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Wavescape - Surfing in South Africa
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Thu, 6 September 2018

The WSL has changed its mind on gender parity - an about-turn since JBay when Spike interviewed Sophie Goldschmidt. Here's the full chat (+ wave pools, tennis, the future). Pics Sandy Coffey


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TURNING POINT: This SA photo led to the WSL decision to pay equally. Photo WSL / Cestari


After this photo appeared depicting the winners of the Ballito Pro Junior event, a ginormous media storm blew across the Interwebs. The WSL stoically stood by its stand that their pay system was fair and decent and correct. The rationale was immutable, said officials, persistently and insistently.

They were still claiming it a few weeks later when Spike interviewed WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt during the Corona Open JBay. She stood by the narrative too. More poignantly, as a woman, she was passionate about gender equality, but it was all about the numbers of women competing and how many heats they surfed in any given event. It was more than fair. She was quite adamant.

Here is the full transcript of the interview, which includes insights into the future of professional surfing, the arrival of the women in JBay, the role of wave pools and the initial fiasco of the Facebook stream that held its inaugural broadcast at the Jeffreys Bay event.

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TENNIS TOUR: Goldschmidt is a veteran sports executive with a storied CV. Photo Sandy Coffey


sophie-goldschmidt-longWelcome to South Africa

Thank you.

Is this the first time you've come to SA?

No. I've been many times. This is my first time to JBay but I have been to SA a lot.

How come you are here in terms of the WSL? Did you just want to see how it goes down?

Yeah. It's My first year on the job so I think it's really important for me to get out and see as many of our events as possible, especially the iconic ones that I heard so much about, and this one is top of the list. And also to spend some time with the athletes and stakeholders and get to experience JBay in person, and to understand the opportunities for us to do even more in SA and this part of the world.

As a former tennis professional, people might say you're not a surfer (Actually, she does surf. See further down), but you've been an athlete yourself, so obviously you understand the show. And you've had a lot of experiences in other sports. What are the commonalities and differences with surfing?

Yeah. It's interesting. I mean there are a lot of commonalities and differences. I think working with the different stakeholders and with just how the sport sort of operates, there are a lot of similarities with other sports. I think the opportunity to grow this sport even more is quite frankly unlike an opportunity I’ve seen in other sports. I think it's at a real tipping point at the moment with the Olympics; with the new wave technology; with the performances that we're continuing to see from these amazing athletes. All the names coming through. The number of new winners we've had on the tour this year. I am not sure there is another sport that has so much opportunity so tangibly in front of it. I work with a lot of different athletes and different stakeholder groups over the year so that's relevant experience I think in this role.

I think some of the differences are that we're dealing with Mother Nature. The variability ... um ... which is a challenge and an opportunity ... um ... it can be tough to program - and for some commercial partners to understand how best to engage with us ... but that's changing ... um ... all the time and I think that's what makes the sport so special. There’s a kind of an extra competitor out there for … for … the surfers. So that's very different to other sports I have been involved in.

And in fact noticing when the man in the grey suit came to visit yesterday, it was impressive how guys are dealing with sharks in the line-up, how the jet ski dealt with the issue. Since you’ve been at the helm there seems to be a more professional approach. But that is an aside. You’ve obviously heard about the Bobby Martinez comment about the tennis tour. Have you heard about that?

No.

So when the tour was called the Association of Surfing Professionals there was a funny incident, and he basically retired after it … he got into big trouble.

Right.

In a live interview Bobbly said: “I don’t want to be part of no f'ing tennis tour.”

Oh-kay. (Wary)

And the guy who was doing the live stream went like this (makes weird facial expression) and it went viral and it was a huge deal.

Okay.

I just thought it was quite funny in a kind of ironic way (laughs), with you coming from the actual women's tennis tour!

Yeah. Yeah. (Bemused and not quite getting it)

But you come with quite a strong CV. What are your challenges in terms of taking this experience to make surfing work?

(Griffin Colapinto pulls off a huge move and we're momentarily drowned out by roars from the crowd).

I think we're starting from an incredibly strong position. All the hard work. All the investment and commitment that's gone into it. Who was that? (she looks to the sea). Oh. Colapinto. Sorry. So the starting point was very strong me coming on board. But ... sorry... you need to remind me of the question.

I suppose it's what do you see your mandate as. I know you come from a strong commercial background and you have brokered some amazing deals for sport. (She famously landed an 88 US$ million deal with Sony Ericsson for the Women's Tennis Association).

