How World Surf League Went Carbon Neutral with Brand Purpose
How can a brand save the world? They could do something flashy, like repel an alien invasion or topple Godzilla, or they could do something real and substantive, like the World Surf League. When the WSL isn’t helping pro surfers shred the next big curl (are we saying that right?) or giving sports fans a great way to soak up some rays, they’re preparing for the future. As a sport deeply intertwined with the environment, that means committing to going carbon neutral.
Sophie Goldschmidt, CEO of the WSL, has helped this goal permeate the entirety of the organization, and has noted how crucial it is to have a brand purpose worth rallying behind. On this episode, she discusses her athletics-centered marketing career, from Adidas, to the World Tennis Association, the NBA, and Rugby Football Union, as well as her commitment to brand purpose, engaging with the customers, effective company leadership, and more.
Full Transcript: Drew Neisser in conversation with Sophie Goldschmidt
Drew Neisser: Today’s episode is about leadership. Not leadership when it comes to how to start an episode, but leadership when it comes to actually running a company. When I think about leadership, usually I’d quote Ben Franklin, but today, I’d like to quote the great American poet, Brian Wilson, whose line, “catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world” should resonate with leaders everywhere. If it doesn’t, allow me to explain why it should. Perhaps you’ll enjoy this episode that much more.
Metaphorically speaking, my guest today, Sophie Goldschmidt, who is the CEO of the World Surf League has caught a lot of waves in her career. She started as a tennis player in England and is now the CEO of the World Surf League. That’s an interesting wave. She also has worked at almost as many sports leagues as you could think of from the World Tennis Association, to the NBA, to rugby, which says a lot about your ability, by the way, as a leader to go into these organizations and learn it so quickly. But you’re also, and this is the wave that I think is most significant is—and we’ll talk a lot about it— helping your organization currently ride a wave of purpose and really transforming the organization. With all of that said, let’s get on with the show. Sophie, welcome to the show.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Thank you. A pleasure to be here.
Drew Neisser: Just for you folks, I’m laughing because this was the fourth take to get this show started so, we let you in on a little behind the scenes. Now, I have to ask you—this would be me but—when you’re sitting in Hawaii watching a World Surf event, and the beautiful scene, and the sun is shining, and people are riding these waves, this is an incredible sport. Do you pinch yourself and go, “Oh my god I’m the CEO of this organization!”
Sophie Goldschmidt: I do yeah. I’ve had a few out of body experiences since I’ve had this job. I mean, you mentioned Hawaii there. I’ve been fortunate, I’ve had a number of roles where I’ve had to travel a lot, but I’ve never been to the places I’ve been since I’ve been at the World Surf League. It’s been truly amazing. I actually went to Hawaii for the first time with this role, and I remember arriving on the North Shore for the first time and it was when I really really truly got surfing. I mean, I was familiar with the sport, I had surfed little bit myself, but you can’t help but soak it up. The waves just pumping, crashing in one after another. Every wave’s got a name, and as far as you can see, there are just waves breaking. So yeah, it’s been a pretty special journey so far.
Drew Neisser: Yeah and that’s funny because I was thinking, when I wrote my little intro—by the way, I had more fun researching this episode than any episode I have had in a long time. I spent most of Saturday afternoon just watching surfing videos. What you don’t know is that I grew up in Newport Beach, California. Of course, it was a big surf town when I was growing up. But there was an important little factor going on in Newport, which was you were either a surfer or a tennis player. Those lines were not crossed. The surfers were the dudes who surfed early in the morning, showed up with wet hair every day, and the tennis players—well, you know the tennis players— that’s what you are. It was a divide, and I always regretted that because when I finally got on a board at 22, I was like “Oh my god, this is an amazing sport.” But you found it challenging.
Sophie Goldschmidt: I did, yeah, as a sport to actually participate in. I mean I’d like to think myself, probably wrongly so, as fairly athletic. I mean, tennis is what I grew up playing, but I grew up doing loads of different sports, and I actually got into surfing, well, tried to get into surfing, a little before I got this role. It is so hard. I mean, it’s by far the toughest sport I’ve ever tried. But hey, that’s the challenge, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we’re dealing with Mother Nature. There’s all this variability, you know? You don’t know when the waves are going to be pumping. It’s dependent on the forecast. You have to go to some pretty remote locations, but I think that’s part of the adventure.
