The Business of the WSL w / CEO Sophie Goldschmidt

WSL CEO, Sophie Goldschmidt. Image: WSL / Kenneth Morris

The WSL released its calendar for 2018 today, and while there were a few notable changes that got some tongues wagging,  the WSL continues to take strides forward both as a sport and as a business.

In a media call from California, new CEO Sophie Goldschmidt fielded a wide array of questions, many of which have been floated around industry circles for some time. Those pertaining to the WSL’s profitability, the possibility of the webcasts going to a pay-per-view model next year and the integration of the Kelly Slater Wave Co technology into the sport and broader business plan, were all answered in fairly comprehensive fashion.

It’s clear that there is transition underway, and the 2018 season will be a step in the direction of some bigger change in 2019 as already reported by the media, though not officially by the WSL.

Sophie elaborates.  “We are in an exciting space with the sport; all sorts of new opportunities that we really want to capitalize on. A lot of work and extensive consultation has gone into this new schedule – I’m sure you can appreciate these kind of changes are not made lightly, but we think they provide some great new opportunities for the future”.

“A key focus for us has been very strategic, and how we look at the future growth of surfing and how we build a sustainable and economically viable in order to help us achieve that”.

Everyone has an opinion on the WSL and there are many an armchair critic, but it’s safe to say that the 2017 title race is the most exciting its been in years, both on the mens and womens tour, and that is good for business. What’s also clear is that the WSL have a long run-way to build the future of professional sport, and their leader has the support of the surfers and the financial backers.

All the questions you’ve ever had about the WSL may just have been answered in the interview below.


What is most relevant about your skills set and the challenge ahead and what can surfing learn from other commercially successful mainstream sports?

I’ve been in the role now almost 3 months, and I think each day a lot of my experienced becomes more and more relevant, I’ve obviously got a lot of learning to do as well; 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 attributes and opportunities has been a fascinating challenge.

I think all sports can learn from eachother, but I also think surfing has a very unique opportunity, and that’s why I took the role – I think surfing can do things that other sports cant. The appeal of it in so many different ways, to fans around the world really is very unique – and I think we feel very bullish, very excited about the future of the sport and I think this organization and surfing in general has always taken a very innovative, progressive attitude to how we can further the sport and grow it, so I’m really excited to be a part of that.

What do you think are Professional Surfing’s strongest points?

I think it goes back to the core of the product. These athletes are fantastic, theyre at the top of their games, they are some of the best athletes in the world putting themselves literally on the line. Their bravery and athletic talents should be heralded around the world – I think that is one of our goals, to try and help them become even more household names. I think they should be celebrated much more broadly.

I think the new technology that’s coming through, whether its Surf Ranch or whether its some of the broadcast technology, surfing is really innovative and that’s a real plus for the sport. I think in addition to that, the Olympic opportunity, is hugely exciting as it can really take the spot to new markets, so to be honest the opportunities are pretty endless and I see very few limitations –

I think it’s a case of being focused and disciplined on what can make the biggest impact and how collectively we can find that balance of holding on to the such important traditions and values of the sport, while also pushing the boundaries in the right way so we can attract even broader audience and help this great sport grow even further.

Athletes = Assets. Image WSL / Steve Sherman

The new WSL has done a great job in elevating the ‘product’ of pro surfing and has invested heavily over the past few years – and the new additions to the tour schedule certainly support this.   In your initial overview of the business, what are the areas you have prioritised to address or add momentum to?

 There have been a few things we have been focused on. These calendar announcements and getting the 2018 calendar right has been a big focus. The process started before I joined the WSL, but I have spent a lot of time on it – it’s a core area of the sport that we absolutely want to evolve, and as we alluded to previously this is a step in a longer term transition period and there will be more changes to come in the future and we are going to be very thoughtful about how we do that.

 I think we have an opportunity to even further enhance our broadcast and content offering. I think where we are at, and the developments over the last few years have been fantastic and the fact that fans can watch live the events for free is a great position to be in, but we are really keen to broaden our content offering – so that’s a big focus.

We are also working even more closely with the athletes to help further enhance and grow their profile. I think in certain markets they are hugely popular and in others there is an opportunity to further develop there. I’m not sure there is anything that can grow the sport faster than building emotional connections with those athletes around the world.

