SBJ/July 24-30, 2017/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Surf league’s potential pulls in Goldschmidt

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Convinced the sport can become more relevant culturally and advanced technologically, sports business veteran Sophie Goldschmidt aims to make the World Surf League hang a perfect ten after being named CEO last week.

League owner WSL Holdings is charging her with taking the sport to new heights as it prepares for surfing’s addition to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and increasingly leverages digital and social media. The league is targeting more global expansion and is working with technology such as weather-resistant drones and man-made wave machines that will allow it to hold competitions in areas that don’t traditionally produce the conditions needed for surfing.

World Surf League CEO Sophie Goldschmidt
Photo by: WSL
Goldschmidt, who has worked stints with CSM Sport & Entertainment, the Rugby Football Union, WTA and NBA, joins a small group of women in charge of a global sports property. She replaces WSL board member and interim CEO Dirk Ziff, who took over when Paul Speaker stepped down at the start of the year.

The move is a change of pace for Goldschmidt, who does surf but had never worked in the sport. Still, Goldschmidt, who is relocating from London to Santa Monica, Calif., as part of the move, said it’s an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

“The owners’ vision and the fact that it is a clean-sheet-of-paper opportunity given that all the (media) assets and rights had been aggregated under one roof, which allows us to do some really groundbreaking things,” was what drew her to the opportunity, Goldschmidt said. “There aren’t a lot of disparate groups, all the stakeholders fit under the guise of the WSL. So when I got engaged in discussions about the role, that clean-sheet-of-paper opportunity — not that we’re going to completely wipe the slate clean, but everything is possible and you don’t often get that in sports.”

The WSL was founded in the 1970s and has grown into a league that touts itself as being digitally oriented and popular with millennials. The league says 81 percent of its audience is between the ages of 18 and 44, while the average age of a WSL fan is 32.

Among Goldschmidt’s first tasks is figuring out how the league can build upon its strengths and plan where to expand next. She’s keeping an eye on potential additional competitions in the U.S., Brazil, South Africa and other African countries, and China. The league typically holds about 10 events per year in each of its men’s and women’s tours.

Another one of Goldschmidt’s first orders of business figures to be whether to extend the league’s digital streaming deal with Facebook Live, which has a one-year partnership with the league for the 2017 season. That partnership sees Facebook stream every WSL event on its Live platform, which was projected to total 800 hours of WSL coverage this year. The events are also available via WSL.com and the WSL app.

With a global following, the league has built up a considerable social media presence that includes 2.4 million Instagram followers, comparable to the NHL, which has 2.5 million. A 360-degree virtual reality surfing video on Facebook garnered more than 2.7 million views.

Goldschmidt, who formally starts in August, said the league is talking to a number of different players in the media space. She added that while “we’d love to continue our relationship with (Facebook), we want to be wherever our fans want to consume our content … so we’ll continue to engage and work with a number of different media organizations.”

Goldschmidt also will be focusing on integrating the Kelly Slater Wave Co., which WSL Holdings bought last year. The company produces man-made waves, which will allow the WSL to do a range of new things, including travel to and compete in areas it previously couldn’t. Goldschmidt said last week that she recently visited the company’s training facility in California, where “the technology is pretty space age.” She expects to see the system involved with official WSL events by next year.

Goldschmidt also will prioritize growing the league’s corporate roster and deepening relationships with pre-existing partners, having worked on developing and driving new business in her prior role at CSM. WSL sponsors include Jeep, Corona, Jose Cuervo and Airbnb.

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