Drew Neisser: Yeah, and I think about how a lot of us are attracted to the big waves and things like Maverick. Watching those giant waves, and the nerves. There was that terrific and interesting, and I know complicated for you, article in the New York Times about these women surfers who were trying to tackle some of those giant waves, and the controversy that it caused. But can you imagine? Being on a wave, looking up or looking down, and it’s like a straight vertical 50 feet below you?
Sophie Goldschmidt: I mean their bravery, especially the women—but the men as well who have the opportunity to do it for longer—it’s quite phenomenal. One thing, since I’ve actually been working in the sport, we share a lot of our content, because visually it’s just so beautiful. But everyone gasps when they see one of these giant waves and they see a pinprick on it. They’re like “What the heck’s that?” and then they realize it’s a person. No one can be but amazed at the bravery, and we’re really proud of the fact that the women now have the opportunity to surf. We took over the Big Wave Tour a few years ago, and women weren’t invited to a lot of events. Now they are. Mavericks for the first time will allow women to surf and that’s thanks to what we’ve invested and the events that we’ve put in place. But yeah, these men and women, they’re as brave as it gets. Physically and athletically, what they’re doing is superhuman.
Drew Neisser: Yeah, no. I mean it is incredibly athletic, and if you are an athlete you really appreciate how difficult it is. So, just thinking about your career as being a CEO now, but the steps along the way, I’m wondering if there was a leader that you worked for at one of the organizations that was really helpful to you, or that you looked at and said, “Wow, that’s the kind of leader I want to be,” and that you gained some pearls of wisdom from.
Sophie Goldschmidt: I’ve been very fortunate in my career to work for many great leaders and business minds. I think I’ve learnt from a lot of different people. I’m still learning, by the way. As you get older, you become—well, I’ve become—more self-aware and much more understanding of strengths and weaknesses. There are many more weaknesses that I want to try and improve, so I have to say that I’m incredibly curious about the topic.
I think two that probably stand out to me from early on in my career were Larry Scott, who was the CEO of the WTA, the Women’s Tennis Association, at that time. I joined when he started, and it was a very exciting time for women’s tennis. It was a real tipping point because of some commercial partnerships that we were able to get done. Also, how we elevated the marketing around the women. We actually got equal prize money at that time at the Grand Slams and Wimbledon, in particular, during that period. So, I just learned a lot at that stage in my career to be exposed to those kinds of changes, and just what sport can do for the greater good was incredibly powerful.
Another one, or actually, two that come to mind who I worked very closely with during my tenure at the NBA were David Stern and Adam Silver. David Stern who is known across the world from a sporting standpoint for what he did with the NBA and his pioneering vision. Again, with the WNBA, really taking the NBA international, and what he did from a digital innovation standpoint, and now, Adam Silver and the job he’s done in really a relatively short period. I think he’s elevated the NBA yet again. Finals obviously going on at the moment, but two brilliant business minds who are also very innovative, creative thinkers that thought out of the box, which is always something that I’ve been attracted to. I like to not change for change’s sake, but I like to be a bit of a change agent and try to make things better and constantly evolve how business is operating.
Drew Neisser: Well, you can almost draw a direct line from what the WTA did with women to what you’re trying to do with your sport.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Yeah, I mean, we’ve made some big strides in the last year, really, but the journey has been going on for years, well before I started. I’ve been at the World Surf League for just over a year and a half now and we were very proud of the equal prize money announcement we made last September, but that was a natural next step.
We’ve been increasing the number of women surfers, we’ve increased the events, we’ve been taking the women to the best locations. And that shift really happened when our current ownership group took over about six years ago, so the groundwork was laid long before I joined. But last year was a big year, and since then we’ve also added various other initiatives. In fact, very soon, we’ll be announcing our first-ever women’s focused marketing campaign. We’ve created a grassroots Rising Tide program to get young girls participating, which has just been awesome.
Drew Neisser: I want to get to some of those things so don’t cover them so quickly. We’ve got to get into the details! Interesting. I have to do one shout out: Adam Silver, a Dukie. A Duke grad, my Alma Mater. Amazing guy. We’re still trying to get him to speak in New York to Duke alum, but we’ll get there.
