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Strong female lead: World Surf League CEO Sophie Goldschmidt is on the crest of a revolution

After forging a career in sports like rugby union, basketball, tennis and golf, Sophie Goldschmidt now finds herself at the helm of professional surfing. As chief executive of the World Surf League, the Englishwoman is harnessing technology and talent to revolutionise the sport’s flagship global properties.

by Michael Long
Strong female lead: World Surf League CEO Sophie Goldschmidt is on the crest of a revolution

It is fair to say many within the surfing community were a tad puzzled when, in August 2017, the unfamiliar figure of Sophie Goldschmidt was presented as the new chief executive of the sport’s elite sanctioning body, the World Surf League (WSL). But for those operating in the sports industry at large - and indeed for the WSL itself - her appointment made perfect sense.

Here was a highly regarded veteran of sports marketing, an executive whose lengthy resumé included senior roles at England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), Adidas and, latterly, CSM Sport and Entertainment, where she served as group managing director. To those in the know, Goldschmidt was not only a well-respected and forward-thinking professional, but a shrewd and skilled negotiator as qualified as anyone to lead one of the world’s most progressive sports properties - never mind that her experience of surfing was scant, to say the least.

At the time of Goldschmidt’s appointment, Dirk Ziff, the WSL’s lead investor, described his new hire as “exactly what the league needs”, adding that her “experience, strong leadership and winning and inclusive management style” would “further elevate the league and grow engagement among fans around the world.” A little over 16 months on, Goldschmidt now sits at the helm of a sport on the rise.

Having relocated from London to the rather warmer climes of Santa Monica, she is spearheading the global growth of professional surfing at a pivotal time in the sport’s history. Inclusion on the Olympic programme at Tokyo 2020, coupled with the growth of online streaming and rapid advancements in artificial wave pool technology, have put surfing on course for further international expansion. As Goldschmidt herself tells SportsPro during a brief return to London for a whirlwind round of meetings and media engagements in September, “the sport’s at an incredibly exciting tipping point”.

Sophie Goldschmidt, chief executive of the World Surf League, sat down with SportsPro during a whirlwind stop in London (orginal photography by Henry Hunt)

How would you reflect on the months since you arrived at the WSL?

It’s been fantastic, a kind of crazy journey. I was a fan of the sport before but didn’t really know the ins and outs of what the WSL was all about, about our surfers and all the different stakeholders. I think I’ve learned a huge amount. [There’s] still got a long way to go but I feel more excited and hopeful about what we can achieve.

The reasons I took the role have been even more firmly reinforced. The sport’s at an incredibly exciting tipping point. Momentum is building in all sorts of ways. I’ve pretty much loved every minute of it.

What is your vision for professional surfing now that you’ve got your first full year under your belt?

It’s really multifaceted. We are growing very quickly. We are still trying to further develop and fully professionalise certain areas of the sport. Compared to a lot of organisations and sports I’ve worked in previously, it’s a pretty young sport so I think, for us, it’s about telling our story more broadly.

There’s still so much of it that’s unknown in different industries and markets and I think that’s one of the really positive things I’ve experienced this first year. Pretty much everyone you meet with, once they understand what we’re all about and what we’re trying to do, they’re intrigued and interested.

For us, it goes back to the fan. Broadening our audience is the key objective, and doing that in really creative and innovative ways. We have so many different aspects to surfing, both the high-performance, elite end of the sport but it transitions into lifestyle, I think, more authentically than any other sport. That’s a real opportunity, and then also growing the profile of these athletes. They’re amazing icons performing at the highest level and I don’t think there’s anything that can grow the sport faster than helping them be as recognised as they should be.

“I get to go to some pretty cool locations,” says Goldschmidt, pictured here at August’s Tahiti Pro Teahupo’o

What opportunities do you see coming off the back of surfing’s inclusion in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics? Is that something the hardcore surfing community is excited about?

I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for the sport to be on that global stage. I think surfing will bring a lot of different elements to the Olympics - it’s appealing to a very young demographic, it’s cool, it’s very aspirational, it has this amazing connection with nature and the whole awareness now around ocean conversation is, I think, very timely.

We’re very excited that it’s in the Olympics. We’re going to do whatever we can to support and make this a success. Our athletes are the best surfers in the world so, for sure, they’re going to be front and centre during the Olympics.

Would you say the IOC and the Olympic movement need surfing more than surfing needs the Olympics?

