Francisco Spinola is the “Mister Surf” of Portugal. With his business partner Frederico Teixeira, he was the initiator of the Portuguese competitive surfing tour. What was once a small niche has, thanks to them, become a driving force for tourism and economic development with the birth of Surf Schools, Surf camps, hotels and restaurants that all contribute to attracting the international surfing scene to Portuguese shores.
At the head of the World Surf League in Europe, Fransisco works similarly to EUROSIMA and hand in hand with our association’s President Jean-Louis Rodrigues, towards developing surfing, promoting surfers and the surfing industry on a global scale by organizing events at the best spots and greatest waves throughout Europe.
Francisco, where were you born?
I was born and raised in Portugal. I grew up surfing and I competed a bit, namely with some Pro Juniors in Europe when I was younger. Eventually though, I realised that I was not going to be the best surfer so I had to go to college. To be honest, when I started my courses and my MBA, I never imagined that I’d be working in the surfing industry, because in Portugal the surf industry was not big enough if you wanted to make a career out of it 20 years ago.
How did you manage to turn your passion into a career?
I studied in Sydney, Australia for two years and graduated with an MBA. Then I came back to Europe, where I started working in Germany, and after that I joined Rip Curl in 2007, working with them in Marketing.
From there, I started to get involved with the ASP because my team and I suggested that Rip Curl International hold the Rip Curl Pro Search event in Peniche. That was a great success that year, the ASP gave us a permanent license and we wound up managing that event for 10 years in a row, initially with Rip Curl and later with Ocean Events.
You created Ocean Events in 2012. What is the story of your company?
My associate and I ran events for a couple of years with Rip Curl as a main sponsor. After that, we started to work directly with the World Surf League for a few years, managing events in Portugal. We showed a lot of people and a lot of different stakeholders that surfing could be a very promising option for big brands outside surfing.
Obviously we relied on our core anchor brand Rip Curl but then we managed to bring in two of the largest national Portuguese companies, Electricity of Portugal and Meo Altice. Pretty soon, Tourism of Portugal and the Government realised that this sport could really bring economic value to the regions.
What is your greatest satisfaction?
When I started, we pretty much built the competitive surfing circuit and the surfing world in Portugal with events like the Rip Curl Pro Search in Peniche and others like it.
For example, the president of Tourism of Portugal and other people like the mayor of Peniche agreed that there had been a Peniche before the Rip Curl Pro Search and there was now a Peniche after the Rip Curl Pro Search. A lot of hotels were renovated, new hotels were built, including some 5-star hotels but also new surf camps and a lot of surf schools all around. It really has had a significant economic impact in the area, which is not a very rich region. Tourism there was very seasonal and now, thanks to surfing, it is active pretty much all year long.
From last year, you also work for the WSL. What do you do there?
I am the General Manager of the WSL for Europe, the Middle-East and Africa.
“It’s quite a complex task because all the countries are different with different languages and different cultures, so in my opinion, it is really important for us to work with local people. That is the key to successful events because locals are the ones who have the links to the decision makers and territorial institutions.“
That’s why I think they chose me, because I had been a WSL and ASP partner for a long time and I knew what it’s like to be on the licensing end and also because I had experience in the field. Basically, for events, what I do is mainly to liaise with the local team and I try to be as helpful and efficient as possible as the link with the headquarter.
On the ground there are people in charge of managing the event. That’s not us. It doesn’t make sense for a guy from another country to come and start doing the key tasks. What we do have to do is simply ensure that all our events basically implement more or less the same model as what we are doing in Portugal, which is a model that works.
Can you tell us about the major changes planned for the WSL tour for next season?
Basically, we decided to keep the WSL as a league but with a big final. And why did we decide to do that? Because last year’s final event was the number one surfer, Italo (Ferreira), against the number two surfer Gabriel (Medina), and it was the very last heat of the year and the audience was very big. So, it’s quite obvious that people want to see that happening more often. By applying these changes we hope that this will create bigger excitement around the league all year long.
To do so, we broke up the year so the Championship Tour (CT) would start in January and finish around August. Then there will be that big final to determine who will be the champion.
The second part of the year, we built the Challenger Series (former QS 10000) from September to December to qualify the surfers for the next season of the CT.
The Qualifying Series (QS) will be kept more regional, specifically next year, namely due to the instability caused by this virus and restrictions of traveling, etc., so we are going to keep it as tight as possible so we can keep on going with our league.
How do you feel about the Hossegor event disappearing?
We knew that by making that change and not having September, October or November available for CT events, it would take Europe out of the CT equation because that’s the biggest time for Europe. In this case, I had to remove my European hat and think in terms of what was best for the league.