How are you going to make the WSL profitable?

We are in a very fortunate position.

We continue to grow our revenues, so the demand in the WSL continues to grow, but because of the greater pool of our ownership we continue to be strategic on how we grow the sport and we are still 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.

So we feel really good about the position that we are in and we really do take that long-term view.

How do you think about the audience that the WSL is serving and the opportunities that haven’t fully been addressed yet?

For the most part our numbers, our viewership and audience we have are pretty staggering. The growth we’ve seen over the last few years has been significant and its an area we have invested heavily in and its really paid off.

We are fortunate that a lot of the audience that follows us is pretty young, I think of lot of the (other) sports would love to have the kind of demographic profile that we have.

So I think we are starting from a very low, strong position but we are keen to broaden our audience, outside of just hardcore surf fans who will always be hugely important to us but I don’t think it needs to be either or. I think we can still continue to appeal to them, produce content and material that’s relevant but I think the casual fan can experience surfing in other ways.

So we will be looking to broadening our content offering – I think from an educational stand point we can simplify some of our broadcasts and live events so we can make it easier for people to engage with us. I think when we talk about our athletes, building those emotional connections, really bringing their personalities to life – I think those are all great opportunities to engage in a new broader audience.

How will Paul Speakers legacy influence how you do things? And how are you going to do things differently?

First of all I must give a huge amount of credit to everyone who has been involved with the WSL to date. I have been really personally surprised and it’s a great position to be in, starting from such a strong baseline. So huge credit to everyone that has got us to this place.

For me, I’m still learning as quickly as I can. I’ve spent a large amount of time with people both internally and externally and I think everyone does things slightly differently – I obviously come from a slightly different background and will have my own views and opinions, but for me its very much a team effort and I think we are very fortunate to have a fantastic team and all sorts of people we can tap into to make sure we are making the best decisions and try to stay ahead of the game. We want to be innovative, we want to push boundaries and be visionary with how we approach the sport. I think that’s what surfing is all about. It’s been pioneering throughout the years and we want to continue in that vein.

With the Big Wave Tour, Surf Ranch and the Olympics in 2020 – what’s next in terms of growing the sport on a professional level?

 I think we still have a long way to go within those key pillars. I mean the Big Wave Tour – we’ve only been involved in it the last couple of years, we’ve just added Mavericks which we are hugely excited about and takes the tour to a whole new level.

The Kelly Slater wavepool – we’ve only had a test event. We will be having our first WCT event there next year so that’s going to be a huge learning experience. While we have a business plan and strategy with that company, which is pretty integrated with the WSL we are still testing and improving the technology and we will learn a lot from the event this next year – so yeah, I think theres still a long way to go with those different areas.

2020 and the Olympics is another massive opportunity – It allows us to become relevant in markets that maybe we aren’t to date and I know it will be here before we know it.

So those are clearly big areas for us to focus on, and then the many others I have mentioned whether it’s just our broader media offering, how we embrace that, the broader audience and branching out a little more into the lifestyle areas as well as been obviously very focused on our main, elite competitions as well. So there are several things that we are looking at.

The Kelly Slater Wave Co – developing that into a successful business will require the investment of more capital. Are you prepared to investigate this opportunity and if so where is that capital going to come from?

We have a very robust business plan for The Kelly Slater Wave company. It’s still in development, weve had one test event so its still in its very early stages and there are multiple different arrangements that we can look at to role these wave systems out more broadly.

The good news is we have a huge amount of interest.

We’ve already targeted 6 developments that have already begun or that will shortly be underway and each of those arrangement’s are very different depending on the market. It depends on how the WSL sees them, so theres a lot of factors and variables that goes into those different developments and from a capital perspective we are fortunate to have a tremendous amount of ownership support. We also have various other resources as well that are very keen to invest.

So again, we are trying to be very thoughtful about it, very strategic – we are not in a huge rush, although the reception we have had, I think that anyone that has been up to Lemoore has been pretty blown away. So it’s probably accelerated our ambition and excitement around just how meaningful these can be for surfing but we also remain very committed to the ocean and our events in the ocean have become as important as ever.

But I think the Wave Company is a game changer and we’ve seen it first hand with the athletes. A few of them were at the test event we had in September and a lot of them have been up there since and the feedback continues to be pretty overwhelming.

