The World Surf League (WSL) released its 2018 schedule of events covering the men’s and women’s Championship Tours (CT), Qualifying Series (QS), Pro Junior and Longboard tours as well as the WSL Big Wave Tour (BWT).Key changes to the 2018 Championship Tour calendars include last week’s announcement of the CT event at Surf Ranch, Indonesia replacing Fiji, the world’s best women surfers joining the men at Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa, as well as the removal of Cassias, Portugal and Trestles, USA for 2018 (both markets planned to return to the schedule in the future).
“We’re excited about the release of the 2018 calendar, which includes some important changes designed to ensure we continue to champion the best surfing across the world and with a view to delivering long-term investment for the sport,” said WSL CEO, Sophie Goldschmidt.
Goldschmidt fronted questions from media on the day of the schedule was released and amongst the topline observations was the inclusion of J-bay on the WSL women’s tour and additions of Keramas in Bali and the much-lauded arrival of KSWCO at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore California. ASBMAG reached out to WSL for more information and we were provided with the following 25minute audio interview which we’ve edited below. We’ll update this story as more information is forthcoming from WSL.
Question: What’s most relevant about your background and skills to the challenge ahead and also what can surfing learn from other commercially successful mainstream sports that you have been involved in?
Sophie: It’s been interesting I’ve been in the role now almost three months and I think sort of each day actually a lot of my experience becomes more and more relevant. I obviously have 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 sort of really on the inside and understanding all the different attributes, the opportunities, the challenges; has been a fascinating challenge but I think all sports can learn from each other but I think surfing also has a very unique opportunity that’s why I took the role. I think surfing can do things that other sports can’t. I think the appeal of it in so many different ways to fans around the world really is very unique and I think we’re very bullish and I feel very excited about the future of the sport. I think this organization surfing in general has always taken a very innovative progressive kind of attitude to how we can sort of broaden and grow it. So, I’m really excited to be a part of that and I can’t wait to continue to take advantage of some of these opportunities.
Question: What are professional surfings strongest point?
Sophie: I think it goes back to the core of the products. These athletes are fantastic. They are 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 talent I think should be heralded around the world. I think that’s one of our goals is to try and help make them become even more household names. I think they should be celebrated much more broadly. I think some of the locations we go to, we have just added a couple of new ones this year are just spectacular. It’s a very unique opportunity for the sport as well. I think the new technology that’s coming in whether it’s surf ranch whether it’s some of the broadcast technology surfing is really innovative and I think that is a real plus for the sports. I think in addition to that the Olympic opportunity is hugely exciting one that can really take the sport to new markets. So, yes, to be honest, the opportunities are pretty endless and I see very few limitations. I think it’s trying to see state disciplined and focus on what could make the biggest impact and how collectively we can sort of find that balance between absolutely holding on to such important traditions and values of the sports while also pushing the boundaries in the right ways so that we can attract an even broader audience and help this great sports grow even further.
Question: The new WSL has done a great job in elevating the product of pro-surfing and invested heavily in that for the past few years. In your initial overview of the business, what are the areas you have prioritized to address and add momentum?
Sophie: I think there are a few things that we’ve been focused on I mean these calendar announcements and getting the 2018 calendar right has been a big focus that started before I joined but I’ve spent a lot of time. I mean, it’s a core area of the sports that we absolutely want to evolve and as we’ve alluded to previously this is sort of a step in a longer-term transition period and there will be more changes to come in the future but we’re going to be very thoughtful about how we do that. I think we’ve still got an opportunity to even further enhance our broadcast and content offering. I think where we’re at and the developments over the last few years have been fantastic. The fact that fans can watch live any of our events for free is a great position to be in but we’re really keen to sort of broaden our content offering. So, that’s a big focus of ours as well. I think working even more closely with the athletes to help further enhance and grow their profiles. I think in certain markets they’re hugely popular than others, there is an opportunity to sort for further development and then I’m not sure there’s anything that can sort of help grow the sport faster than building stronger emotional connections with those athletes around the world. So, those are a few of the areas where initially focused on.
Question: How are you going to make the WSL profitable since it’s (historically) drawn on and requires constant underwriting. How does that change and how soon can start WSL return to profit?
Sophie: So, we’re in a very fortunate position. We continue to grow our revenues. So, the demand in the WSL continues to grow but because of the great support of our ownership. We’re also being very strategic about how we grow the sport and 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. So, we feel very good about the position that we are in and really do take that long-term view.
Question: How do you think about the audience that you are serving and what’s the opportunity if any that hasn’t been fully addressed?
