Sophie Goldschmidt's cool job: World Surf League CEO


World Surf League CEO Sophie Goldschmidt (left) talks with six-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore at women's Maui Pro 2017 in Honolua Bay.

As an executive at major sports leagues like the NBA and WTA, Sophie Goldschmidt had faced her share of challenges. But not like the one she had to last July, during her first week on the job as CEO of the World Surf League.

"Shark attacks," Goldschmidt said with a laugh. "The day they announced I was joining, I came early to the office, all excited, and was going to a bunch of media. Everyone's running around the office. That's when [the Corona Open J-Bay] was going on, and there was a shark sighting. That doesn't usually come into my crisis comms plan."

The event was temporarily halted and finished without incident.

Managing the ever-changing nature of surfing is just one part of Goldschmidt's job, which came to her in the nick of time: She was about to sign on to head up a content company when the WSL reached out.

"It was pretty out of the blue. I was like, 'Wow, this really exists?' It just felt right. A job's never felt so right, and I'm loving it," said Goldschmidt, who previously headed up marketing for the Rugby Football Union and, while at the WTA, brokered an $88 million title sponsorship with Sony Ericsson.


On the day the World Surf League announced Sophie Goldschmidt would be its new CEO, there was a shark sighting, a new challenge for her.

The WSL job would require her to move across the pond -- and then some -- from London to Santa Monica, California, where the league is headquartered.

Since signing on, Goldschmidt, the first woman CEO of the WSL, has had her hand in everything from the league's exclusive Facebook partnership -- that is estimated to generate $30 million in licensing revenue for the league -- to negotiating with the mayor of Honolulu for contest permits to changing up the WSL's event calendar, all while immersing herself in surf culture.

"I've really enjoyed that challenge," she said. "Learning many aspects completely from scratch has been really interesting for me. I think these are incredibly exciting times for the sport, which I knew coming into it. Otherwise, quite frankly, I wouldn't have taken the opportunity."

Surfing, Goldschmidt said, is at a global tipping point: It's set to debut at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. In 2016, the WSL acquired the Kelly Slater Wave Co., where a championship tour contest and the first-ever Founders' Cup, which will feature man-made waves, will be held at its Surf Ranch location in Lemoore, California, this year.

"We're already focused on growing the sport in every region of the world. There's so many different ways to associate with surfing, if you've got any kind of passion for the ocean or sailing or swimming or whatever it might be," said Goldschmidt, who grew up in London where, she noted, there "aren't a lot of waves."

In her own words, Goldschmidt reveals how she plans to grow the sport from semi-niche to mainstream, what she envisions as the future of surfing and why she's most comfortable out of her comfort zone.

My first 'board' meeting

I actually didn't get into surfing 'til I was in my mid-20s, when I went on a holiday to visit my sister who was living in Bali. And as you do when you go to Bali, you have a surf lesson. That was when I first got intrigued by the sport, actually because it's really hard. I sort of pride myself on that I'm semi-athletic and have a bit of coordination. I'm also very competitive, so when I tried surfing for the first time, it just floored me by how difficult it was. But I loved it.

I remember the first time I ever tried it, I had gotten up once in three hours, but I had a blast. Like, how can I be so bad at something and actually enjoy it? It kind of went against my normal psyche in these situations. Since then, I've become closer to it. I'm still a very average surfer, but I have always found the sport fascinating and beautiful and very adventurous.

The day they announced I was joining ... there was a shark sighting. That doesn't usually come into my crisis comms plan.
Sophie Goldschmidt

A sporty start

I grew up playing loads of sports. I was pretty obsessed with sport. When I was a teenager, I dedicated myself to tennis, and that was my passion and real love. I was fortunate to get a tennis scholarship to Baylor University in Texas. I played there for four years, stayed on, did a business degree at grad school and was the assistant coach as well. During grad school, I got an internship at Adidas. While I was there, a job opened up and very fortunately I was offered it. That led to a job in sports marketing in tennis and soccer. And then that led to my next role at WTA.

I'm pretty convinced -- and not meaning to be negative because I'm very passionate and proud of being from Britain -- but if I had started my career in the U.K., I would have never have had the same opportunities. The U.S., especially on the sports side, is much more advanced and aggressive as far as the size of the industry.

Making new waves

I think the Olympics is a big opportunity to grow. Now, countries that previously were not focused on surfing, either because it's not in their culture or they're landlocked, are now looking at the opportunity slightly differently. I think you combine that with our wave technology, so now we can build these facilities anywhere in the world. In theory, any country could have waves where you can compete and practice at a world-class level.

One of the challenges for us is the uncertainty of when our events are actually going to take place, whereas in a wave system, you push a button and there you go, 8 o'clock on a Saturday night. We're close to securing the land and will have to go through the permitting, but if we get a facility built, I hope there's a good chance they would use it for the 2020 Olympics within the Tokyo district. We also have plans for building facilities in Florida and Brazil.

Watching the waves for free

We feel for our long-term growth, we need to invest in technology in our events, in the infrastructure that we're building out around our operations, in the Kelly Slater Wave Company, in our marketing and communications resources. I wouldn't say we're niche, but we're not nearly as mainstream as we'd like to be. We're really in audience-growth mode. We were so excited to expand our Facebook deal, which was pretty groundbreaking for us. One of the key reasons we went with it is because it's free. You don't have to pay to watch content on Facebook, and that's really important to us. Maybe some at some point down the road, we will have some kind of subscription service for content, but I think, philosophically, it's always going to be important that a significant amount of our content is available for free. It's kind of the surfing ethos to a certain extent.

On community and closing the wave gap

The gap between the men and the women is closing so quickly. The men comment on it all the time. We had an event at the Kelly Slater Wave Co. Surf Ranch with our top 10 men and women, and they were surfing exactly the same wave, and some of the women were doing it better than the men. While it's been professional for awhile, it's really only since the last four or five years that it's really been elevated, and they've really had the same kind of platform. The pace of change is phenomenal.

Constant learning curves

When people ask what's the hardest part about this job, it's trying to prioritize. We get bombarded by opportunities, and it's what's going to make the biggest difference to the sport and the league and which opportunities will make the biggest impact.

I like a challenge. Not that I get bored easily, but I kind of like to be out of my comfort zone. I like to learn new things, so that's probably kept me moving in different directions and different experiences. You never know where the next opportunity is going to come from, so you have to be really open-minded, I think, early on in your career. To have too specific of a plan can be limiting. I've worked really hard to establish great relationships. I love socializing and being with people. A career is not a straight slope. You've gotta be tenacious. You've gotta be patient. Don't take things too personally. Work really hard and be very committed.

You've got to be a flexible and adaptable. The only thing that's certain is that things are going to change, and if you're not moving forward, you're only moving backward.

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