve always believed that the platform we’ve built in surf had broader application, and just last week we opened our doors to a new world of outdoor enthusiasts. This is an important step for our brand and our commitment to unite people and tell the best stories in action sports.”
It will be interesting to see how traditional media companies continue to look at these new websites. Will they pre-launch their own content-focused sites, or will they continue to purchase the ones that already have have strong, unique audiences?
Michael Colangelo is Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute and Senior Editor of The Fields of Green.