Sophie Goldschmidt: I know he’s very proud of his Duke connection and his time there.
Drew Neisser: Oh, he is. It’s an amazing thing, and there are a lot of Dukies within the NBA organization, over the years. The former head of the WNBA was a Dukie.
Anyway, let’s see. One question for you as we wrap up this leadership area of the show. I find that I learn sometimes from my mistakes, and sometimes from my successes. I’m curious—when you look back at some of the things that have happened in your career, did you learn more from your failures or your successes?
Sophie Goldschmidt: I think it hurts you more when you fail, so it probably makes a deeper impression. I mean, I’m very into analyzing a lot of what I do, probably overly so. I’m not sure it’s always a good trait, so therefore, I do generally think I learn a lot from successes as well. But the losses do dig a little bit deeper and leave a lasting impact in a slightly different way.
Drew Neisser: Yeah, I think I’d rather learn from successes, frankly. It’s just so much more fun. The hard part with the learning from the failures is that it’s very difficult to have a rational examination of why it didn’t work.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Yeah.
Drew Neisser: You know? It’s sort of like, if you think about it—you’re playing tennis and you’re trying to hit a passing shot, and you miss by a half an inch. What’d you learn?
Sophie Goldschmidt: Yeah, I mean, the only thing I would say is, I think my mindset shifted as far as how I deal with failures and things that don’t go according to plan. Now I kind of expect it, and I’m a very positive person. This may come through during the interview. I’m sometimes referred to as a little bit glass overflowing, rather than even just a glass half full. But I’ve become much more accepting, and I think realistic, that there are challenges you’re going to face every day, especially in the CEO role. To me, that’s been one of the biggest shifts—that that’s how you spend a lot of your time.
I think to be innovative and pioneering, which we’re really trying to be, you have to take risks. And when you take risks, you’re going to fail. Okay. You’ve got to learn from those mistakes, you can’t afford to make the same mistakes twice, but difficult things don’t always go according to plan. I think embracing and accepting that actually can be a real positive, and it’s kind of needed to stay ahead of the game.
Drew Neisser: Right. There’s no safe route here.
Sophie Goldschmidt: No. I mean, occasionally there is. Again, by seeing what has been done before. But if you’re really trying to path a new road down a specific area, then there are going to be unknowns. However much it’s thought through—and I’m very into preparation—when you’re pushing it sometimes you have to move pretty quickly. But I always balance that out as long as it has been thought through. If you’ve been very thoughtful about the process and strategic about why you’re doing something, then you know for the most part it’s okay.
Drew Neisser: All right we’re going to take a quick break and when we come back, we’re going to zero in a little bit on the leap from being a marketer to a CEO. Stay with us.
Drew Neisser: We’re back. My guest is Sophie Goldschmidt, and we were talking about risk-taking as a mandate for leaders. I talk a lot about this with CMOs, but I’m curious—what allowed you to make the leap from a marketing role to a CEO role? What do you think are the biggest differences are in terms of the requirements of those jobs?
Sophie Goldschmidt: For me, I think it was a slightly winding road; there definitely wasn’t a straight trajectory. A big part of my career was in marketing, you’re absolutely right. But I also had the opportunity to lead other business divisions. I spent a lot of time on the business development sales side of various organizations. I also had some general management roles. I was managing director of a couple of businesses and divisions, which is different to a CEO, but I think it gave me the slightly broader experiences and skillsets, which definitely helps.
Drew Neisser: Right, you had P&L responsibilities. That’s key.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Exactly, P&L, and also just having the mindset of what it’s like to be in other parts of the organization. I think that the commercial side, which often is really going to drive a lot of businesses, really being able to properly understand that was really valuable.
Sophie Goldschmidt: For me, the timing was right. I was, I think, ready for the step—she says now. I’m not sure I was totally ready. I’ve definitely learned more in the last year and a half than I’ve ever learned in my life. But it’s been fascinating, and I think, can you ever be prepared? Maybe looking back there are some different things I would have tried to experience before, but a lot of it has now become about managing your people in the most effective way, really inspiring them to do the best work for them to be fulfilled, which ultimately, is just great for your business as well.