I think there's certain areas where we can still professionalise even more. Coughs. The sport is relatively young compared to a lot of pro sports. So I think it's a natural process we're going through. So I think just improving the quality and upping our game in different areas. We're focusing a lot of time on our broadcast and our content. Also, how we market our sport, our events and athletes. I think working even more closely with the athletes to help them evolve and promote themselves. Across the board, in the right way, gradually raising our game.

It's very competitive out there. Everyone is competing for people’s time and head space. We just need to continue to innovate and be creative. I always say if you're not sprinting forwards you're moving backwards in this day and age. Change is just a necessity. You have to continue to evolve. The sport has been very open minded about it. You know we've tried few new things this season that have been well received. So yeah, I feel very positive about the future.

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BARREL BRU: The wave pool gig comes up this weekend. The future is rosy. Photo WSL / Cestari


Dealing with surfers, isn't a bit like herding cats?

I think they get a bit of a bad rap actually. So no. I don’t think it’s like herding cats. They're actually very good to work with, considering it's an individual sport, they're so supportive of each other. They really see the bigger picture. They are very purpose driven. They kind of have a greater mission in life which is very powerful, and unlike I have seen in other sports.

And Africa and JBay in particular, what's the importance of us in the grand scheme of the World Surf League?

This is one of our most important events on the tour. It was also one of the reasons we were so excited to bring the women here. As soon as it was announced, they were beaming. The men talk about it all time. Being here in person I can absolutely see why. This is a very important location and a very important market. Africa as a region has some of the best and most iconic waves in the world. There’s a real surfing culture and a massive population so there's a huge growth opportunity here.

It's good to see much more parity in how the women surfers are sent out. In the old days they would get the leftovers, tiny surf or onshore. But now women are going in and charging bigger surf. Really nice to see. But speaking of equality, obviously after the gender pay disparity row, you obviously have some views, and as a woman yourself, you probably have some plans to resolve it. What are your plans?

Being a women, I feel I have an absolute voice in this matter. We work very closely with our women. We have a fantastic relationship with our women. They understand. They buy into it. They don't have a problem. You don’t hear them speaking out about our prize money. We have absolute pay parity.First of all, it was very unfortunate. A lot of it was down to misinformation and miscommunication. I feel very strongly about equality, and I also think we have a very fair pay parity system in place at the moment. I think the reality is that most of our women’s draws are smaller than the men, so there are less women competing, and they therefore have to surf less heats to win a competition. And that is why they are paid less. Per person, they make the same amount. In fact, the women make slightly more, per person during an event, if you take the CT level.

But to win a women's event you're beating less surfers and you're not surfing as often. That's our rationale as to how we work out prize money, which I think is very fair. So to my mind we have absolute pay parity and I think it's very fair … er … are they earning the same? No. But you're not comparing apples to apples. So I think there's very sound rationale, but unfortunately there was some miscommunication around it, and at the moment it's a very hot topic and understandably so, I think unlike with us there are many industries where there is a very real discrepancy. Being a women, I feel I have an absolute voice in this matter. We work very closely with our women. We have a fantastic relationship with our women. They understand. They buy into it. They don't have a problem. You don’t hear them speaking out about our prize money. We have absolute pay parity.

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HANDS FULL: Goldschmidt tells Spike the WSL's position on gender parity. Photo Sandy Coffey


SandyCoffey-9-of-54What is the plan for wave pools?

We don't know how many wave pools we'll have eventually. At the moment we’ve got some priority markets that we are focused on. That's just Phase I. Eventually I'd love it if we had wave pools all over the world. It's a very exciting development for the sport. It doesn't in any way diminish the importance of the ocean. In fact, the ocean is as important as ever especially with our overall commitment to ocean conservation and Pure, which is our ocean conservation platform. I think the reality is that wave systems allow us to go to markets we may not have been able to get to before. It allows us to have certain events that are much more programmable. You know, at the moment, the beauty of nature is also a challenge when you're looking to work with broadcasters and media partners. So it's a game changer from that standpoint. But it amplifies the ocean. I think they're very complimentary. One can really help the other. It's interesting that when you talk to people, they have been to the Surf Ranch or can't wait to get there, they are so enthusiastic. Talking to our CT surfers, they say they can't wait to get to the Surf Ranch. Then when they're in the wave system they have the most amazing time training but they're like "you know what, I'm ready to go back to the ocean. I want to give that a go”. So they are almost two different disciplines to the sport. And I don't think one hampers the other.

The Aussies are training at Lemoore and the US team in Texas at Wako. How does that work? Is there going to be a tussle for exclusivity and not allowing WSL surfers to surf in other wave pools?

