In prime position: Sophie Goldschmidt on her new CEO role at the World Surf League

Sophie Goldschmidt brings a wealth and range of sports marketing experience to her new role as chief executive of the World Surf League. She explains what has convinced her to move from London to Santa Monica and why she believes surfing is poised to make a global breakthrough.

In prime position: Sophie Goldschmidt on her new CEO role at the World Surf League

Sophie Goldschmidt is a veteran of the sports marketing industry, a highly regarded executive whose lengthy resume includes senior roles at England's Rugby Football Union (RFU), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), Adidas and, most recently, CSM Sport and Entertainment, where she served as group managing director.

Having earned a reputation as a master deal-maker and a rising star of the global sports business, Goldschmidt is now preparing to take on an entirely new challenge. On Wednesday the Englishwoman was announced as the new chief executive of the World Surf League (WSL), the California-based organisation which oversees elite professional surfing worldwide.

Announcing Goldschmidt’s appointment, which follows the departure of previous chief executive Paul Speaker in January, the WSL’s interim chief executive and lead investor Dirk Ziff described his new hire as “exactly what the league needs”, someone whose “experience, strong leadership and winning and inclusive management style will further elevate the league and grow engagement among fans around the world".

Goldschmidt will take up her new position next month in a move that will see her swap London for Santa Monica to become one of only a handful of women to head up a global sports property. Before then, she tells SportsPro why the WSL is “a model for other leagues”, explains how she became an avid surfing fan, and explains how she intends to take professional surfing to “a whole new level”.

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SP: How did your appointment come about and what particularly attracted you to the role, besides the opportunity to travel to exotic places and reside in Santa Monica?

SG: It was a fantastic process and journey, I’d say, to get to the point that we’re at today. A few months ago I had the opportunity to meet the ownership group and to fully understand the opportunity. I must admit I probably didn’t really appreciate the scope and scale of the opportunity, and the potential for surfing globally.

I spent a lot of time discussing with the key stakeholders and then began to understand that this was exactly the kind of opportunity that I was looking for with my next role. I think it’s a bit of a tipping point for the sport in general; a lot of good progress has been made since the new ownership took over almost four years ago, and I think surfing is very well positioned to go to the next level.

There’s a variety of reasons for why that’s the case. I think in general, as the world moves to being more obsessed and fascinated with experiences and that whole experiential world, surfing is in prime position to really capitalise on that. It’s sitting right at the crossover of where performance sport and lifestyle meets and connects. There’s therefore a great opportunity to broaden the audience of surfing.

I think the performances now and the elite aspects of surfing have reached amazing levels, so from that standpoint to really put surfing on the map in a much bigger way so that the athletes are really properly appreciated for their tremendous talents and become much more famous and household names. I think the sport is absolutely ready to capitalise on that.

Goldschmidt says her arrival at the WSL represents "a clean sheet of paper opportunity".

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics and surfing’s inclusion is a game-changer for the sport and I think further underlines how the popularity of the sport and the appreciation for athletic performance has really grown. Globally, I think markets that may not be as close to the sport at the moment as they’re going to be in the future create a fantastic opportunity for us there.

The [Kelly Slater] Wave Company and the new wave system technology, which now allows us to showcase in all parts of the world, was also a really interesting aspect of this role, and the fact that the WSL has taken that over. And in general, I think the way that they’ve built the strategy and the vision of surfing going forward.

They’ve been incredibly smart in terms of how they’ve aggregated all the rights - there is really a clean sheet of paper opportunity, which in sport doesn’t happen very often. Whether it’s all the events, the content and media, the relationship with the athletes, all those different elements are controlled centrally, and so we really can do what’s in the best interests of the sport without being hampered in the same way that other properties might be.

When I really understood all of those different factors, and that lifestyle component, which, given where the world is at the moment, I think it’s a perfect time to really elevate surfing to a whole new level. That was very exciting for me.

On the WSL’s website on Wednesday, beneath your introductory message there was some discussion about your surfing credentials, even if many of those who commented acknowledged your sports business acumen. What’s your experience of surfing to date, both on a personal and professional level, and what kind of reception are you expecting from surfing's hardcore?

The feedback from the announcement this morning has been very positive. I’ve been very pleased with the messages I’ve received and just what I’ve seen on social media. That’s been great to see and I think for the most part people can appreciate my experience is relevant in many ways.

In terms of my experiences and my journey with the sport, I’ve been a fan for a long time. I mean, I’m a massive sports fan in general and therefore surfing is something I’ve always had an interest in. But I guess I became more of an avid fan about a decade ago, after my first surfing experience whilst on holiday.

It really kind of gripped me and intrigued me. I’m a pretty competitive person and I’ve never been so bad at anything and had so much fun. I was like, ‘Wow, this goes against my personality.’ It had me hooked there from a different standpoint but I’m not going to hide from the fact that I’m a casual surfer. I wouldn't even say I’m an intermediate - it’s hard but I’m going to keep giving it a good go.