Also, dealing with the challenges, kind of being a little bit of a buffer so that the business can always also operate on the important day-to-day activities. And absolutely forcing yourself—I have to keep taking a step back and looking at the big picture. It’s very easy to get drawn in especially when you’re going through a lot of changes. I’m getting better at it and I’ve still got a little way to go, but that’s been a real discipline that I’ve had to instill in myself.
Drew Neisser: I mean, when I look at leadership and boil it down, it’s: set the vision, build the team, and figure out where the resources are going to be spent. If you do those three things well, chances are that things will work. Now the challenge is—first on that vision thing—this is hard for CMOs because, in some ways, the CEO and the CMO have to partner on setting the vision. But let’s talk about the business challenges that you’ve faced. As succinctly as you can, talk about when you got to the World Surf League. What did you see as your biggest business challenges?
Sophie Goldschmidt: I think the biggest challenge was that there wasn’t a coherent enough strategy. The organization was more siloed than was ideal, and that real bond and clarity behind a purpose and vision, I felt was missing. I think, in addition to that, just clarity of purpose and culture as well. So, how do we want to live and breathe every day within the organization? I felt we needed to get that vision and strategy set first.
Drew Neisser: I know you do 180 events a year around the world, and it sounds like there was an organization set up to manage events.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Yes.
Drew Neisser: But the sense of, what does this mean? Why are we doing this? After answering that famous question: why?
Sophie Goldschmidt: Yeah, exactly.
Drew Neisser: So how did you go about figuring that out?
Sophie Goldschmidt: I did a lot of listening. I think it helped that I was coming from the outside. I was very much referred to as an outsider, which I’d never had in another sports organization before. I’ve worked for many sports organizations, right? Never played the sport or been part of the community and it’s not a problem. In surfing, it hasn’t been a problem, but it was interesting to be referred to that way.
Drew Neisser: Yes.
Sophie Goldschmidt: So, A: I was even more aware that I needed to earn everyone’s trust and credibility because I was coming from the outside. But I think, therefore, I had a clean slate. I didn’t have the baggage of the past, and there was a lot of baggage in the history and how things had been done. The sport had been operating in a fairly insular way.
We also, when I joined, had the platform, so the ownership group had basically aggregated all of our rights and assets so that we could actually control our own destiny. That had never been the situation in surfing. The sport had been owned by different groups who had different interests and now, actually, it was all centralized.
My timing was very lucky and good from that standpoint, so there were reasons why it hadn’t operated optimally before. But I think, to really get that vision and strategy, it was do a lot of listening, do a lot of learning, and then use the experience that I’d gained before because while surfing in many ways could not be more different to the sports I’d worked in, there are still a lot of similarities and a lot of overlap. That was actually very reassuring. I kept feeling like, “You know what? I’ve been in this situation before” and like, “Oh yeah, I remember when that happened down there.” Which going into it, I wouldn’t necessarily have made those different correlations.
Drew Neisser: It’s funny, when people are recruiting, if the board of directors is looking for a CEO, so often they say, “Well, we want to find someone with industry knowledge and expertise,” and think that that’s the key. What’s really the key in my mind is “Are they a good leader?” Period. Stop. If they’re a good leader, they can figure it out. They have a process for figuring out the vision, building the team, and then how to allocate resources. But it’s interesting, I would think that your outside experience would have been exactly what World Surf needed, in the sense that it was an insular sport. I know enough about it, having looked at it for sponsorship opportunities, that it’s like, “Dude, if you’re not on the board, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” There’s that culture. It’s very much “earn your admission,” whereas there are some other sports, like rugby, where you can just show up and you’re cool.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Yeah, it’s interesting. Coming into the sport, I actually thought it was a lot more inclusive than people then told me. I remember my first week on the job, I was kind of told, “You’re coming in from the outside trying to make change, good luck.” And I was like, “Oh God, I wish I’d sort of known more about this beforehand.” But I have to say, my experience has been like I thought it was going to be on the outset.
