Box to Box Films cofounder Paul Martin couldn’t finish the question. World Surf League CEO Erik Logan is not even sure if he let Martin start the question back in 2019 before saying, “The answer is yes.” A docuseries on surfing from the people behind Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive? Of course Logan was in.
“I mean, everybody wants to draw parallels—and boy, we could only be so lucky to have a fraction of the success that they’ve had at F1 with the show,” Logan said during a recent interview. “Most importantly for me, I think what they do better than anybody is they dimensionalize our surfers on a human level that really gets you to see who they are.” Along the way, Logan hoped the show would “break all the stereotypes you think about surfers.”
It doesn’t take long for Make or Break, which debuted on Apple TV+ two weeks ago, to highlight that contrast. “We come from a sport of, ‘Aww we’re hippies,’” two-time WSL champion Tyler Wright says 15 minutes into the first episode. “We’re not. We’re competitive little assholes.”
Modern pro surfing stretches back to the 1970s, or further depending on whom you ask. But the current WSL only emerged last decade after being bought by Dirk Ziff, an experienced investor whose father built media company Ziff Davis. And it changed again during the pandemic.
“We had to cancel our  season, and we used that time to think about, if you could design a tour from scratch, how would you do it?,” WSL head of competition Jessi Miley-Dyer said in an interview.
The biggest change implemented in 2021 was how the WSL crowns its champion. The league created The WSL Finals, a year-end competition; rather than picking a winner based solely on points accrued over the season, the year’s title would be earned in the water, so to speak. Miley-Dyer and Logan each pointed to the NFL’s Super Bowl as inspiration—an event that transcends the sport.
F1 leaders have referenced the same North Star as they’ve remodeled the competition since Liberty Media took over in 2017—and that’s not where the comparison between WSL and F1 ends. Both sports traverse the globe, bringing pretty people to beautiful places (Tahiti vs. Monaco is a question of personal preference). And in each case, there has been plenty of pushback to recent makeovers. On the racetrack, defending champ Max Verstappen refused to participate in Drive to Survive after taking offense at how it has portrayed drivers. On the beach, surfers have protested the WSL’s imposed cut this year, which added extra stakes to early season events.
“We’re all friends on tour, and we all love each other, so you don’t want to knock the guy off tour,” Kolohe Andino said on a WSL broadcast last week. “It just seems like it’s a TV show a little bit, like drama all the time.”
Logan recognizes the tension. “A lot of what surf culture was born and bred out of was anti-establishment,” he said, “And the WSL represents, obviously, establishment.” Still, he added, “The growth of the sport is going to come from changing things.”
Box to Box’s greatest innovation has been breaking down a sport’s season not by event or by week but by character. Each of the seven episodes is based around individual surfers’ stories, and even the season-ender tracks the WSL Finals by following competitors whose backstories viewers have already learned.
“One of the things that [Box to Box founders James-Gay Rees and Martin] would always say is, ‘The first thing should be the human story,’” Make or Break showrunner Warren Smith said in an interview. “The sport should be the cherry on top of the cake, or the payoff.”
Logan, an executive producer on the show, described the philosophy as “a pretty big pivot” compared to how surfing competitions have traditionally been presented.
“The big surprise for a lot of people in that series is the lack of surfing you actually see,” he said. “Because it’s really focused on the surfing that you needed to know to advance the story of those characters, not the surfing you needed to know for that particular competition.”
Still, Make or Break never forgets about the battles going on in the water. It maintains tension throughout each episode, cutting to monstrous crashing waves between scenes rather than showing mellow sunbathers. When the camera is pointed at the beach, it’s often focused on loved ones staring anxiously toward the ocean.
Citing record viewership numbers and overall interest in surfing, which made its Olympic debut last year, Logan said, “Where we are today is, we’re probably in the strongest, healthiest point of the entire sport and company.” But he still sees room for growth. “There’s huge headroom in terms of the number of people who are even aware that there’s a professional sports league,” Logan said.
For now, surfing’s biggest star remains Kelly Slater, the 11-time champion who turned 50 in February but still competes on tour. Days before his milestone birthday, he won his eighth Pipeline Pro competition in Hawaii, 30 years after his first win at the iconic contest.
“That’s a pretty good episode one of season two if you ask me,” Logan said.