Sophie: So, I think I mean for the most part numbers viewership audience especially across all our digital channels are pretty staggering and I mean the growth we’ve seen over the last few years has been significant and it’s an area we have invested heavily in. It’s really paid off. I think also where we’re fortunate that a lot of the audience that follows us is pretty young skews pretty young. I think a lot of sports would love to have the kind of demographic profile that we have. So I think we’re starting from a very very strong position but what we keen to do is broaden the audience outside of just hardcore surf fans who are going to be hugely important to us but I don’t think it’s neither all. I think we can still continue to appeal to them and produce content and material that’s very relevant but I think the casual fan can be hooked to surfing in other ways and so we are looking broaden our content offering. I think from an educational standpoint, we can simplify some of our broadcast and the live events so that we can make it easier for people to engage with us. I think when we talk about the athletes and building those emotional connections really bringing their personalities to life. I think those will great opportunities to engage a new broader audience.
Question: How will (former WSL – CEO) Paul Speaker legacy influence the way you plan to do things and how you are going to do things differently?
Sophie: Well, first of all, I must give a huge amount of credit to everyone who’s been involved in the WSL to date. I think I’ve been really pleasantly surprised and it’s a great position to be in starting from such a strong baseline. So, we have huge credit to everyone that’s got us to this place. I think for me, you know I’m still learning. I’m learning as quickly as I can. I’ve met a huge number of 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 sort of views and opinions but for me it’s very much a team effort. And I think we’re very fortunate to have a fantastic team and all sorts of people that we sort of tap into to make sure that we’re making the best decisions and trying to stay ahead of the game. We want to be innovative. We want to kind of push the boundaries and really visionary with how we’re trying to grow the sports. I think that’s sort of what surfing is all about. It’s been very pioneering throughout the years. We want to just continue in that vein.
Question: What do you think a woman at the top will add to the sport primarily dominated by men?
Sophie: 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 praised and people have been incredibly helpful supportive and very welcoming. So, I think I actually, that surfing is very open-minded. I think that’s again another great characteristic. So, for me it’s just been a pleasure so far to be involved in the sport.
Question: With the big wave tour, surf ranch and surfing’s inclusion the 2020 Olympic. What’s next in terms of growth in the sport at a professional level?
Sophie: I think we’ve still got a long way to go to build on all of those key pillars, a mean the big wave tool we’ve only been involved in it for the last couple of years. We’ve just started Mavericks which hugely excited about that I think takes the tool to a whole new level. The K.S. wave code, we’ve only had a test event. We will be having our first the C.T event next year. Yes, so that’s going to be a huge learning experience. Well, we have a real business plan and strategy for that company which is fully integrated within the WSL. We are still testing tweaking improving the technology. We’ll learn a lot from [unclear] perspective to this next year. So, yeah, I think there’s still such a long way to go with all those different areas. 2020 Olympic is another massive opportunity. It allows us to become relevant in markets that maybe aren’t to date and I know it’ll be here before all before we know it. So, I think yes those are clearly big areas for us to focus on and then the many others I’ve mentioned whether it’s just a broader media offering. How we embrace a broader audience potentially through also broaching a little bit more into the lifestyle areas as well as being obviously very focused on elite competitions as well. So, there are several things that we’re looking at.
Question: Can KSWCO develop into a successful business as it presumably requires a lot of capital. Are you prepared to fully invest in this opportunity and if so where is that capital going to come from?
Sophie: So, we have a very robust business plan for KSWCO and it’s still also is a development. I mean, we have one pilot facility at the moment so it’s still in its very early stages and there’s multiple different sorts of arrangements that we can look at to sort of roll these out-wave systems out more broadly. The good news is, we have a huge amount of interest. We’ve already targeted six developments that have already begun or would shortly be underway and each of those arrangements is very different. It depends on the markets. It depends on how the WSL sees them being useful. There’s a lot of different factors and variables that go into those different developments and from a capital perspective we’re fortunate to have tremendous amount of ownership support but we also have various other sources as well very key to invest. So, again we’re trying to be very thoughtful about it and very strategic. We’re not in a huge rush although well I guess the reception that we’ve had I think anyone has been up to them more has been pretty blown away. So, it’s new and definitely sort of probably accelerated our ambition excitement around just how meaningful these can be for surfing but we remain also very committed to the ocean and our events in the ocean have become as important as ever but yeah I think the way the (KSWCO) company is a game changer and we’ve seen it first-hand the athletes a lot of them took part in the test event we had in September and we’ve had dozens of them out there since then and the feedback continues to be pretty overwhelming.
Question: With that investment in KSWCO, do you see any effect on the ownership group?
Sophie: It would really, I mean, the owners are clearly identified as it relates to the WSL and nothing really changes on that front.
Question: And how will the network integrate with the event side. We will touch on this briefly and what does the network look like in terms of scale when it’s fully dealt out?