In Portugal, we managed to keep the Portuguese event as a CT because the February waves are decent even though it’s cold and will be a winter event. That said, it’s not as cold as France and the waves can be really good. For France, it would have been impossible to have an event in February. We all know it would be very risky and very cold with big storms at that time of the year. With that choice in mind, we built the Challenger Series specifically to overcome this type of situation. You don’t have a CT event but the Challenger option would be a perfect event there.
What do you see for the future of the Tour in Europe?
We created the Challenger Series to be strong events and we are going to have the event in France for sure. We know that the way that we are building it, we will probably have 80% of CT surfers also surfing on the Challengers. In addition, if we offer surfers really good event conditions and good hospitality, especially for the top surfers who don’t want to stop competing for 6 months. So we are really positive that a lot of these big names will indeed surf the Challenger series as well.
Let’s be realistic, France is our biggest market for surfing in Europe, it always has been and it still is. For a solid European strategy we need to have strong French events, brands and surfers. The same goes for Spain and Portugal. We’re working on it becoming like in the past with a big strong European tour. Obviously we are also working with partners in England, Ireland and Scotland as well where you also get very good waves and really good surfing.
So we are hoping to create a kind of second league that will increase our fan base in the regions and therefore increase commitment from local sponsors with more local surfers in those events. We are convinced that this can be a really big opportunity for challengers and these new events.
You are very much involved in events in Portugal. Where do you see the future of the Tour going over there (QS events, CT and big wave riding)?
Portugal has been doing really well. We have all types of events, from Pro Juniors to QS 10 000 (the Challenger Series), CT and even Big Wave riding with Nazaré. This all brings a lot of attention to the world of surfing. For the next season though, the CT will be a different type of event. Instead of an endless summer vibe, it will be winter event. I think the waves can be really good, and that is what it matters most. In my opinion, it’s something you can count on in February.
By splitting the Challenger Series with the CT (Challenger will remain in October), we’ll have a set of Challenger Series in two stops: France and Portugal. It’s easy because Portugal is right there, a 7-hour drive from France, which is nothing! Surfers come from all over the world, they surf in France between the late summer and early autumn and then they drive to Portugal. The idea is for all these surfers to drive and follow the sand to Portugal then to Morocco. Of course, we have to throw Spain in the mix, because it simply makes sense to establish a really strong link between France, Spain and Portugal. That is our plan for the long term, of course.
What do you think about wave pools?
I think it’s great!
The more artificial waves we can possibly have, the better. It will open surfing to places where there are no waves. But you can’t beat the feeling of being in the Ocean. That’s what it is, it will bring even more people to the Ocean because they will want to try the real deal. There are really good artificial waves so it’ll be a good mix.
At the moment in Portugal, it’s not a priority. Wave pool companies would much rather do it close to big cities where there is no surfing, like there are in Spain, in Germany, … There are so many surfers in Germany! And they don’t have that many places to go surfing, so wave pools make more sense in places like that.
How do you feel about surfing becoming an Olympic sport?
I’ve always thought it’s really great from the very beginning. Becoming an Olympic sport is a recognition for surfing. It puts surfing at the top with other sports, we’re going to the next level. I’m sure all athletes will be incredibly stoked to be at the Olympics and join in the Olympic spirit. I think it’s a bottom line for our sport. I think it’ll give us more visibility and attract more people to the World Surf League, to follow the heroes that they will have met during the Olympics.
In a very personal point of view, I’m very curious.
First because our sport is very sensitive to weather, tides and swells: it’s so hard to plan in advance. I’m not sure the Olympics are prepared to adapt to the flexibility of tides, winds… In our sport, we cannot forecast things precisely, it changes every day and that’s the beauty of it.
Secondly, looking at other Olympic sports and namely big sports with major leagues, you can see that the Olympic Games are not as strong in my opinion.
I don’t know who the Olympic champion of tennis is, because the ATP is such a strong league. I don’t know who the Olympic Basketball Champions are, because the NBA is so strong. People are tempted to follow golf because the PGA and European Tours are strong too. So, when you have, all year long, very strong league events, Olympic sports take on different perspectives (I’m not saying not relevant).
What can we wish you for the future?
I feel very positive about the future of surfing. I see more and more kids in the water and more and more girls and that is exactly what we need! Then about the economy, it’s always going up and down, but as long as you see young surfers in water, with smiles on their faces and stocked to be surfing, you know that surfing’s gonna be around forever.
Interview: Stéphanie Godin & Zoë Zadouroff