THE STATE OF WOMEN’S SURFING

If someone asked you to explain the state of women’s professional surfing, how would you go about it?

You’d need an overview of some kind: a selection of varied perspectives from which to see the whole, sprawling landscape of the sport.

Earlier this year ASB’s Jock Serong got such a view: sitting down after a surf with a group of women who bring a wide range of industry perspectives to bear. Among them were Sally Fitzgibbons, current world number-two and genuine social media juggernaut; Brooke Farris, GM of Digital at Rip Curl Australia; and Macy Callaghan, the 16-year-old phenom from Avoca Beach who’s the current world junior champion.

The idea for the conversation came from tech company Canon Australia, but this was much more than an exercise in branding. Nothing was hidden. No edits were made to please the sponsors. As well as discussing social media, image making and the role of the corporates in promoting women, we asked our panellists afterwards what they thought about the appointment of new WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt.

What follows is a quick tour through some of their thoughts.

***

Gathered around a table on the lawn, the women are laughing at the unfamiliarity of it all: the lawn chairs are sinking into the turf after an overnight deluge. Someone’s knitted top is making fuzz on the lapel mic. A small dog barks at the boom mic, perhaps sensing romance there. The film crew have the sun behind them: they’re thinking about their shadows.

Brooke Farris opens by observing how positive it is that brands look to their athletes to represent them: “Whether you put the rash vest on and you’re in the water and competing, (or) on the land, you’re being you and you can participate and showcase a surfing lifestyle to the world.”

To put her point another way, the cameras are there, all the time. They’re hovering over this very conversation. If you’re sixteen and world champ, is that a lot to digest? Not according to Macy. “When there’s cameras in the water you just try and do your best and forget about them.”  The rewards for that level of concentration are evident: “I think my favourite shot of me was in Hawaii last year – I was the only girl out there and there were heaps of guys, as in just to show that I’m strong as well,  and they put it in a couple of magazines, so I was beyond stoked.”

***

The women are crowded around a picture of the Queen of It All: Layne Beachley with the Bells trophy. The image takes us down a brief detour about Bells: when Tyler came runner-up in 2014, she gave her trophy to Brooke. “I can’t possibly keep this,” Brooke said. “How about I just hold it for you, like a museum?” Tyler shrugged. “No worries,” she replied. “Cos I’m going to win a Bell.”

The Layne photo is so uniquely her: the larrikin grin and steely eyes. “I started working for Layne when I was 21,” says Brooke. “It was meant to be for three months and it ended up being almost six years. And when I was working for her she started her Aim for the Stars Foundation, she started running the richest women’s surfing event in the history of the sport with a hundred thousand dollars prizemoney, and then she won seven world titles, so that’s quite an adventure really. There’s so much that happened in that period of time. We didn’t know back then that we were building a ‘Layne Beachley’ brand: she was just Layne, right? She just sets goals and goes ‘I’m gonna get that, I’m gonna do this. You can help me, great, let’s go ahead and do it.’ So it’s pretty inspiring stuff.”

Sal agrees. “I get so much inspiration from Layne. I saw the footprint she left on the sport and I guess we both jumped off the conveyor belt of what’s supposed to happen and how you’re supposed to play out your career. I just had that feeling that I wanted to stand on my own two feet and that I had done my apprenticeship.”

 

“I get so much inspiration from Layne. I saw the footprint she left on the sport and I guess we both jumped off the conveyor belt of what’s supposed to happen and how you’re supposed to play out your career” Sally Fitzgibbons

 

“Where were you when Blue Crush happened?” asks Sal, still rolling with the Q&A thing. Macy declares it the best movie of all time. “I watched it on repeat for like three weeks straight.” But Brooke’s not so sure – “There were certainly some cringe-worthy moments in it, just because when you know surfing, you can see the Hollywood side of it.”

“Yep, very stereotyped,” Sal agrees, before Brooke does a one-eighty. “Yeah, but for what it did, now we look at all these female empowerment movies and documentaries and it was ahead of its time. It took these girls and put them out at Pipeline and just went ‘this is normal, this is a young girl going for her dreams and it’s a great thing’. What that did for our sport and for females I think is probably a little underrated.”

