Meet the British woman carving a new path for surfing

Posted at 10:08 AM, Sep 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-17 12:40:23-04

Surfing is on a “special journey,” she says. Not to some far-flung beach with white sand, swaying palms and perfect waves, but into the mainstream.

It’s also at a “tipping point,” with creations such as Kelly Slater’s artificial Surf Ranch wave hosting pro tour events, equal pay for male and female pro surfers, and the prospect of surfing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games set to revolutionize the sport.

That’s according to Sophie Goldschmidt, the chief executive of the World Surf League, the body which runs professional surfing.

Goldschmidt’s job is to carve a new path for the sport, to help it capture new audiences and compete for attention in a modern digital commercial age.

READ: WSL announces pay equality for male and female pro surfers

It’s a far cry from the early days of the surfing when beach-bronzed pioneers sought out unridden waves and a whole counter-culture lifestyle grew out of the sport.

But Goldschmidt says that despite its laid-back roots, surfing has always been “very innovative and pioneering” — from board and fin design and wetsuit technology, to contest formats, drone footage and, lately, digital excellence.

And it’s her prowess in sports business that won her the role — in July 2017 — to take surfing into the future.

“I’ve never seen an opportunity like this … I think we’re on a really special journey that started before I joined,” the Briton, who was named at No. 15 on a 2018 Forbes list of the “Most Powerful Women in International Sport,” tells CNN by phone from California.

“I feel very passionately about what surfing stands for … I’ve spent a lot of time learning about it and really understanding how important it is and what makes this culture and sport so special, so we will not be selling out.

“But in this day and age, if you’re not moving forward you’re going backwards and I think surfing is ready for that.”

READ: Is $30M Surf Ranch the future of surfing?

‘Democratize surfing’

The WSL evolved in 2015 from the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), which in turn grew out of professional surfing’s first governing body, the International Professional Surfers (IPS) organization, set up by Hawaiians Fred Hemmings and Randy Rarick in 1976.

In recent years, the WSL has adopted an aggressive digital and social-first policy, including live streaming events on its website and in partnership with Facebook, and has become a leading light among sports organizations worldwide. The WSL’s Instagram account has 2.8 million followers, which compares favorably with the National Hockey League’s 2.9 million.

The development of the Surf Ranch, a £30 million labour of love created by 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, is a key building block in the WSL’s future.

Mindful of the need for more predictable and programmable events — to deliver reliable content for fans, media and sponsors — the WSL bought a major stake in the Kelly Slater Wave Company (KSWC) in 2016.

It is planning to make the exclusive facility into a 155-acre two-pool public venue by 2026. Others are in the pipeline. Slater says the high-performance artificial wave will “democratize” surfing.

“When you see the wave live, you realize it’s additive, it’s not taking away from the ocean, it just enhances it. It allows us to take the sport to a broader audience,” says Goldschmidt.

READ: Brazilian sets record for biggest wave ever surfed

‘Passionate about what surfing stands for’

The first public event at the Surf Ranch was May’s Founders’ Cup, which featured national teams of some of the top male and female surfers in the world. The first pro Tour event took place there in September.

The push to get more women involved is another focus for surfing, in line with many global sports bodies. The International Olympic Committee’s gender equity drive is forcing many sports to rethink their Olympic format.

The WSL’s September 5 announcement that men and women pros would receive equal pay from 2019 was greeted with widespread acclaim.

Three-time world champion Carissa Moore told CNN Sport it was a “huge deal,” while world No.1 Stephanie Gilmore said the decision made her “proud to be a surfer.” Goldschmidt said it was “simply the right thing to do.”

READ: Gender equity drives sailing revamp for 2024 Olympics

While surfing in the Tokyo Games will take place in natural waves at Tsurigasaki Beach, the continued refinement of artificial wave pools could offer viable venues for future Olympics, further expanding the sport. Growing global environmental consciousness and fears for ocean health also play into surfing’s unique brand.

Goldschmidt might not be a big-name surfer, but she’s a big-hitter in business after a 20-year career in senior roles in the UK, including with CSM Entertainment, English rugby’s governing body the Rugby Football Union, the NBA, and the Women’s Tennis Association.

“I wasn’t hired because of my surfing knowledge, I was hired because they wanted to bring in an outsiders’ perspective and professionalize the sport in certain areas and push the boundaries,” she told CNN.

“I’ve learned from my days in rugby and tennis you absolutely can hold on to the traditions and values and heritage of the sport and be progressive and innovative.”

READ: Surfing contest canceled because of shark threat

According to Goldschmidt, participation in surfing has “doubled” in the last few years, but she says the WSL is still keen to “share the stoke” with new fans.

“We think surfing deserves to grow and be even more on the global stage,” she adds.

“That’s good for the sport and good for business, but we’re always going to be very thoughtful about it. You can definitely become overexposed and too mass but I think we’ve got a long way to go before that happens.”

READ: How Robby Naish became a windsurfing icon

‘Iconic locations’

Goldschmidt says she has been “overwhelmed” by the “open-minded” welcome she has received from the sport but admits there have been some “challenging discussions” as she drives through her vision for the WSL.

One area she has faced criticism for is the format of top-level pro competitions, with a possible new play-off series, and fears that wave pool events will replace regular venues on the WSL’s Championship Tour.

September’s Surf Ranch Pro at Lemoore took the place of traditional tour stop Trestles in California, while a site known as “Cloudbreak” in Fiji and the legendary Pipeline Masters event in Hawaii, are also missing from the 2019 schedule.

Goldschmidt points out these decisions were for cost, scheduling and permit reasons, and often out of the WSL’s hands. Pipeline, at least, is only a “short term” absence because of a timing issue over permits, she says.

“It’s not like we’ve made a decision we want to move away from the iconic locations but various things come in to play,” she said.

“I would hope the majority of tour stops will stay the same but I think it’s good to mix it up. Some of the surfers love the fact we’re going to new locations. When people understand why we’ve left Fiji and why we left Trestles, for example, they get it.”

Surfing is riding a whole new wave, and Goldschmidt is steering the board.