Early one morning in late March, Sophie Goldschmidt, the 44-year-old CEO of the World Surf League (WSL), settled back into a swivel chair in an empty, glass-walled conference room within the league’s Santa Monica, California, headquarters. She cradled a cup of tea and reflected on the day in the spring of 2017 that an unknown recruiter called her about taking professional surfing’s top position. At the time, the only thing Goldschmidt knew about the sport was what her boyfriend, also a surfer, had told her. “I’d heard of Kelly Slater and Bethany Hamilton,” she told me. “That was it.”
But the job intrigued her, and by that August, she and her boyfriend had traded their comfortable lives in London for Southern California and the wilderness of professional surfing.
In her year and a half on the job, Goldschmidt, who was born in Wimbledon, England, and previously worked as an executive for the NBA, England’s Rugby Football Union, and the Women’s Tennis Association, has overseen some sweeping changes in the sport, none more important than her announcement in September that the WSL would pay its women and men athletes equally. The decision, which came as a surprise even to the WSL’s surfers, made the league the first U.S.-based global sports organization to offer equal pay and among the first to do so worldwide.
At the WTA, Goldschmidt had brokered the biggest deal in the history of women’s sports up to that point—an $88 million, six-year contract with Sony Ericsson to be the WTA’s title sponsor. Billie Jean King, who Goldschmidt had gotten to know personally while working at the WTA, is one of her heroes. The deal with Ericsson, Goldschmidt says, felt inextricable from the strides King began making in the seventies. “The progress she made,” Goldschmidt says, “laid the foundation for that.”
For the WSL’s 2019 season, the league launched a sweeping Women’s Initiative. Outside the conference room, pinned on pegboards and walls were colorful printouts of marketing material and motivational catchphrases for employees. One Wave for Everyone was the guiding theme. But now there was another pivotal moment on the horizon that would be pushing professional surfing—which has long been dominated by men and plagued by sexism—further into uncharted territory.
In a few days’ time, the 2019 men’s and women’s World Tour season would begin on Australia’s Gold Coast. Before the competitions started, there would be an awards gala where the previous year’s world champions would be officially honored. Among those to be crowned was Keala Kennelly, who had clinched the title for the newly created Women’s Big Wave Tour. Kennelly, who is openly gay, had been pushing Goldschmidt and the WSL to clearly state that homosexual athletes were welcome in professional surfing.
Kennelly had some reason to be worried. On March 6, Goldschmidt had sent an e-mail to the tour’s women athletes outlining the WSL’s 2019 Women’s Initiative. “The ocean doesn’t care who you are or where you came from, the color of your skin, your gender, or about other personal choices you make,” she wrote. That Goldschmidt had not written gay or LGBTQ, instead chosing the ambiguous phrase “other personal choices,” frustrated Kennelly. “Being gay is not a choice,” Kennelly says. Having to pretend to be straight to preserve your sponsors and standing in professional surfing, as Kennelly once felt she had to do, is a choice. “I’m hoping it’s just an oversight,” she said. “But it would be nice if they actually came out and said gay and LGBTQ.”
On the surface, the WSL’s announcement of equal pay in September seemed as flawless as it was groundbreaking. But the news was followed by a damaging, 9,000-word article in the February issue of The New York Times Magazine, in which a group of women big-wave surfers, including Kennelly, outlined pro surfing’s longstanding, systemic sexism and homophobia and accused Goldschmidt and the WSL of proliferating these biases.
The group, called the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS) and cofounded by Kennelly and fellow big-wave surfers Paige Alms, Andrea Moller, and Bianca Valenti, along with Karen Tynan, a labor lawyer, and Sabrina Brennan, a commissioner with California’s San Mateo County Harbor District, had accused Goldschmidt and the WSL of being resistant to equal pay. The group asserted that if it hadn’t been for its public pressure for equity in pro surfing, in the summer of 2018, Goldschmidt would never have announced equal pay when she did.
“Equal prize money was part of a long-term strategy and a natural next step for the WSL, given everything that we’d done over recent years,” Goldschmidt says. “We had plans to implement it for events beginning in 2019, and wanted to ensure it was announced at a time that made sense for the WSL, and were not going to be pressured into doing it due to other agendas.”
“I do believe that the WSL probably had long-term plans to do equal pay at some point,” Kennelly told me. “But us forming CEWS just applied some pressure and made it happen a little quicker.”
Exactly how much the pressure from CEWS factored into the league’s decision to announce equal pay when it did remains, for now, a secret. Nevertheless, Goldschmidt’s assertion that the WSL’s decision to award equal prize money was part of a long-term strategy is, as Kennelly pointed out, not wrong.
In 2013, after the WSL took over pro surfing’s governing-body predecessor, the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), the women’s tour was on life support. Compared to the men’s 11 events, the women’s had been reduced to eight—an improvement from 2011, which had seven. The total prize purse per event for the women was $110,000. For the men, it was $425,000. The women’s winner received $15,000, while the men’s winner received $75,000. A cringeworthy example of where professional surfing culture stood in terms of gendered tone deafness was the webcast of the 2012 Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, which featured cutaways and commercial breaks with the voice-over of a woman moaning sexually.