Surf Ranch. Image: WSL / Kenneth Morris

How will the wave pool network integrate with the event side, and what does the network look like in terms of scale?

 We are working on that roll out plan at the moment. As mentioned we have announced one event next year, our first WCT event will be at Surf Ranch in September – we expect to have more post 2018 but the number and how many and how that fits into our schedule is still to be determined. And to re-emphasize our ocean events remain as important as ever and its not either or, we think we can do that and in the right way that it strategically makes sense and have wave pool events to compliment that as well.

Is there any information about the format and how the judging criteria might look like at the event at the Surf Ranch next year?

 Not anything specific. We are narrowing down the different format options at the moment and we’ve been having a lot of dialogue with the commissioners office, surfers reps and others who are very close to this area – so we are convinced we are going to come up with a great format. It will be different to our ocean format so it’s a great opportunity for us to try something different but it clearly needs to be very fair and something that works for the athletes from a judging perspective but also that’s exciting for fans and broadcasters as well.

Will there be an opportunity for fans to attend the Surf Ranch event?

 Yes, we are trying to make that a public spectator event.

The WSL has invested a lot in mobile and social media technology – What do you think is next in terms of connecting to fans?

 I think there is more to come from a digital stand point. That is our future, we are in the midst of it. I think we have got off to a really good start but we are rolling out all sorts of new technical developments and content offerings all the time. It is the best way to connect with fans, especially that next generation and very appealing to that demographic. It just shows how aspirational the sport is, how cool it is, it’s a sport and lifestyle that people want to be associated with. So we will be doing a lot more on the digital front. We will continue to be a digital-first company and you can expect to see a lot more innovation and some really new ideas in this space.

With Kelly’s recent injury and constant rumors of his retirement, do you see him taking a bigger role behind the scenes?

 Not formerly, no – I’ve had the fortune of spending a bit of time with Kelly since I’ve started and he certainly seems very committed to his professional surfing career.

His dedication, despite being injured is second to none. I’ve worked with a lot of great athletes during my career and he’s about professional as they come.

I believe he’s got a few more events, probably years left in him and having said that he’s been very supportive of me, trying to help me get up to speed with various things. I’ve asked for his views and opinions on various things, he’s formally involved with KS wave co obviously, he was set on making that technology as great as it could be and spent so much time on the experience of it – so he’s certainly involved for me on that stand point but he’s clearly very committed to his professional career.

Back onto the 2018 Calendar – There’s not a single high-performance left on the tour next year. Your thoughts on that?

 Its something we discussed at length through this process. It’s kind of difficult, it’s something that’s happened in the past; Fiji has come off the schedule a few times over the last decade, its something you might come to expect, although I think the vast majority of our events are consistent I think there will be some rotation with others and I think there will be changes in the future.

So no high-performance left this year, but I wouldn’t expect that to be the same in 2019.

Fiji out due to a lack of government funding. Image: WSL / Kelly Cestari

What considerations were made when taking Fiji off the schedule?

 It really came down to a lack of investment – a lack of financial support from the Fijian government which was different to what we had been lead to believe, so we were delighted with the Keramas opportunity which is a truly fantastic venue from everything I’ve heard – I haven’t had the chance to go there yet, I cant wait to go there in 2018 – and I’m really excited to bring a CT event there, as are our surfers and the rest of our stakeholders.

Keramas is in for 2018. Julian Wilson image WSL.

Are there any plans to charge for the webcasts in 2018?

 All of our events next year will be broadcast live and for free on our WSL platforms.

The events webcasts will be broadcast live and free in 2018. Image: WSL / Kelly Cestari

Will the changes to the 2018 calendar have any affect on the WQS or bring any new opportunities to the QS next year?

 The QS is an area we are still looking at a lot. We’ve released the first portion of the QS schedule – I think there will be a few changes later in the year, but probably more changes to come in 2019 in conjunction with the CT 2019 schedule. But we think there’s an opportunity to really further bolster the QS series and also help create a certain narrative, especially towards the backend of the QS, some of the storylines – what’s on the line with the different athletes trying to make it to the CT we think is really stellar so to give that more of an opportunity and window to be shared, which we are excited to do.

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