***

The sun starts slipping low over the lawn, and as only Torquay can do, the temperature drops about ten degrees in a minute or two. We grab the table and run it further out in the hope of capturing the last of the sun. By the time the crew have reassembled the lights and snaked all the cords out of shot, the girls are debating social media.

“Think about the effort it takes to create one piece of social media content,” says Sal. “It’s so emotive and powerful, but it’s hard to continually replicate it and to keep up with the speed and demand. Someone sees an Instagram image – three seconds and it’s gone. It might’ve taken days to create.”

“It’s a challenge for each of you, what you show of yourself on social,” says Brooke. “As a sponsor of athletes, we (Rip Curl) can see the number of people you have following you, the number of likes, the engagement, how popular someone is. So while the athlete has been empowered to have this connection with an audience, we’ve also been empowered to see how they’re connecting. We sponsor athletes because of how they perform, the person they are, and as long as their social channels are a reflection of them as a person then it’s always going to feel natural.”

 

“As a sponsor of athletes, we (Rip Curl) can see the number of people you have following you, the number of likes, the engagement, how popular someone is.” Brooke Farris

 

There’s an expectation that weighs on Macy in a conversation like this. At sixteen, social channels are as normal to her as breathing the air. So in some way it’s comforting to hear that she battles too. “I feel like sometimes I struggle with trying to keep posting things that my sponsors want to see. I’m a surfer – I want to go surfing. I want to be myself, but on the other hand I love Instagram, so…it works both ways.”

What about trolls? Are they limited to political discourse, or do they pick on surfers? “Recently I’d had a couple of results,” says Macy, “and I’d been putting myself out onto social media. You always get weird guys and weird people. You get fans as well, but there’s also some hurtful things that can be put on social media. But I don’t really care.” She laughs again, rolls her eyes. “I love myself.”

Brooke watches this closely, maybe not as ready to laugh it off. “How do you handle it?”

“I’ve got a lot of support behind me,” says Macy. “And I know that there’s my sponsors, my family and friends. Those other people…they’re not a part of my life. I’m just here to do what I want to do and I love it, so I’m just gonna keep doing it.”

“All my social media, it’s always been me,” adds Sal. “No one can talk like you, or even the way they might edit a photo. I love the whole process, and it’s a proud feeling to put something out. When I look back it’s a bit of a personal diary – you flick back over your own feed, ‘oh wow, this is where I’ve been, this is what I did.’ And I can feel that exact moment.”

***

This somehow leads into a discussion about the things in surfing you’d change, the stuff that these  women would throw out and rebuild. It starts with a comment from Sal about bringing back paddle battles, but turns into something bigger. “For me it’s a hard question,” says Brooke. “What would I change, because I’ve been around it now for about twenty years, and I feel like each one of us here has the power to make that change. So I wouldn’t sit back saying ‘oh, I wish it was like this’ because we have the opportunity. We’ve got the platform, we’re all sitting here chatting about it. We all care about the sport, so it’s kind of up to us. I think about you, Macy, you’re sixteen – what do you want to lead the change on?”

No pressure. The cameras swing.

“I just want to see surfing progress,” she says. “I want to be part of that next generation that really steps the surfing up and I wanna surf bigger. I think girls are just as good as the boys: we have the ability and we’ve just gotta keep pushing ourselves.” Okay, so no storming the barricades, then. But if you’ve seen Macy surf, you’ll know that ‘just as good as the boys’ is no idle threat.

 

“I want to be part of that next generation that really steps the surfing up and I wanna surf bigger. I think girls are just as good as the boys: we have the ability and we’ve just gotta keep pushing ourselves.” Macy Callahan

 

*****

At the management level, professional surfing is now living out that creed of ‘just as good as the boys.’ The recent appointment of Sophie Goldschmidt as CEO of the WSL has the potential to put women’s interests front and centre in the sport for years to come. With this role, she becomes one of the few female executives to lead a global sports league for both male and female professional athletes.