I think we both need each other. The Olympics has done an amazing job, especially over the last few Games, and they’re evolving all the time. But I think they’re aware that there are certain segments of the population out there that maybe don’t resonate as much with it. And I think surfing definitely offers something very different.

It’s a very symbiotic relationship and one that I’m sure will be very successful. I know our athletes are very excited about it. There are a lot of unknowns - the way that it’s presented and how it’s all going to be put together.

Surfing is set to make its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020

Goldschmidt’s remit at the WSL spans every facet of a fast-growing and increasingly diverse organisation - from the management and commercial development of its elite global circuits, including the Big Wave World Tour, to the Kelly Slater Wave Company (KSWC), a pioneering wave technology developer founded by the 11-time world champion from which the firm takes its name.

The WSL acquired a majority stake in the KSWC in May 2016, lured by the possibilities inherent in this potentially game-changing innovation. This September, the league staged its first-ever elite Championship Tour event on manmade waves, the Surf Ranch Pro, which saw the world’s best male and female surfers compete at the KSWC’s pilot facility in Lemoore, California. Plans are now in place to create a global network of WSL-branded high-performance training centres, with KSWC technology set to revolutionise the sport by enabling the WSL to take elite surfing to new markets and new audiences while presenting events in never-before-seen ways.

What impact are you expecting wave pool technology to have on the global growth of surfing?

It’s spectacular technology. In fact, a big reason I took the job was the opportunity to be involved with something that’s so transformative for a sport. I mean, we knew it was going to be a game-changer for surfing but actually I think it’s game-changing for sports at large when you look at how sport can be presented.

And we’re still learning. Each month the technology improves and our ambitions and vision for how we can roll it out improves as well. I remember when I saw it for the first time, having seen loads of videos and being fascinated by it, just the scale of it…

The one that we have at the moment is the size of five football fields, so it’s a huge infrastructure project. But what you’re able to build around it from an experience standpoint - if you can imagine in future, we’ll have world-class waves, ten-foot-plus waves, coming towards an audience with a stadium coming up out of the water, with amazing broadcast and camera angles, just an electric atmosphere, it can be floodlit at night - it’s just a beautiful thing and it’s so interactive.

I think surfing has so many opportunities and positive characteristics but it has some challenges. It’s sometimes not that easy to programme because it’s dependent on the swell and the forecast, etc. Recently I was in Tahiti - I get to go to some pretty cool locations - and one of the most famous breaks in the world, Teahupo’o, but it’s out quite a long way in the ocean, so from a fan perspective it can have its challenges. But this technology basically eradicates all of those.

I think it’s important to state that the ocean has never been more important to us; the variability, the fact that [the athletes are] also competing with Mother Nature, as well as each other, makes the sport truly unique. But this is very complementary for all of the reasons I mentioned - it allows us to go to markets we could never have dreamed of, to be properly programmable from a TV perspective, to engage with audiences in different ways.

You staged your first elite-level event on the system in early September. What kind of things did you try there and what did you learn from that experience?

That was our first Championship Tour event, so [there was] a lot on the line as we were getting to the pointy end of our world championship title race. We added quite a few new elements: we tried a new format, so it was a leaderboard style rather than a head-to-head format, we did a lot of new things from a broadcast production standpoint - different drone and camera angles because, again, you also now know exactly where the wave’s coming.

I think the fan experience was significantly enhanced. It’s a long day of surfing, especially at the wave system - it’s ten or 12 hours - so we had various different activations that went down very well. We own a big lake next door where we had waterskiing, paddle-boarding; music was a big element and music in general is a big part of surfing. We’re adding more and more music to all of our events but especially at the Surf Ranch facility. We had a couple of big acts on the Friday and Saturday night.

We tested a lot. Most of it worked, some things we want to do better, but again we’re just starting out on this journey and there’s a lot more to come.

Are there elements of the Surf Ranch contests - perhaps that concept of festivalisation - that you can apply to your traditional ocean-based events?

Yeah, very much so. I think some of the activation opportunities, how you fill dead time, how you can engage with the athletes differently - it’s much easier for us to pre-programme different activities because you know when you’re on. We push the button at eight o’clock and the wave starts running.

Overall, from a production standpoint, we’re able to test different technologies in a slightly more controlled environment. That allows us to be even more ambitious with some of the things that we’re testing, and I think that’s been one thing that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by: just how open-minded the surfing world is to try new things, to being innovative.

