After three months on the job, WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt speaks out.
Originally Published November 22, 2017 by Surfline
Back in July, the WSL announced its new CEO. Sophie Goldschmidt, who took over from interim CEO Dirk Ziff, comes from the world of mainstream sports marketing — think rugby, basketball and tennis. Bigger audiences, bigger budgets. The WSL issued a happy press release, but we haven’t heard much from Goldschmidt since she moved from London to Santa Monica in August.
Yesterday, Goldschmidt hopped on a conference call with some members of the surf media after we’d emailed questions for her to answer (hence the lack of follow-up questions). She was upbeat, optimistic and articulate. Here are some highlights from the call.
Surfline: What will your skill set bring to pro surfing?
Sophie Goldschmidt: I’ve been in the role three months, and each day a lot of my experience becomes more and more relevant. I’ve obviously had a lot of learning to do. It is a new sport for me, and while I’ve been a fan for many years, being on the inside and understanding all the different opportunities and challenges has been fascinating. I think all sports can learn from each other, but surfing has a very unique opportunity, and that’s why I took the role. Surfing can do things that other sports can’t. The appeal of it to fans around the world is very unique. We’re very bullish and excited about the future of the sport. I think this organization and surfing in general has taken a very innovative, progressive attitude to how we can grow it. The key focus is very strategic — how we look at the future growth of surfing, and building a sustainable and economically viable schedule to achieve that.
What are professional surfing’s strongest points right now?
I think it goes back to the core of the product: These athletes are fantastic, at the top of their game — some of the best athletes in the world putting themselves on the line. Their bravery and athletic talent should be heralded around the world. That’s one of our goals — to make them become more household names. Some of the locations — and we’ve added a couple new ones this year — are just spectacular. Plus, the Surf Ranch and broadcast technology are really innovative. That’s a plus for the sport. The Olympic opportunity is really exciting and one that can take the sport to new markets. We need to stay disciplined and focused on what can make the biggest impact, and collectively, how we can find that balance between holding on to such important traditions and values of the sport while also pushing the boundaries in the right way so we can attract an even broader audience and help this great sport grow even further.
What areas do you want to add momentum to?
Getting the 2018 calendar right has been a big thing before I joined. It’s a core area of the sport that we want to evolve. This is a step in a longer-term transition period. There will be more changes to come in the future. But we are going to be very thoughtful about how we do that. I think we’ve got an opportunity to further enhance our broadcast and content offering. I think the fact the fans can watch events live for free is a great position to be in. But we’re really keen to broaden our content offering.
How are you going to make the WSL profitable?
We’re in a very fortunate position; we continue to grow our revenues. The demand in the WSL continues to grow. And because of the great support of our ownership, we’re also being very strategic about how we grow the sport. We still are heavily investing in important areas which we think, long-term, will make the sport sustainable and help it develop in the most strategic way possible. We feel very good about the position we are in and we take that long-term view.
What other opportunities are there to serve the audience?
For the most part our viewership numbers — especially across our digital channels — are pretty staggering. The growth we’ve made over the past few years has been significant. A lot of the audience that follows us is pretty young — and a lot of sports would love to have the demographic profile we have. So we’re starting from a strong position, but we’re keen to broaden the audience outside hardcore surf fans, who are always going to be highly important to us. I don’t think it’s either/or; we can still continue to appeal to them and produce content that is relevant. But the casual fan can be hooked to surfing in other ways.
What do you think a woman at the top will add to a sport primarily dominated by men?
I haven’t really encountered that. My experience has been that surfing is incredible inclusive. I’ve been thrilled by how I’ve been embraced, and people have been incredibly helpful, supportive, welcoming. I think surfing is very open-minded.
With the Big Wave Tour, the Surf Ranch, and the Olympics in 2020, what’s next in growing the sport from a professional level?
I think we’ve still got a long way to go to build on those key pillars. We’ve only been a part of the BWT for the past couple of years, and we’ve just added Maverick’s, which we’re hugely excited about. The Surf Ranch, we’ve only had a test event and will be having our first CT event there next year — so that’s going to be a huge learning experience. We’re still testing, tweaking and improving the technology. We’ll learn a lot from an event perspective. The 2020 Olympics is another massive opportunity, it allows us to become relevant in markets we aren’t to date. Then again, it’s the broader media offering: how do we embrace a wider audience and branch out to the lifestyle areas, as well as being very focused on our elite competitions?
Developing Kelly Slater Wave Co. into a successful business will presumably require a lot of capital. Are you prepared to fully invest in this opportunity, and if so, where’s that capital going to come from?
We have a very robust business plan for the Kelly Slater Wave Co. We have one pilot facility at the moment, so it’s still in its very early stages. There’s multiple different arrangements we can look at to roll these wave systems out more broadly. Good news is, we have a huge amount of interest. We’ve targeted six developments that have already begun or will shortly be underway. Each of those arrangements is very different — it depends on the market and how the WSL sees them being used. From a capital perspective, we’re lucky to have a tremendous amount of ownership support, but we also have various other sources that are very keen to invest. Again, we’re trying to be very thoughtful about it and strategic. We’re not in a huge rush — although anyone who’s been up to Lemoore has been pretty blown away. So it’s accelerated our ambitions around how meaningful these can be for surfing. We remain committed to the ocean, and our events in the ocean have become as important as ever.
How does the wave pool network integrate into the event side and what does the network look like, in terms of scale, once it’s fully built out?
We’re working on that rollout plan at the moment. We’ve now announced the first CT event in September. We expect to have more, post-2018. But the number and how many and how that fits into our schedule is yet to be determined. But just to emphasize: our ocean events remain as important as ever, it’s not either or, we think we can do that in the right way, where it strategically makes sense to have wave system events to complement those, as well.
Do you have any more information about what the judging format and criteria will look like at the Surf Ranch CT event?
Not anything specific. We’re narrowing down the different format options right now. We’ve been having a lot of dialogue with the surfers’ reps, commissioners and others, so we’re convinced we’re going to come up with a great format. It’ll be a different one to the ocean format, so it’s a great opportunity for us to try something different. It clearly needs to be very fair and something that works for the athletes from a judging perspective, but that’s also exciting for fans, as well.
Will there be an opportunity for fans to attend the Surf Ranch event?
Yes. We are planning to make it a public spectator event.
There’s not a single, high-performance left on the roster for next year, what are your thoughts on that?
It’s something we discussed a lot during this process. It’s kind of cyclical, this has happened in the past. Fiji has come off a few times over the past decade. I think while I expect the vast majority of events to be pretty consistent, there might be some rotation with others. I think there will be changes in the future. No high-performance left this year, but I wouldn’t expect that to be the case in 2019.
What was taken into consideration when removing Fiji from the schedule for next year?
It really came down to a lack of investment. A lack of support from the Fijian government, which is different from what we were led to believe. And so, we were delighted with the Keramas opportunity, which is a truly fantastic venue. I haven’t had the chance to go there yet and I cannot wait to go there in 2018.
And are there any plans to charge for webcasts next year, or will all events be free?
All of our events next year will be broadcast live and for free on our platforms.