It is a bit of a stereotype and generalization. The sport is much more inclusive than it ever was before. It is open-minded and definitely willing to change. I think that the proof is in what we’ve done over the last 18 months. I’ve really been welcomed with open arms. I mean, it’s really been quite touching. I mean, I’ve fallen in love with the sport and the community even though I am an outsider. And I feel that’s just so powerful. If that’s been my experience, and I’ve worked in sport for 20ish years and didn’t really know the special attributes of the sport, then most of the world don’t know, and that’s kind of our opportunity because it is unique in so many ways.
Drew Neisser: Let’s find the parallels for a second. From a business standpoint, this is about obviously getting more people into the sport. You talked about bringing young girls into the sport, which is very much what golf is trying to do, and baseball is trying to do, and football is trying to do. Every one of them has a juniors program. So, you’re trying to get more people involved in the sport, and then you want to get more people to watch the sport, right? You have to build the fan base, and then you have to get more partners and sponsors, and all of those things are common to sports properties. I think there’s a way of having this conversation that is relevant to all businesses. I mean, you need to grow your business. What does that mean? Growing your business, to you, when you look at it, what does that mean?
Sophie Goldschmidt: For us, it’s about growing what we call our audience. Whether you are participating, watching, or purchasing, for us, that all relates to growing our audience. We are getting much more scientific about how we’re measuring that. We are being much more inclusive about every platform that we’re looking at as well as our live events. For us, the big shift, strategically, was to not just be about what happens in the jersey, and pure competitive surfing.
The reality is that most surfers don’t compete. A lot of the sport is what we call free surf, even at the elite level. We were just missing a massive part of the market by being so focused on competitive surfing and the shift was using our amazing role models and elite athletes that we have in a much broader way to inspire people in all sorts of different ways. Because they’re incredibly well-rounded individuals. So, that shift from pure competitive surfing into lifestyle—which I feel no sport can transcend from sport to lifestyle better than surfing—we were kind of missing that whole business opportunity.
In addition to that, something you mentioned earlier is just being focused on pure events. Events, obviously, are is still super important to us, but now we’re really positioning ourselves as a broader media company. We’re looking strategically at a much broader range of content because there are so many different hooks that can connect with our consumers and fans, and new fans that don’t even know they exist in our world yet. We had to really broaden our aperture to be able to grasp that, and there are a few things we’ve done on the business side to really move in that direction.
Drew Neisser: Interesting. It’s a lifestyle brand, it’s a media brand, and those are two really interesting areas. I want to take a break, and then I want to come back and talk about some of the things that you’re doing to implement this vision. So we’ll be right back.
Drew Neisser: We’re back and we’ve been talking about surfing on a general basis, as a leader how you reset the organization, and the vision of the organization expanded it into a lifestyle brand, expanded it to include all surfers, not just the professional moments.
As it happens, I believe that this is World Ocean Week. I was invited to an event, actually last night, that was celebrating that in New York City. Talk a little bit about your initiatives in this area.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Yeah, this is a huge week for the ocean, and very important to the World Surf League. Today, actually, we’re very proudly announcing three commitments. We’re going to go carbon neutral across all of our events, all of our travel, all of our office operations; we’re going to no longer use single-serve plastics at any of our events; and we’re going to leave every place better than how we found it, which really talks to the impact we can positively make on local communities year-round, and some of the sand erosion that’s happening. I mean, the reality is—as I think most people know by now, hopefully—we are in crisis mode. Climate change is happening, and the ocean is taking the majority of the impact and bearing the brunt of it.
Drew Neisser: Yeah, I was reading a statistic that the ocean absorbs a huge percentage of…
Sophie Goldschmidt: 90%
Drew Neisser: 90% of…
Sophie Goldschmidt: …of the increasing warmth in the atmosphere.
Drew Neisser: Right. And as that warms, that melts sea ice, so it’s a change that challenges all of the ecosystems. I mean, it’s one thing for the other sports. They’ve got to worry about grass. For tennis, I guess they can move everything indoors, but your sport doesn’t exist if the ocean isn’t clean and its shorelines are gone.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Exactly. It’s absolutely at the heart of what we’re doing. I mean, I often compare it to the points that you’ve just made. If all the football pitches were dying in America, people would be taking pretty drastic action. And that’s what’s happening to the ocean.
