There's been a few shake ups within the World Surf League recently. Kelly's wave pool added to the tour, Fiji and Lowers chopped on the men's side and Portugal cut for the women in favour of J-Bay.
Bold moves, but likely born out of necessity, the WSL acquiring Kelly's wave pool and wanting to see returns, and lack of investment for the Fiji event was always going to be tricky. Earlier this year, the WSL was furnished with a new CEO in Sophie Goldschmidt, replacing Paul Speaker in the company's driving seat. And since, it has been largely quiet out of that office, until the above bombs were dropped in quick succession.
And a few days ago, a handful of your humble surf media outlets were invited to submit questions to Sophie ahead of a call in conference session, where the CEO laid out plans for the WSL's future. It's the first time the WSL has opened up some form of access to the new CEO and there's a few cherries in here; like, there're six more KS Wave Co pools in the wings (unsurprising), no plans to monetise webcasts next year (but no news on following years) further tweaking the CT and a revamped QS, and that the changes already in force are just the beginning. Plus a statement that despite the delivery of wave pools, the WSL remains committed to the ocean. Let's dig in.
What is most relevant to your background and skill set to the challenge ahead. And what can surfing learn from other commercial successful mainstream sports that you've been involved in?
SG: I've been in the role three months, 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 really on the inside and understanding all the different opportunities, the challenges, has been fascinating.
But I think all sports can learn from each other, I think 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 in so many different ways to fans around the world really is very unique.
I think we are very bullish and excited about the future of the sport. I think this organisation and surfing in general has taken a very innovative, progressive, attitude to how we can grow it.
What is professional surfing's strongest points?
Well, I think it goes back to the core of the product. These athletes are fantastic, at the top of their games, some of the best in the world, putting themselves literally on the line, their bravery and talent should be heralded around the world.
One of our goals it to make them become more household names. Some of the locations, we've added a couple of new ones this year, are just spectacular.
The new tech coming in, surfing is really innovative. The Olympic opportunity is really exciting and one that can take the sport to new markets. The opportunities are pretty endless and I see very few limitations.
What areas do you want to add momentum to?
These calendar announcements have been a big thing, and started 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.
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. I think working more closely with the athletes to enhance their profiles.
How are you going to make the WSL profitable?
We're in a very fortunate position, we continue to grow our revenues. 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.
What other opportunities are there to serve the audience?
For the most part our viewership numbers are pretty staggering. The growth we've made over the past few years has been pretty significant.
A lot of the audience that follows us is pretty young. We're starting from a strong position but we're keen to broaden the audience to reach fans who might not be hardcore surf fans.
I don't think it's either or, we can still continue to appeal to them [hardcore fans] and produce content that is relevant, but the casual fan can be hooked to surfing in other ways. From an educational stand point, we can simplify some of our broadcasts and the live events so that we can make it easier for people to engage with us.
How will Paul Speaker's legacy influence the way you do things and how will you do things differently?
Well, first of all, I must give a huge amount of credit to everyone involved with the WSL to date. For me, I am still learning, learning as quickly as I can.
I've met a huge number of people internally and externally, I obviously come from a slightly different background and have my own views and opinions, for me, it's very much a team effort and I think we're very fortunate to have a fantastic team and people we can tap into. We want to be innovative and push the boundaries.
What do you think a woman at the top will add to a sport primarily dominated by men?
I haven't really encountered that, I have to say. My experience has been that surfing is incredibly inclusive.
I've been thrilled by how I've been embraced and people have been incredibly helpful, supportive. I think surfing is very open-minded and that's another great characteristic, just been a pleasure for me to be involved with the sport.
With the BWT, 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. The BWT, we've only been a part of for the past couple of years, we've just added Maverick's which we're hugely excited about.
There's still such a long way to go with all those different areas The KS Wave CO, only had a test event, will be having our first CT event there next year so that's going to be a huge learning experience, while we have a real business plan and strategy for that company integrated into the WSL, we are still testing, tweaking and improving the technology.
There's still such a long way to go with all those different areas. 2020 and the Olympics is another massive opportunity, it allows us to become relevant in markets we aren't to date, I know it'll be here before we know it. Then it's the broader media offering; how do we embrace a wider audience and branch out to the lifestyle areas.
KS Wave CO developing that into a successful business will presumably require a lot of capital, are you prepared to fully invest against this opportunity and if so, where's that capital going to come from?
So we have a very robust business plan for the wave company. We have one pilot facility at the moment so it's still in its very early stages. There's multiple different arrangements we can use to role these wave systems out more broadly.
We remain committed to the ocean and our events in the water have become as important as ever
We've targeted six developments that have already begun or shortly be under way. Each of those arrangements is very different it depends on the market, it depends on how the WSL sees them being used, there's a lot of factors and variables that go into those different developments.
From a capital perspective, we're lucky to have a tremendous amount of ownership support but we also have various other sources as well 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 the reception we've had from anyone who's been up to Lemoore has been blown away.
It's accelerated our ambitions. We remain committed to the ocean and our events in the water have become as important as ever. The Wave Co is a game changer and we've seen it first hand from the athletes. The feedback continues to be pretty overwhelming.
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've now announced the first 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 emphasise 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.
The WSL's invested a lot of energy into social media, what do you think is next in terms of connecting to fans?
I think there's more to come from a digital stand point. It's the best way to connect with fans. We'll be doing a lot more on the digital front and you can expect to see a lot more innovation and great ideas from us.
With Kelly Slater's recent injury and rumours of retirement, do you see him taking a bigger role behind the scenes?
Not formally, no. Had the fortune of spending a bit of time with Kelly before and he seems pretty committed to his professional surfing career. His dedication, despite being injured, is second to none.
He's about as professional as it comes. He's got a few more events, maybe years, in him. But having said that he has been very supportive of me, trying to help me get up to speed. He's obsessed with making KS Wave Co being as good as it can be.
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. 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. High performance left this year? 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.
Do you have any more information about what the judging format and criteria will look like at the Surf Ranch?
Not anything specific. We're narrowing down the different format options right now.
It clearly needs to be very fair for the athletes from a judging perspectiveWe'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 for the athletes from a judging perspective.
Will there be an opportunity for fans to attend a surf ranch event?
Yes. We are planning to make it a public spectator event.
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.
Will the changes to the 2018 calendar have any impact on the QS?
The QS is an area that we're still looking at. We've released the first portion of the QS schedule and I think there will be a few changes later in the year. Probably more changes to come in 2019 in conjunction with the CT 2019 schedule. We think there's an opportunity to bolster the QS and help create it's own narrative.
When you get to the back end, the stories that are on the line and athletes getting onto the CT is actually really compelling. And to give that more of an opportunity and a window to be shared, we're excited to do so.