Due to take over from interim CEO Dirk Ziff around the time we’re going to press, Goldschmidt has relocated from London, where she served as Group Managing Director with CSM Sport and Entertainment. In that role she had global responsibility for developing new business initiatives, along with managing the group’s brand development and marketing. Known to be passionate about surfing, Goldschmidt is expected to bring strong relationships from other previous executive roles; in the Rugby Football Union, National Basketball Association (NBA), Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), and Adidas. The aspect of that history that perhaps holds most interest for surfing’s future is her work with women’s tennis: as vice president in charge of sponsorship and marketing for the WTA, Goldschmidt was instrumental in negotiating a ground-breaking title sponsor deal – the largest sponsorship in the history of women’s sports.

“The scope of the role is a tremendous challenge,” says Brooke. “When we think of WSL, we often think of the upper echelon and those competing for a World Title. However, the CEO’s role encompasses every level of the sport and creates the career pathway for aspiring surfers in every part of the globe. It’s that balancing act of monetising the Tours yet ensuring the next generation also has the platform in which they can perform and grow their skills.”

When asked what she thinks the real-world changes in the women’s side of the sport will be, Brooke answers, “There have been many positive changes for women’s professional surfing since the change of ownership, prize-money parity and more events being key progressions. I wouldn’t say that the future of women’s surfing relies on having a female CEO – it relies on having a clear strategy for the sport and a team of people whom all share that same vision and mission. There’s no doubt Sophie’s past experience will serve the sponsors, fans and athletes incredibly well.”

 

“There have been many positive changes for women’s professional surfing since the change of ownership, prize-money parity and more events being key progressions. I wouldn’t say that the future of women’s surfing relies on having a female CEO. ” Brooke Farris

 

An early test for Goldschmidt will be the once-in-a-generation opportunity to capitalise on the Kelly Slater Wave Company purchase and the inclusion of surfing in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Goldschmidt has also outlined commitment to athletes, fan experience and further globalisation as key pillars for the WSL going forward. She has already said she intends to advance athlete development programs to build authentic interest in the sport in addition to tailoring fan experiences to be as immersive as possible through new formats, live content and other media.

In terms of the Australian landscape, one of the key endorsements Goldschmidt would welcome is that of seven-times world champ Layne Beachley. Approached by ASB for comment on the appointment, Layne was immediately on the positive: ““Her appointment is a fantastic choice. She’s obviously very experienced and respected as a leader and I look forward to working with her in my capacity as Chair of Surfing Australia and (as an) avid supporter of professional surfing.”

 

“Her (WSL – CEO Sophie Goldschmidt) appointment is a fantastic choice. She’s obviously very experienced and respected as a leader and I look forward to working with her in my capacity as Chair of Surfing Australia and (as an) avid supporter of professional surfing.” Layne Beachley

 

*****

Part of the change, part of the progression for women’s surfing is going to be the Olympics in 2020. Sal and Macy are squarely in the frame. “I actually couldn’t believe it when it was announced,” says Brooke, “because I didn’t think it’d ever happen in my lifetime. And the platform that’s going to provide the sport is an incredible opportunity for both men and women.”

It’s going to be hard to make the team, according to Brooke, “because I think there’ll be a really small number of athletes per country. And I don’t think it’ll ever compare to a world title in surfing – that’s the pinnacle: you have ten or eleven events and it’s the best-of. But having the surfers become household names, especially should an Australian win a gold medal…it’s going to be a fascinating time.”

For Sal, who had to choose between surfing and a promising career as a track athlete, the Olympics represents a closing of the circle. “As an eight-year-old I said I’m going to be a world champion, or an Olympic gold medallist. Like it had to be an ‘or’.” Brooke thinks “it’ll keep Steph around for longer, (and) it’s lit a fire under Tyler. And then there’s you (Sal) who’s dreamt of it her whole life.”

Sal ends the discussion with her thoughts about how strongly she thinks women’s surfing is growing in this country, and I’m thinking as I’m hearing these words that it’s easy to reduce competitive surfers to an abstraction: they’re a body moving over a wave – until they remind you of what burns inside them. That they’re living and breathing and fighting for something they hold important. “And now I see Macy and the next crop,” Sal’s saying. “There were certain definitive moments where women said ‘this isn’t supposed to be done, but I’m doing it.’ And I want to leave it a little bit better than I found it, and then Macy will carry it on from there.”

 

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