I don’t think so. I take a very holistic view. I think the more people surfing the better, whether that's in the ocean or in a wave system, that's great for everyone. Ours is designed in a different way. It’s a very high performing wave. It wasn’t designed for the masses. If you compare our system to any of the others they are very very different. But, no we're very open. We're working with a bunch of federations. We've had the majority of our CT train there and some QS surfers. We had the Australian team there last week. Not sure what relationship the US team has with any of the other facilities, but good luck to them.

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LIGHTER SIDE: Spike cracks a joke about something or other. Photo Sandy Coffey


Okay. So the gender pay dispute. Sorry to go back to it. I do think personally that if the winner of a CT event on the male and female side don't win the same, it's going to be a constant thorn in your side. I personally would suggest that there is parity at the top. Why don't you just take the prize money and divide it by two? Finished and Klaar. Straight off. Would that not be one of the things you would consider?

It’s not what we’re planning at the moment, no.

Really. Okay. So it’s just based on the numbers and the actual total prize purse?

Ya.

Okay. Fair enough.

I mean some people would say that would be very unfair for the surfers below.

Alright, and last thing. Facebook.

Yes! (Sounding a little relieved)

So I saw your Tweet (apologising for the poor Facebook quality during the JBay event where they launched the feed). I retweeted it. I thought it was honest and transparent. Obviously there were some teething issues, and now you’ve gone back to Plan B. Was the original system there as a backup just in case it didn’t work?

No we haven’t. What’s happening is always what was planned.

Oh right.

But there was a problem on Facebook’s end with some of the technical … so I mean yeah, with these big migrations the IT doesn’t always to according to plan … er … most people had no problem but if you were watching on a desktop in certain parts of the world there was an issue ...

(Interrupts) People were freaking out, ja

… on the first day, which was really unfortunate. I mean we did so much testing and it went really well. Unfortunately, yeah, these things happen and we feel really bad about it. But the good news is that we’ve solved the issues … um … and I think there are benefits of our Facebook relationship. For us it was about audience growth and also making sure people can access our content for free. Um. And Facebook is by far the largest media platform in world. (10 minutes remaining, says Gigs Cilliers on the loudspeakers)

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EARNEST: Goldschmidt makes a point about the future of professional surfing. Photo Sandy Coffey


And yeah, I think if you’re not already a Facebook user, all you need to do is enter your email address. We have really limited the amount of data you have to give. They’ve also made a lot of changes on that side. You can go exactly to the apps and all the different channels that you were using before and you’ll be auto redirected so I think it’s pretty seamless and people don’t have to pay for the content. So that was really important to us.

Speaking about that. A friend of Sandy (who is taking photos) came here - Helen - who had never seen a surf contest and was completely blown away.

Oh good!

She couldn’t believe that you don’t pay for it.

I know. We’re very generous! Look at all this infrastructure! And the content and the broadcast etc. So we try to be as fan friendly and … ya ... we probably don’t get enough credit for it ... but hey that’s our problem, not anyone else’s. But no, we want it to be as successful as possible.

Ja.

I think that’s one of the beauties of it. You know anyone can … I mean what sport could you be surfing with the world champion an hour before they compete in the water and then literally watch for free from yards away.

Yes. And also, in South Africa, we treat our celebrities with a sort of nonchalance, which is very cool. We don’t gush over them like you get overseas, like maybe in Brazil where they get mobbed.

Yeah. It’s great. It’s got a really nice vibe. It’s great here.

And have you been enjoying yourself?

Yes. Loving it. I only got in here yesterday.

And are you liking your job?

Loving my job. I have got the best job in the world.

I have just two questions for you (asks Wavescape photographer Sandy Coffey who has been shooting portraits of Goldschmidt, ironically one of which today found its way into the official press release sent out by the WSL when it announced equal pay in all WSL events from 2019.)

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SA CONNECTION: St Francis photographer Sandy Coffey shot this image used in the WSL press kit.


Describe yourself in three words (Sandy).

Erm … Oh my God.

Spike laughs. Wow Sandy! Talk about asking the hard questions.

I'm a girl! (Sandy)

I don’t know. Erm. (Pause) Hard working. Loyal ... (pause) ... and ... (pause) ... curious.

And out of the top CT surfers, who would you get to teach you how to surf? (Sandy)

Kelly Slater. (giggles coyly) You knew I was going to say that one.

No I didn’t! (Sandy)

Oh you didn’t?

And are there any plans for you to learn to surf? (Spike)

I do surf! Very badly. I mean not by this standard (pointing to her brood shredding the walls of Supers) but I can surf.

Thanks very much.

Thankyou.

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