The WSL’s new management immediately began working to improve the women’s tour. Jessi Miley-Dyer, the women’s tour commissioner, was tasked with bringing the tour up to ten events and boosting the prize money. Still, in 2014, the men’s winner at each event got a $100,000 check, while the women’s winner received $60,000. Now, in 2019, the men’s and women’s event champions each get $100,000. Second-place finishers each get $55,000; third, $30,000; and so on down the line.
“To have a new management and ownership team who said, ‘Of course we’re going to do this for you’—we had never had that before,” Miley-Dyer said.
As Goldschmidt and I spoke in Santa Monica, the WSL’s offices gradually began to fill up. The waves happened to be good that morning, so many of the league’s 100 or so employees were running late. The WSL had recently gone on a hiring spree—its benefactor, Dirk Ziff, a publishing heir, and his wife, Natasha, were doubling down on their goal of bringing surfing into the mainstream.
I asked Goldscmidt if the league was ready financially for the shift to equal pay. “We’re making an investment,” she said. “I think sometimes it’s been lost on people that for brands and certain organizations, pay equity has to be affordable for it to be sustainable, and you need the investment to be able to do it.” I wondered if it wasn’t lack of investment in the first place that has caused women’s sports to be perceived by some leagues, companies, and fans to be inferior to men’s. “I think that’s a strong argument,” she said. “I’m very aware that there are huge discrepancies. Progress has been made, but my God, it’s been slow in a lot of areas.”
For Cori Schumacher, a former three-time ASP World Tour longboard champion, the progress has come too late. Like Kennelly, Schumacher is gay and has long been critical of pro surfing and the surf industry for their homophobia and disinterest in paying women fairly yet their insistence on advertising them as sexual objects.
In 2008, Schumacher married her long-time partner and two years later won her second world title, becoming surfing’s first openly gay world champion, but the ASP barely acknowledged her. “I never received an invitation to go pick up my trophy at the awards gala in Australia along with every other world champion that year,” she told me. “It was never acknowledged, and I never received my trophy.” (Goldschmidt says she wasn’t aware of the circumstances behind Schumacher never receiving her trophy, but, she assured me, “the WSL will make sure she gets one.”) She walked away from professional surfing and entered politics as a city councilwoman in San Diego. Today she’s behind a proposal in the California legislature, Assembly Bill 467, which would require equal prize money for women and men at any sporting event on state-owned land.
Kennelly, who competed on the women’s tour between 1998 and 2007, described to me a similar experience to Schumacher’s. “When I first came on tour, I immediately saw how the ASP, how the other athletes, how the industry as a whole looked at athletes who they presumed to be gay,” she told me. “People talked about lesbians in such a negative way, and since I wanted to fit in and not draw attention to myself or ever have people question me, I would just jump on the bandwagon and do the same.”
Like Schumacher, Kennelly walked away from the tour. “I couldn’t deal with living a double life anymore,” she said. “I was lonely, I was depressed, I was suicidal at points. Winning a world title was my dream ever since I was a little kid, and when I left the tour, I felt like I’d completely failed at my dream.” In 2016, Kennelly was given a second chance. That year, the WSL created the Women’s Big Wave Tour. Coupled with equal prize money, Kennelly could finally have the opportunity to make a living off surfing.
For the WSL, Kennelly’s impending world championship also offered a second chance. “It’s time for surfing to come out,” Schumacher told me. “And for professional surfing to be the lead in this conversation.”
At the awards gala on March 20, Kennelly stood at the podium, with the world-title trophy sitting next to her. She told a story about how, when she was 25 and had just fallen short of winning a world title, she’d thought her life was over. “I was hiding in the closet, soaked in shame, living in fear, and I hated myself, because I didn’t think you could be world champion and gay at the same time.” Now, she continued, “I get to be proud of who I am, and I get to love myself exactly as I am, not as people would want me to be. And it’s my hope that I’m going to inspire other LGBTQ athletes that are suffering in silence to live your truth.”
Unfortunately, no one else who took the stage that night had been as explicit as Kennelly. But the next day, the WSL published various clips of the awards ceremony on its website, and only one of the speeches: “Keala Kennelly’s Powerful Acceptance Speech” read the headline. I asked Goldschmidt to clarify her and the WSL’s position on LGBTQ surfers. The league’s Every Wave for Everyone campaign, she wrote to me in an e-mail, “is literally about what it says. Our initial focus has been around getting more women and girls engaged in surfing, as part of our overall strategy to further elevate women’s surfing. But we’re encouraging everyone to get involved; any gender, nationality, sexual orientation, or religion.”
A few days later, I spoke with Kennelly. “My feeling is, between Sophie and especially Jessi, that they’re really trying to end the discrimination against LGBTQ athletes and really change things on the WSL, so I’m trying to support them in that,” she said. “Baby steps, you know.”