Sophie: Yes, so we’re working on the rollout plan at the moment as I mentioned we’ve now launched or announced one event next year as our first CT in September. We expect to have more post, 2018 but the number and how many and how that fits into to our schedule is still to be determined. I guess we just need to reemphasize that our ocean events remain as important to us. It’s not either / or. We think we can do that and also in the right way where it strategically makes sense to compliment those as well.
Question: The WSL invested a lot of energy in mobile phones and social media at work think it may have been connecting with fans and what you doing to pursue that?
Sophie: I think there’s more to come from additional standpoint. I mean that that is our future we’re in the midst of it. I think we’ve got off to a really good start but we’re rolling out all sorts of new technical developments and content offerings over the time. It is the best way to connect with fans especially the next generation; very appealing to that demographic. We’ve had some fascinating research done recently that just shows how aspirational surfing is. How cool it is. It’s a sport and lifestyle the people want to be associated with it. So, we’ll be doing a lot more on the digital front. We will definitely continue to be for the digital-first company and you can expect to see a lot more innovation and some great new ideas from us in the space.
Question: With Kelly Slater’s recent rumors of an imminent retirement. Do you see him taking a bigger role behind the scene?
Sophie: Not formally, no- I have the fortune of spending a bit of time with Kelly before I started and he certainly seems pretty committed to his professional surfing career. I mean his dedication despite being injured is second to none having worked with a lot of great athletes during my career. He’s about as professional as they come. So yeah, I believe in that he’s got a few more events probably years left in him but having said that he has been very supportive of me trying to help get me up to speed. I’ve asked him for his views and opinions on various things he is sort of in for informally involved with the Wave Co. He’s obsessed with making that technology as great as it can be and just gets so excited when people experience it. So, he’s definitely, for me involved from that standpoint but yeah, he’s clearly very committed to is professional career and I don’t think that’s going to change anything with today.
Question: I’m moving on the calendar change for 2018. There’s not a single high performance left on the roster next year. What are your thoughts on that?
Sophie: Yeah, it’s something we have discussed a lot during this process and I think it’s kind of cyclical of this is happened in the past. Fiji has come off the schedule a few times over the last decade. I think what I would expect, probably the vast majority of our set events to be pretty consistent I think there will be some rotation with others and I think there will be changes in the future. So yes, there’s no high performance left this year but I wouldn’t expect that to be the same in 2019.
Interviewer: What considerations were made when taking the Fiji of the schedule for next year?
Sophie: It really came down to a lack of an investment, a lack of financial support from the Fiji government which was different to what we’ve been led to believe and so we were delighted with the addition of Keramas which is a truly fantastic venue from everything I’ve heard. I haven’t had the chance to go there yet. I can’t wait to go there and in 2018. I’m really excited to bring a C.T. event there as are our surfers and the rest of all stakeholders.
Interviewer: Do you have any more information about what the format and judging criteria might look like at the judging?
Sophie: Not anything specific, we’re sort of narrowing down different format actions at the moment and we’ve been having a lot of dialogue with the commission office and surfer’s reps and others who are very close to this area. So yeah, I mean we’re convinced we’re going to come up with a great format. It will be different to our original format said I think it’s a great opportunity for us to try something different but it clearly needs to be you know very fair and something that works for the athletes from a judging perspective but also exciting for fans and broadcasters as well.
Question: What are the opportunity for fans to attend the surf ranch CT event next year?
Sophie: Yes, we are planning to make that a public spectator event.
Question: And are there any plan to charge for webcast next year or will events continue to be webcast live and free on worldsurfleague.com?
Sophie: Yes, all of our events next year will be broadcast live and for free on our platforms.
Question: Will the changes to the 2018 calendar have an effect on the QS or open any new opportunity to the QS surfer?
Sophie Yeah, the Q.S. is an area that we’re still looking at a lot so in there we’ve released the first portion of the Q.S. schedule I think there will be a few changes later in the year probably more changes coming in 2019 in conjunction with the CT 2019 schedule but we think there is an opportunity to really further bolster the Q.S. series and help create its own narrative I think you know especially when you get to the back end of the Q.S. some of the of the storylines are most on the line with the different athletes trying to make it’s the C.T. We think is very compelling and so to actually to give them, more of an opportunity and window to be shared. We are excited to do so we’ll be spending a lot of time looking at that over the next couple of months.
Conclusion: Sophie. Just to reiterate the media are vital and valued partners for the WSL. As we look to growing this sport I really see us as being in it together. So, we really appreciate your interest and if we can do anything to help please reach out. I’ve had a chance to meet some of you not all of you yet but look forward to doing so in the near future. So, thank you for joining today.