Drew Neisser: I wish that were true. I think they’d just say, “Okay, well we’ll just go to artificial turf.” I don’t know. I’m not sure that people would be…
Sophie Goldschmidt: Yeah, that’s a fair point. But I think it would highlight just the drastic situation that we’re in. There would be alternatives, but it would be like, “Oh my god, we can’t play in the natural environment anymore.”
Drew Neisser: I think there’s a sort of mentality that, “Yeah, that may be happening, but there’s nothing I can really do about it.” One of the things that I think is interesting about some of the things that you’re doing—some of them feel small, but I think that’s the point—every little bit that you do, that individuals do and organizations do, can add up to a lot.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Absolutely. Everyone has created this whether it’s intentional, or not. Everyone can have a positive impact to correct it, and I think that we try and be really positive with most of our messaging because I think it can sometimes be a bit gloom and doom. It’s so big, and also it sometimes seems quite far off before the really catastrophic stuff begins to happen. I mean it’s decades before the ocean level rises two meters, but it will affect the next generation. That means parts of the world will no longer exist or be underwater.
Drew Neisser: Sell your real estate in Florida, folks. Soon.
Sophie Goldschmidt: For us, I think that we’re not unlike many organizations that have a purpose, have a broader philanthropic mission, and have a CSR commitment. For us, I just feel we’re incredibly fortunate for dire reasons that it’s such an authentic fit.
Of course, we would care about the ocean. The community is incredibly knowledgeable about it. It’s something that’s really struck me since I’ve joined. You take our athletes, for example, as they’re coming out of the water having competed, they’re picking up plastic off the beach before they go in to compete for a world championship. They literally live and breathe it.
And some of the locations—I remember very clearly last year going to Bali—if you can believe I went to Bali to work—for the first time in this role. I’d been there on holiday 10 years prior, to the exact same beach with my sister. I showed up at this event, I arrived at night. I was staying at a hotel on the beach. I was like, “Oh, in the morning we’ll walk along the beach at the event site.” You couldn’t walk along the beach. It was destroyed and covered in plastic, trash everywhere. And that was in 10 years.
I mean, it really really hit me. It was like, you know, these videos you see on TV, and you’re sure they’re slightly scripted to get the message across? They’re not. You know how they fixed it each day? Some organizations came out, they dug holes in the sand, and put the trash in it. And then the next day there it was again.
Drew Neisser: Yeah, funny how that works.
Sophie Goldschmidt: There are moments like that that have really brought it to life and we are incredibly committed to this. It’s not just a box-checking exercise. It’s something we care passionately about and we want our broader community to, too. And not just the surfing community—this is about engaging anyone that cares about the ocean.
We’ve got some fun initiatives that we’ll be rolling out over the next few weeks just to highlight to your point how people can make a difference. You don’t need to be living by the ocean to make a difference. You can cycle to work. You can pick up some plastic on the street. You can stop using plastic straws, which actually they’ve done quite a good job on. But what about all the cutlery and the cups? Even flying here overnight, I’d asked for water. I’d stupidly checked in my hydro flask bottle and they gave me two or three cups in a half hour. I was like, “No don’t reuse this one.” So just, some of the basic things, just becoming much more top of mind. It’s super important.
Drew Neisser: I think, from a listener standpoint, when you think about CSR initiatives, it’s got to be real. It’s got to be embedded in the fabric of the organization. And if you bring in something new, you’ve really better be thinking about that. And obviously, in your case, your community- I mean heck, these surfers are running into this stuff. They’re feeling it and they’re certainly part of it. It’s just such a beautiful sport. Now I want to share a couple of things that I think are so interesting—one, you’re going to be in the Olympics.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Yes.
Drew Neisser: First-time Olympic sport! I’m a total Olympic groupie, I’ve been to four of them. Now, this is putting me over the top about having to go to Tokyo just to see this. I was at Salt Lake City and saw that first time they did half pipe, and that was unbelievable. It was an amazing thing. So, talk about the preparation, and what that means to your organization—to be in the Olympics for the first time.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Yeah, it’s a huge moment for the sport, something that people have worked years to have happened. I think the timing is absolutely right. The sport’s never been more global. I think the Olympics are looking for a younger audience. Surfing definitely skews younger—the aspirational, cool nature of surfing definitely brings in a different fan base.