But I love what surfing stands for; I love the community nature of it. My partner is an avid surfer, so I’ve been on a lot of surfing holidays with him, and the sport also grabs me just from a visual standpoint. I think visually it’s an amazing sport to watch and it takes you to places you would never otherwise go. That’s part of the lifestyle aspect I really get, and it’s always been a draw for me.

So I’ve been a fan for a long time but obviously now it’s gone to a whole new level and I’m really immersing myself in the sport. I know what I know and I know what I don’t know, and I’ve got a lot to learn. I’m going to be very transparent about that but that’s also one of the exciting things about the opportunity.

I think it’s great to be able to re-learn a sport and take my knowledge to a whole new level. Hopefully the beauty of my experience is there are a lot of similarities and a lot of learnings I can bring from previous roles, but also surfing is very different and very unique. I love that about this role as well.

I’m going to be spending a lot of time doing a lot of listening, meeting all of our stakeholders who we have fantastic relationships with, and I think the ownership were interested in having me because they wanted to bring in an outside perspective. We’re fortunate to have many very knowledgeable and avid surfers within the organisation and we always will. They’re absolutely fundamental and we’re never going to lose that link.

It’s finding that balance between keeping the values and traditions of surfing at the heart of what we do, but we want to evolve and pioneer and do things differently as we further look to grow the sport and broaden the reach of our audience. I think that balance is really important.

Being true and authentic to surfing, and having those values and the passion of the hardcore fan at the centre of what we do, is absolutely paramount. I’ve experienced that in various roles so I think I get that balance and understand the importance of it. I just can’t wait to fully get on board.

We’re very ambitious and very bullish about what we can achieve, but I think the baseline and the building blocks that are in place are incredibly strong.

You’ve described the WSL as “a model for other leagues”. As someone who has been in sports marketing for some time, how would you assess the WSL’s reputation and standing in the global sports industry?

I think the reputation of the WSL and surfing in general is very positive. Again, when you look at the organisational structure and how it’s evolved and how it’s developing, the talent that the organisation has and the vision for the future, the investments that are being made in the areas that I’ve highlighted, I think the way that that’s been established and built is as good as any sports organisation in the world.

What we’re looking to do now, collectively, is to raise the profile of the sport. I think there are still a lot of people that we can get hooked and that can enjoy this great sport, whether that’s through raising the profile of our athletes or the organisation in general.

When you look at it, the WSL is still a very new brand - it’s only been around for three years. The ASP is obviously what we were for a long time before that, but actually what they’ve achieved from a brand perspective in that short time is fantastic. If you look at the social media numbers that we have compared to some very well established leagues, we are doing very well in that aspect.

I think we’ve still got a long way to go. We’re very ambitious and very bullish about what we can achieve, but I think the baseline and the building blocks that are in place are incredibly strong. Because of the structure and the ownership nature and the control that we have over the key assets and rights, I think we can build something very outstanding.

How will you look to distil that all into increased commercial revenues for the WSL? Samsung is no longer the title sponsor of the elite championship tour. Is that one sponsorship position, for example, you’ll look to fill as a priority, particularly given your past role in negotiating the WTA’s landmark title deal with Sony Ericsson several years ago?

Firstly, the commercial aspects of the organisation are obviously very important and are front and centre. We are in a very good position in that revenues have continued to grow in recent times and we have very ambitious objectives to continue to grow that area.

We’ve had quite a lot of interest in the title sponsorship, which is great. We’re in a fantastic position. I think me coming in will just give the opportunity to take a step back and make sure that we fully assess all of our options. We’ve got a lot of new assets and rights to put in the mix as well from a content perspective, with our athletes, with our events, with new formats for the sport, etc.

We’re not going to rush into anything. We’re in the fortunate position that we can be very strategic and we can take our time, but I know in the next few months we’ll have various commercial partnerships to announce. We’re in a very strong position.

You mention the control that the WSL has over its own rights and the investments the ownership has made in the digital and social side of the business. Coming from a marketing background, do you think the WSL is an inherently appealing property for prospective sponsors, particularly in this age of shifting media consumption?

I think the structure of how we develop and showcase all our content is great - it’s sort of a clean situation. I think also the fact that we appeal to a younger audience means that a digital-first mindset is absolutely fundamental and I think our content works so well - whether it’s ten seconds or ten hours of content, we kind of got it all and we can really shape and craft that in a way that really does give the audience what they want, whenever they want.

I think that puts us in a great position and we’ll continue to evolve that with new relationships. The pretty groundbreaking relationship that we have with Facebook is testament to how we do position ourselves. They were very keen to get involved with the WSL because of the passion that our fans have for surfing is unparalleled from a sports perspective.

Digital is going to continue to be an important part of how we communicate and build up our fanbase. We’ll continue to innovate and be pioneering on that front.

Goldschmidt wants to make "household names" of the WSL's top surfers, such as 2015 world champion Gabriel Medina.

To that end, what work needs to be done to raise the profile of the WSL’s athletes, and to what extent is the tour’s future success dependent upon having marketable stars that transcend surfing?

It’s definitely a focus for us but there’s more that we can do. These athletes have amazing personalities and great stories to tell, and we want to share those more broadly. We want to help make them famous. We’ll be working very closely with them. We’ve got great relationships with them so we can really be a valuable resource for helping them share their stories.

