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US Open of Surfing Draws Crowd, Sponsors to Huntington Beach, with Eye on 2028 Olympics

Huntington Beach’s biggest surfing and action sports festival has a new set of local and international sponsors, and after a crowd of nearly 400,000 attended the just-completed event, it also counts momentum that local tourism officials believe could boost the city’s chances of being part of the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

The Wallex US Open of Surfing, touted as the largest surfing competition and action sports festival in the world, took place along Surf City’s coastline between July 29 and Aug. 6.

The attendance figure is among tops for the event, which has been hosted in Huntington Beach since 1959. Last year’s event also had about 400,000 attendees.

It’s the first year that Wallex, a global payment services provider based in Asia, was associated with the event.

Longtime sponsor Vans of Costa Mesa opted against participating in the event, one of several recent changes for the sneaker and apparel company (see story, page 7).

Local Presence

Even without Vans’ participation, Costa Mesa companies were still front and center at the event, whose total economic impact—encompassing hotel use, restaurants, and other retail spending—was estimated to be $96 million in 2022, according to the city’s tourism-centered marketing organization Visit Huntington Beach.

The US Open is Huntington Beach’s second largest event behind the Pacific Airshow, which brings in close to three million attendees in one weekend, and counts an estimated economic impact of $120 million.

The 2023 edition of the surf event included a return for Costa Mesa apparel co. Hurley, which reentered as a brand partner after bowing out from the title sponsorship in 2013 when Vans initially took over.

This year’s event also marked the debut for Thrill One Sports & Entertainment, a three-year old media and events firm in Costa Mesa headed by new Chief Executive Matt Cohn.

The fast-growing company is valued around $300 million after being acquired by new owners with ties to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) sports brand.

“These are brands who want to be a part of the coastal, surf community,” Cherie Cohen, World Surf League’s (WSL) chief revenue officer and advisor, told the Business Journal.

The World Surf League oversees the sporting portion of the annual event.

Other notable OC backers of the event included Newport beach’s Hoag, which served as a healthcare partner to help with medical assistance on-site.

Gold Goal

Traction for the US Open has grown alongside increasing interest in the sport, with Surf City looking to capitalize.

Visit Huntington Beach, the city’s destination management organization, or DMO, is aiming to make Surf City a more notable event and tourism destination along the California coastline by becoming the beach venue for the surfing competition in the 2028 Olympics taking place in and around Los Angeles.

“If we get the [Olympic] games, it’s game on,” Visit Huntington Beach Chief Executive Kelly Miller said at a summit event in June.

“As the sport grows, and as we enter into the Olympics for surfing, we see this becoming an event that the country and world view as one of the premier sporting events of the year,” Cohen said.

New Thrills

Companies want in on the action.

Thrill One, for example, is using the US Open as an early step to expand its portfolio of “thrill-based” sports events worldwide (see story, this page).

The events and content business is looking to build an all-encompassing platform for motocross, motorsports, skateboarding and other amped-up action sports.

Along with a pair of institutional investors, including one with ties to the UFC’s former owners, well-known sports and media personalities that put their money into the company were UFC President Dana White and skateboarder-turned-entrepreneur Rob Dyrdek.

New Sponsor

World Surf League­ added Wallex as the event’s title sponsor following Vans’ exit from the role this year, announced in February. The amount that Wallex paid for the title sponsorship wasn’t disclosed.

The deal was only meant for this year, “although they’ve already expressed interest in increasing investment in 2024,” Cohen said.

The new sponsor is intended to bring more global awareness to the event. Wallex also sponsors one of the event’s competitors, professional surfer Leo Fioravanti from Italy.

Cohen expected the event to generate between 50 to 75 million social media views through the US Open’s livestream, celebrity partnerships such as acress Rosario Dawson and other marketing efforts.

The US Open is key in promoting the region to the professional sports community, Cohen said.

“It’s important to the health of our sport that Orange County becomes vital in developing elite athletes,” Cohen said.

Almost 170 athletes participated in the US Open this year, with the top 18 at the end of the championship tour set to qualify for the upcoming Olympic games, which already include Fioravanti and local Griffin Colapinto.

Nitro Circus Heads to the Beach

At the just-completed Wallex US Open of Surfing, Costa Mesa’s Thrill One Sports & Entertainment hosted a Nitro Circus exhibition that featured live demonstrations of BMX, skating, freestyle motocross (FMX) tricks and talent, such as bikers jumping 75 feet from ramps that stood 45 feet tall on a runaway at the southern edge of the festival space.

The Nitro Circus display and a new concert stage replaced Vans’ skate park and Van Doren Village from last year.

The event was added to “invigorate and add new life” to the US Open, according to WSL’s Cohen.

“We want to keep this event young, vital, and growing,” Cohen said.

The Nitro Circus event has been held at Anaheim’s Honda Center for the past two decades, with this year’s event planned for October. The US Open iteration is roughly one-third of the scale of the Anaheim event.

Other organizations in Thrill One’s sports portfolio include Street League Skateboarding (SLS), Nitrocross and Superjacket Productions.

“Being able to collaborate with long standing and powerful brands [like WSL] helps catapult us and aligns us to perform in that same threshold,” Nitro Circus General Manager Ricky Melnik told the Business Journal.

The beach exhibit might lead the firm to continue working with WSL at future events, Melnik said.

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