So Long, Pipe Masters?
A permitting issue and public dispute between the mayor of Honolulu and World Surf League CEO Sophie Goldschmidt may have just killed surfing's most iconic event
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Since 1971, Pipeline, on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, has hosted men’s professional surfing’s most prestigious—and ultimate—contest of the year, the Pipe Masters. For athletes coming into the event low in the world tour ratings, Pipe is a last chance to secure a spot on the following season’s tour. For world title contenders, the event offers the chance for a career-defining performance in some of the most difficult and dangerous waves on the planet. “Pipe is our Madison Square Garden,” former world champion C.J. Hobgood says. “It’s what our sport is built around.”
But beginning in 2019, the Pipe Masters’ place as the Decider will be no more. Last summer, the World Surf League, the governing body of pro surfing, began planning a major scheduling overhaul for the men’s 2019 world tour—the most significant being the decision to switch the Pipe Masters from the season closer to its opener. To make that change, the WSL had to amend its annual permit application to the City and County of Honolulu’s Department of Parks and Recreation by November 9, 2017. Although the WSL filed applications for its six traditional North Shore events by that deadline, the league didn’t inform the department that it intended to move the event to February 2019 until December 13. The department rejected the WSL’s request, leading to a row between Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt.
According to a source familiar with the WSL’s negotiations, in the last several months of 2017, phone calls, emails, and other attempts at communication with Caldwell’s office went unanswered. Caldwell’s spokesperson, Andrew Pereira, disputes that. “I did respond to several text messages, I think some phone calls, emails to Jodi Wilmott [WSL Hawaii/Tahiti general manager] regarding this matter,” he told me.
Whether Goldschmidt directly communicated with any city and county official is unclear. On February 2, Goldschmidt traveled to Honolulu in an attempt to persuade officials to grant the WSL the permitting change for a February 2019 Pipe Masters. Goldschmidt arrived at the mayor’s office that same day, along with Wilmott and former world champion and Hawaiian Sunny Garcia. Pereira says that even though the city wasn’t aware the WSL representatives were coming, he and a Parks and Recreation official met with the group for “a good half-hour, maybe a little bit more, listening to their concerns.” Goldschmidt wanted to speak with Caldwell in person, but, Pereira says, the mayor was away at the time of her visit, testifying at the state capital.
Frustrated, Goldschmidt went to the press, threatening to pull all of the WSL’s Hawaiian events. “If we can’t get these minor administrative changes made,” she told the Honolulu Star Advertiser, “we won’t be able to come back in 2019, and if that happens, the likelihood is that we won’t be able to return for years.” Goldschmidt noted that while the WSL spends around $7 million annually on its Hawaiian events, generating about $20 million in economic impact, the state offers no funding in return. In response, Caldwell says he felt strong-armed by the WSL. “That’s not how we do business in Hawaii,” he says. “That isn’t pono [right].”
In the past, the WSL might have been more delicate when faced with an issue as serious as the potential loss of the Pipe Masters. But Goldschmidt, pro surfing’s first-ever female CEO, represents a new, bolder chapter in the league’s long—and yet to be fulfilled—journey to financial stability. The WSL has struggled to acquire and maintain lucrative sponsorships, mostly for the simple reason that broadcasting surfing events on live television is next to impossible. (Mother Nature brings the waves when she’s ready.) Goldschmidt, who came to the WSL last July after a career in the Rugby Football Union, Women’s Tennis Association, and the NBA, is now tasked with fixing this problem.
While a major overhaul of both the men’s and women’s world tours has been Goldschmidt’s most public accomplishment, there have also been changes internally, including to staffing, which one insider suggested to me may have contributed to the confusion over the North Shore’s surfing events permitting rules. “I don’t think [the WSL] has all the answers,” says Hobgood, who spent 17 years on the world tour and served in an advisory role as a surfers’ representative. “But it’s not financially sustainable to keep doing what they were doing.”
Almost two weeks after Goldschmidt’s visit, during a February 14 press conference to address the dispute, Caldwell, who has been the Honolulu mayor since 2013, seemed to be backing down. “My request to the World Surf League…is please don’t yank your contests,” he says. “We’ve heard your concerns, and we’d like to see what we can do to make it better in the future, but let’s not hurt folks in the short term.” To allay future conflicts, Caldwell called for the creation of an advisory committee to oversee the surfing events permitting process, which would include key players from Hawaii’s surf community and—potentially—amend the rules so that legacy surf competitions, like the Pipe Masters, would require a permit only every three years or so. Pereira also stressed to me that there is nothing stopping the WSL from holding the Pipe Masters during its traditional, end-of-season timeframe in December 2019. “We’re willing to fully work with them,” he says.
But Goldschmidt is holding her ground. The WSL declined to comment for this article, but in a press release on February 15, the WSL said it “will pursue alternative options to open the season next year.” As of now, there will be no Pipe Masters—“one of the best shows on Earth,” as Hobgood puts it—in 2019. Hobgood remains mixed about the WSL’s search for a new Madison Square Garden. “It is a letdown if the season doesn’t finish at Pipe,” he says. But “Sophie needs to just seize the opportunity,” he continues. “The old way’s not working, so change it up. What’s the worst thing that could happen—that this new strategy doesn’t work either?”