Drew Neisser: Right. Or young at heart.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Exactly. And added to the sport to be on that global platform, arguably still the largest sporting global platform, is a tremendous opportunity. We can’t wait to be part of it. We’re working closely with the various different governing bodies to help in any way we can to make sure that it’s the success we all want. And the surfers are super excited. I mean, the rankings this year will actually qualify half of the surfers for the Olympics, so there’s extra on the line. You really felt that the season. It was great from a business standpoint, just to have that extra message and extra goal as we went into this year. But yeah, I can’t wait for it to come around.
Drew Neisser: It’s so interesting because these folks that are competing—I watched the videos of some of the surfers—they were from all over the world. These are the athletes because it’s not like it’s just all Americans or all Brazilians. They’re from all over the world. Those are the same people who are going to end up in the Olympics.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Absolutely. I think that’s another thing. Surfing is a lot more global than people maybe imagine. I mean, there are still some countries that are extra strong, they have the traditional heritage, but it’s becoming more and more global, and now with the different technology that’s out there—we own the Kelly Slater Wave Company, which is a pretty mind-blowing technology that we can come back to. But in theory now, anywhere in the world can have world-class waves.
Drew Neisser: Right. I watched this video and we’ll include it in the show notes (watch it here)—there are these wave machines—that’s best that I can describe them—that create almost this perfect long curl. I was watching the surfers and they’re in the wave the whole time. It’s so different in many ways than what it is in the ocean. It’s almost like it’s this perfect condition.
It really levels the playing field. Every surfer has the same wave. It’s fascinating how that could change one aspect of the sport. It sort of reminds me that it’s going to be the difference between traditional ice skating and modern, this open dance vs. closed because it looks like every wave is pretty much the same.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Yes. It actually has a lot of variability. There are about 50 different types of waves that you can get, but you can run the same wave over and over again so each surfer could be competing on the same backdrop, which is a big difference, as you noted correctly, to the ocean. The variability is gone, so you’re not dealing with Mother Nature. For us, I think very importantly, this is not replacing the ocean. This is complementary and additive.
Drew Neisser: It’s almost like a different sport because I noticed that they were doing a lot more things like flips. Because it was so predictable, they had more control over the board. They were doing things that they might try, but here they could do them consistently. It reminded me a lot more of the halfpipe both from skateboarding and blading than it did traditional surfing.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Yeah. No, that’s a really good analogy, and it’s almost like now they can choreograph their routine because they know what’s coming. I think for us, from a business standpoint, why it’s so impactful is due to the programmability that it allows. One of the biggest challenges we face is that because of Mother Nature, we never know exactly when we’re going to be on.
Yesterday, we actually just wrapped up our event in Margaret River. In addition to having a couple of shark sightings during the event—so we actually stopped the event couple of times. We have an amazing protocol and procedure in place, so it was all very safe, but we didn’t know because the wind and the swell whether we were actually going to run yesterday until half an hour before we went live.
So from a programmability on network TV standpoint, it’s challenging, which is why we’ve done so much digitally, which has actually worked really well for us. But to really grow our audiences, we want to have more mainstream media coverage. The wave system changes that. We can push a button, and at eight o’clock on a Saturday night, a world-class wave will run. And our technology really is world-class. The Kelly Slater Wave Company technology can create eight-, nine-foot waves that can barrel, that can be high performance, etc. and now you can also create a spectator environment. Which again, at the beach—we love the beach, we’re always going to be going there, but most of the public beaches.
With the permitting exception, we don’t want to build big infrastructures. You know, we talk about leaving every place better than how we found it. That doesn’t tick that box. But these wave systems allow us to do that. In addition, coming back to the Olympic point, now we can, in theory, surf anywhere. Even in a landlocked country, you can put one of these facilities in and train world-class athletes. So, it’s a bit of a game-changer for the sport. Actually, I think for all sports at large, because of how you can visually produce something in such an amazing and more predictable way.
Drew Neisser: That’s interesting. So now, I can imagine—I’m thinking of a couple of situations. It’s like Bollettieri down in Florida teaching the young. First, there’s got to be somebody who’s going to create one of these wave farms that’s going to create the surfing academy of the future. Then there’s going to be another person, I’m only remembering his nickname from snowboarding—the flying tomato.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Shaun White.