It’s always been known as a kind of counterculture-type sport and progressive for different, maybe political or other reasons. But actually, considering it’s all about the ocean and nature, they’re really open-minded. I mean, the athletes have been fantastic. We’ve changed a lot, we’ve tried a lot this year and they’ve really embraced it, which is great. That hasn’t always been my experience in sports so that’s a real positive for what we’re trying to do.

Given that the wave system requires large-scale infrastructure development, where do you envisage these facilities being built?

We’ve got a very clear strategic plan and direction, which basically follows two different phases. The first five or six facilities will be based in very strategically important markets for the WSL to enable further growth of the Championship Tour and our key events.

We have one in Lemoore, which is our pilot facility. To be honest, we never thought we’d have events there but it’s just gone so well and the technology has become so robust that we are using that. But we’re building one in Florida; we’re also going to be building one in Tokyo, in Australia, in Brazil, likely LA, and we’re looking at building a couple in Paris.

Phase two will be more of a partnership/licence type of approach. [We’ll remain] very selective - I mean, I don’t ever imagine we’ll have hundreds of these around the world, but I think we will have dozens of them. And the business model is different for each one. Obviously, when they’re tied to WSL events, there’s regular event revenue and commercial opportunities but then there’s broader development.

A lot of the developers we’re speaking to are looking at these wave facilities to replace golf courses in certain residential and vacation locations. Location-based entertainment venues is almost how we’re positioning them because a) there’s a lot of different uses for them, but also they’re beautiful. They’re almost alternatives to arenas, hence we’ve had concerts, you’ve got the stage floating out on the water, you’ve got that arena infrastructure around it. So the mind kind of boggles. Again, we’re learning. No one’s ever done this before, let alone us.

In addition to charting the commercial course of professional surfing, Goldschmidt is intent on positioning the sport at the forefront of broader social issues such as gender equality and environmental conservation.

One of only a handful of women to head up a global sports property, she recently oversaw a historic decision to award equal prize money to male and female athletes for every WSL-controlled event from 2019 onwards. In doing so, the WSL became the first and only US-based sports league, and among the first internationally, to offer equal prize money.

Another initiative that holds particular significance for both Goldschmidt and the WSL is WSL PURE, a non-profit foundation set up by the league to raise funds and awareness for marine health organisations and their causes. Having launched in April 2016 with an initial US$1.5 million grant to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, one of the world’s leading ocean research institutions, the philanthropic arm has since been expanded to encompass a breadth of projects and partners around the world.

Your move to introduce equal prize money for men and women was, quite rightly, very well received. Was that something you personally wanted to achieve coming into the role?

It was definitely something that I was aware of and focused on. I think it’s been a long time in the making; these things don’t happen overnight. I’ve obviously been there just over a year but there were people focused on this for decades beforehand, so it’s been a real journey. This is just another step along that path and, in some ways, it’s the most high-profile thing you can do from an equality standpoint. But for us there’s still a long way to go.

Over the last four or five years, we’ve significantly increased the investment in women’s surfing - we’ve increased the number of events, we’ve increased the prize money, we’ve invested in marketing and promotion. So this isn’t just a silver bullet, this isn’t just one thing, but it got some good attention, which is nice.

How is the WSL PURE initiative panning out?

It’s a big part of what we’re doing. Initially, when it was launched, it was very focused on research and our partnership with Columbia University, which is one of the leaders in ocean conservation and research around the world. We repositioned it to be much more inclusive and really focused around three areas: educating the world on the problem, how big the issue is; amplifying that through all of our channels and then letting people know how they can help solve this problem; and, lastly, fundraising and investing in projects with key organisations that are doing great work that we believe in.

We felt the last thing the world needed was another ocean conservation charity, so for us it’s about amplifying and raising awareness of the issue, letting people know how they can get involved, and then supporting great work that’s already happening. And it’s going very well.

Each year we have specific areas that we’re really focused on, so plastics and reef conservation have been focuses for us this year. But we’re really integrating it into everything we do. Our athletes feel incredibly passionate about this topic.

I mean, it really hit home when we were in Bali earlier this year. Actually, a beach I went to ten years ago on a holiday with my sister, going back ten years later, you just can’t believe the devastation. There was plastic everywhere. Ten years ago it was one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to. The athletes were wading through plastic as they went out into the reef. They were picking up trash in bags as they came off the beach - it was a real eye-opener. All these movies and bits of content you see aren’t made up and just put together. It was right there.