I think, through all the different content platforms that we have and all the new partnerships that we’ll be entering into, I think we can very quickly pivot to a situation where they are household names. I mean, in my mind, Kelly Slater is one of the best athletes ever and I think it’s tough to argue with that. We want him talked about in the same breath as all the other great athletes around the world.

He’s an 11-time world champion and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole generation that are right there with him, that are hugely competitive, that have great stories. The attitudes and the community nature of surfing allows us to showcase them in a quite different way, and we’re going to be spending a lot of time and effort making sure that we communicate that more broadly. It’s a great opportunity for us and can help really accelerate our growth.

In the interest of introducing surfing to new audiences, Tokyo 2020 will be a big opportunity but the WSL's acquisition of the Kelly Slater Wave Company could arguably be a game-changer for the sport worldwide. As well as being a revenue generator for the league, man-made wave pools are an obvious way to boost surfing participation in non-traditional, perhaps landlocked areas across the globe. Will that technology be an important factor in your plans for the future development of the WSL?

Absolutely - and I love that you’re so passionate about our new wave system! It’s great. I actually went to see it for the first time a few days ago, the test structure that we have, and it’s mind-blowing. The scale and scope of it is really very groundbreaking.

I think that’s another opportunity for the sport but those people who are maybe not as close to surfing, they wouldn't necessarily think of surfing as being one of the most innovative and technologically advanced sports. It absolutely is when you look at the number of firsts there have been with VR and 360 technology, what we’ve done on social media, our relationship with Facebook, which was the first of its kind. Now, the wave system just takes that to a new level.

I think we’re very well placed for any organisation or brand that wants to be associated with hi-tech and innovation and the wave system just underpins that. There’s a wide variety of applications for it, from a teaching standpoint, from a performance-development standpoint.

Clearly there’s a great opportunity to roll out new competitions and new event formats that we’ll absolutely be taking advantage of, but ultimately it’s about delivering the best high-performance wave that can allow the sport to go to new places and be seen by new fans. It’s going to open so many doors for us.

It’s great and, again, it’s part of the WSL’s assets, an area that we can roll out and introduce in absolutely the right way. It really is a game-changer and I’m not sure there’s anything as technologically exciting in sport at the moment. We can’t wait to share it with the rest of the world and there’ll be more to come on that in the very near future.

I feel very privileged to have been given this opportunity. I think it’s great that more women are leading various organisations and that should be happening. 

Last year the WSL teamed up with Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to fund and further research into the health of the planet’s oceans. What role can the league, and sport in general, play in protecting the environment, and how will that role factor into your plans?

It’s absolutely fundamental to everything we do throughout the organisation. It’s called WSL Pure, and we’ll actually be sharing the enhanced vision and objectives of that with the rest of the world in the coming months.

What I love about it is it’s authenticity to surfing. Every organisation is obviously focused on CSR and having the right relationships, but our partnership [with Columbia University] is such a natural fit. What we are delivering is absolutely closely linked with surfing and the surfing community believes we need to leave the ocean in a better place. The amount that’s going into research and what we’re investing into different programmes is very significant and we want to be a leader in this area.

You’ll see it across pretty much every area of our business and the profile of it, and how we position and talk about it, will become much more high profile moving forward. It’s an important area and something I’ll be spending a lot of time on.

You’re set to become one of only a handful of women to head up a global sports property. That’s a story in itself but to what extent do you think your appointment is a sign of progress when it comes to gender equality in the sports business?

I feel very privileged to have been given this opportunity. I think it’s great that more women are leading various organisations and that should be happening. I think the owners of the WSL are being very progressive on this front.

I think equality across the sport is something they take very seriously and that’s been underlined through the pay parity among the athletes, the additional investment that’s gone into the women’s side of surfing since the new owners became involved in the sport. It goes without saying - it’s the way it should be and we’ll continue to work very closely and promote and build the sport for both women and male surfers and fans in the coming years.

What will the WSL look like in five years’ time? Will you look at possible calendar changes, perhaps by adding more events in new markets?

I think it’ll evolve significantly. We know that change is happening at a faster pace than ever before and we want to be on the forefront of innovation and growth within the sport and entertainment sector. So we’ll see a lot of positive changes.

From a calendar perspective, obviously with the new wave system that’s going to unlock important new event opportunities. In five years’ time we’ll have had the 2020 Olympics, which I’m sure will be a huge success and will definitely be another way for us to broaden and grow our appeal in new markets.

Even without the Olympics, our global relevance and global expansion will continue to grow and in five years’ time our footprint will look very different. Because of the content that we have, we’ll look to go even wider with the type of programming that we have. I expect our fanbase to significantly grow - that’s going to help the profile of the athletes.

Really across the board, that’s what’s so exciting for me about this opportunity. The sport has come so far and is in such good shape but the runway ahead is massive. I think we’ll take tremendous strides in the next five years and hopefully just make this great sport even more famous.

Goldschmidt was speaking to SportsPro Americas editor Michael Long.