Drew Neisser: Yeah, yeah. He built his own halfpipe after years of success just so he could practice privately. Suddenly, there are a lot of interesting permutations that can happen as a result of this.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Absolutely. And actually, we’re already seeing our facilities being used as training venues. We’ve had the Australian team up there, we’ve got other national teams leading up to the Olympics because, yeah, just the consistency. You know you’re going to get a wave every few minutes, whereas in the ocean, you could be waiting a long time just to get a wave. It’s an incredibly exciting part of our sport.
Drew Neisser: Yeah. I’m just imagining that the analogy would be that you’re running the Super Bowl and you don’t know what day it’s going to be: “Sorry guys, I know you want to plan your party, but we don’t know what exact day it is. That maverick wave may show up, may not. Stay tuned, and we’ll let you know. We’ll send you a text about 15 minutes before the event starts.” That would be a tough business to run.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Exactly. And then even when you do start, you may stop at half time and we may not come back for five days.
Drew Neisser: Because of sharks, or other things.
Sophie Goldschmidt: Or the weather, or whatever else. Oh and, by the way, you also can’t sell any tickets because you’re on a public beach which doesn’t allow it. If you put all those in the mix, we’ve got some business challenges! Or opportunities, as I like to call it.
Drew Neisser: Opportunities, because you’re a half overflowing person, a glass overflowing person. Interesting. All right. So, if we have a bunch of marketers listening, and based on the experience that you’ve had so far in the last year, what would you say the biggest learning has been that you could share that would help marketers out there. Even though you have some unique challenges, there are some things that are universal that you’ve probably encountered. A couple of dos and don’ts that you can summarize and share with the audience. Wisdom!
Sophie Goldschmidt: Yeah, I mean, I think really understanding authentically how you can differentiate yourself. One point that I didn’t make when we were talking about our ocean conservation commitment was that initially, it may have started off as more of a philanthropic idea, and of course, we’ve got to do this because it’s the right thing to do. But my goodness has it been good for business, as well. Actually doing the right thing, being purpose-led.
We know, and the research is there, that the next generation are really going to judge brands by that. They know who’s doing the right thing, who’s caring about the environment, etc. so we feel we’re getting ahead of it from a business standpoint. If we’ve got that track record to point to, we think that will pay off in spades. We really look at this as an investment, it’s not a marketing cost.
I think also, you can’t understand your current and new audience well enough. The focus we’ve now put on that, especially for us, as so much of what we’re doing digitally, you can learn very quickly. You can afford to test at a relatively low cost and pivot pretty seamlessly. And as the organization has professionalized and developed, being much more scientific. That’s across every department. I want our whole organization to be obsessed with our audience—understanding who they are, what they want more of, how we can better service them. And we’ve changed our strategy to be more relevant to more people, but still, without having that underlying obsession with getting into the nitty gritty of who they are, what they want, and why we can serve them, we’re not going to be successful.
I think that finding your authentic purpose, and then really going deep on that, in addition to taking audience knowledge to a whole new level, which is evolving, by the way. I mean, each week, we’re trying to look at different stats and understand different aspects of how we can better serve them. Ultimately to commercialize that, but first and foremost, it’s about how can we make that experience better, how can we ensure that they want to consume more and keep coming back.
Drew Neisser: So, in summary, it helps to have a purpose. A meaningful purpose that can permeate your organization from top to bottom, that impacts your operations. Trying to be carbon neutral, as the first world sport to do that, I think is impressive. And then two, yeah, it ultimately isn’t about you, it’s about your customers and your audience. How are you learning from them, engaging with them, expanding with them, and helping them relate to you? I think those are pretty universal summaries and so, Sophie Goldschmidt, thank you so much for being on the show!
Sophie Goldschmidt: Thank you, thank you for having me.
Drew Neisser: And to all the listeners—always grateful. Yes, definitely think about getting your surfboard out this summer. I hear that the surf’s up. To my friends in Newport Beach who remember Newport Beach before “The O.C.” and the famous wedge where there was a risky surfing area. Anyway, thank you for checking in on the show, and until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.
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