We compare it to if all the football pitches in the UK were dying, the Premier League and Championship would do something pretty significant about it. For us, our ocean is dying.

You mention that the world doesn’t need another ocean conservation charity. Given the scepticism that surrounds commercial operations getting involved in charitable causes, what’s the process you go through to construct something that’s legitimate and actually adding something to the cause?

We’ve spent a lot of time deciding who we want to partner and work with. We have an amazing group of advisors, the best in the world across all the different areas helping us, to make sure that we’re making the right decisions in how we position ourselves. We’ve set up a 501(c)(3) entity, which is a charitable entity, so everything that is being driven specifically because of PURE will be invested back into that.

We’re funding all the resources through the WSL, so we’re in a fortunate position how we can structure ourselves. But you’re right, we want to be whiter than white. The governance side of it is really important and we have a very strict selection process regarding the NGOs and partners that we’ll work with. And they have the same for us, quite frankly.

At the moment we’ve started with around seven or eight but we’ll grow that over time. Some are global, some are very local. I think that’s the other thing: the content around this is really powerful. We’re going to have a big campaign next year around celebrating all the great work - some of the smallest local work in the most far-flung places to some really big projects.

I think that’s the point: everyone can make a difference, from stopping using straws to doing your own beach clean-up. I’ve become obsessed with it. I was always a bit of an environmentalist but it’s definitely gone to a new level since I’ve seen the devastation and I’ve got this job. Unfortunately now I live in LA, when I go along the beach I literally come back and my hands are full of plastic. It affects you in a big way.

We want to be whiter than white. The governance side of it is really important and we have a very strict selection process regarding the NGOs and partners that we’ll work with

Looking back on your career, you’ve experienced many different sports. Now you’re in surfing, what do you make of the nature of the sport and the way it’s structured? Are there elements that are refreshing, perhaps things you’ve learned in other sports that can be applied in your current role?

A lot is relevant, probably more relevant than I’d anticipated, actually. That’s been in all of the different sports roles that I’ve had, but I think there’s definitely all sorts of things that I can take from other sports and apply to surfing.

Surfing is unique, the community is unique, how it’s structured is unique. The values and culture are very special, unlike I’ve seen in any other sport. Surfers, the professional ones and just in general, they do have a greater purpose. They have a greater reason for being. They are obsessed with catching the next wave but not so driven by the money or the sport itself. It’s the greater role they can play, which has been really, really cool.

But a fundamental change is the structure. We have basically centralised control over all aspects of the sport. The ownership group have aggregated all of the rights over the last five years since they bought it, so all of the events, all of the media rights, all of the licensing opportunities.

We have exclusive relationships with all of the athletes. The athletes are actually shareholders in the business, so we don’t have different committees and unions and what have you to deal with. We communicate a lot with the athletes. They are a very important part of it and we’re never going to take them for granted. They are our most important asset, at the end of the day.

Is it a culture that is more receptive to change than some of the ones you’ve experienced, such as rugby and golf, where you have cultures that have been set decades ago?

I think it is. It’s funny, the RFU, everyone says it seems in some ways like it’s not the most progressive, but I think I was fortunate with my timing. In the five years I was there, there was amazing change. I joined at a time when the organisation was imploding and off the back of that we were leading up to a home World Cup, so that was kind of a catalyst. But I think we’re all really proud of the changes that took place.

Everything is about timing and the different variables you’ve got; what you can control and what you can’t. I think surfing is in a particularly unique position. It’s the most entrepreneurial, progressive organisation I’ve worked for and because of the structure and where it’s at, change is able to happen faster than it might in some others.

You’re a female chief executive in charge of a fairly young sport. Do you personally feel that you’re in a position now where you’re going to be looked to as an agent of change?

I don’t really think about it like that. I know I’ve been very fortunate with the opportunities that I’ve had and this one probably trumps them all. It’s an amazing opportunity that I’m absolutely going to make the most of.

I think I’m able to be a bit of an agent for change - again, the timing is right. But I’m not afraid to take some risks and be innovative and when you’re trying to punch above your weight, which surfing is as a sport - you know, we’re an emerging sport - we can have that challenger mentality. We have the flexibility because of the structure to act that way, which is incredibly exciting.

This is an edited version of a feature that appears in Issue 103 of SportsPro magazine. To subscribe, click here.