Surfing is a very special and unique sport and industry. It's not a cliché - it's the truth and the reality. So, what should we look for when selecting the chief executive officer (CEO) of the World Surf League (WSL)?
At first, a passionate surfer would say that surfing and management are two worlds that cannot be blended.
"It's like water and oil. They don't mix," one could say.
But we are not even digging into the discussion on whether competitive surfing should exist or not.
Humans are competitive by Nature.
Those who think we should all surf for the pleasure of dancing on waves for the rest of our lives don't quite observe the world we're living in.
We are all different; we all want different things.
Simultaneously, transforming a sport like surfing into a strictly competitive, money-making outdoor activity is ludicrous and impracticable.
So, if there's got to be a World Surf League (WSL), how do we make it better? How can we improve the professional surfing circuit to make it one of the most entertaining sports leagues on Earth?
What does it take to find an optimal balance between keeping the core values of surfing intact, the essence of competition, and a sustainable business model?
The answer is complex, but it definitely starts with the right CEO.
The WSL is a sports organization like the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), and the Premier League (EPL), even though it operates on a planetary level.
They are privately held companies, meaning that the ownership is in the hands of one or several shareholders.
With ownership comes investment. And risk.
So, as the founder and owner of a lemonade stand, you need to buy the stand itself, the table, the cups, the lemons, and the squeezer/juicer.
The return on your investment (ROI), i.e., the sales and net profit, will be partially channeled to pay your salary or the wages of the person working at the stand.
Can you imagine running a lemonade stand that reports consecutive daily losses for several years? Does it make any sense? Is it rational?
So, the goal of the WSL, like any other company, is to be profitable - in the short, medium, or long term.
The critics of WSL often say the professional surfing circuit "has become a business" that is "only focused on making money."
Well, it might sound unpopular, but that is precisely what a company is meant to be - profitable - even if it involves our precious and dear sport of surfing.
Surfing wouldn't be what it is today without the so-called "industry."
A surfboard shaper is a businessperson. An independent, sustainable surf wax brand is a business. A local surf shop is a business. A surfing news website is a business. A surf school is a business.
So, why do we demonize larger organizations like the WSL?
Is the relationship mentioned above between the heart of surfing, competition, and financial sustainability off balance?
Oftentimes, and partially, yes. And that's why you need the right CEO.
Pro Surfing: A Sensitive Cauldron
Selecting the right surfer executive to lead a growing sports organization is a critical moment that requires a clear vision from the ownership.
Dirk Edward Ziff is the owner of the World Surf League.
In 2013, he bought the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), the structure behind the World Tour, via ZoSea Media Holdings.
ZoSea's investing team also included Paul Speaker, a former executive at Quiksilver, and Terry Hardy, Kelly Slater's career manager.
ZoSea poured between $25-50 million into the ASP in the early days to transform the structure into a global, internet, online broadcast, and social media era-friendly sports circuit.
By 2015, the ASP World Tour had been renamed World Surf League. Several top executive changes and lawsuits followed.
Speaker (2012-2017), Ziff (2017), Sophie Goldschmidt (2017-2020), and Erik Logan (2020-2023) served as CEO of the world's largest competitive surfing circuit.
Between 2012 and 2022, WSL never quite found its sweet spot in the sensitive balance that includes the business side, the athletes, and the fans.
Running ten elite competitions across multiple world-renowned surf breaks is a challenging task.
The logistics, human resources, and prize-money package soured to up to $3 million per event despite the initial goal to bring it to $1 million.
So, how do you balance these monthly investments without sacrificing the quality and uniqueness of your lemonade?
Can sponsors and naming rights cover the expenses? Partially, yes.
And how do you fill the remaining red gap? How do you marry financial sustainability and the sport's essence in the eyes of the fans?
What revenue sources are available to keep a professional surfing world tour healthy and afloat?
How do you measure the negative and positive impact on fans and mainstream spectators of pure monetization formats like reality shows, documentary series, preloading interstitial ads, and alcohol and CBD-related sponsors?
Where's the fine line between losing money and selling out?
And most importantly, how do you answer the more important question - where and what do you want the WSL to be in the next five and ten years?
Like several other mainstream sports, professional competitive surfing is a recipe with many intense ingredients.
Managing a sports organization is not exactly like running a global maritime transport company or a world-leading breakfast cereal brand.
There are fans, athletes, and a large cauldron of emotions to manage.
Consequently, a very important first step needs to be taken - the alignment of the owner/shareholder's vision with the CEO's execution prowess.
It's the moment when the owner shares his where-I-want-go thoughts with the executive's how-I-plan-to-do-it ideas.
Are these two axes/variables aligned? If so, it's time to make it happen.
The WSL CEO Checklist
Once the owner has a clear knowledge of the "what, where, and when," it's time to find the "who" to execute it.
There are hundreds of human resources companies specialized in finding the right CEO for this and that organization.
Although these executive hunters can be precious timesavers, you might not need them to find the right person to run the ultimate competitive surfing show.
Let's use a small percentage of our grey matter to note down some ideal personal characteristics and professional skills that might help make sense when selecting the CEO of the WSL.
Some of the following traits are simultaneously interchangeable.
- Surfer/Non-Surfer: You don't necessarily need to be vegan to run a vegan restaurant, but it could help. There's always a thin line when deciding whether a competent surfer or an executive rock star who has never ridden a wave should run a global, media-focused organization like the WSL.
- Engaged Personality: As the heart and soul of the organization, a CEO of the WSL must be able to understand and be aware of their human resources needs on a daily basis. For that, empathy is critical to get the train moving at a healthy pace. Listening to the hierarchy from top to bottom is the secret to a cohesive organization. A magnetic personality can naturally inspire a team.
- Loyalty: A leader protects, defends, and supports their team. Always - in the good and bad times. The shareholders included. In return, the captain of the ship will have more chances of having their sailors following him.
- Affability: You will expect a professional surfing circuit to run a relatively laid-back, medium-sized company, so friendliness and good-natured manners are welcome. It's a business within an industry, but not Wall Street.
- Honesty/Integrity: Moral correctness is first a personal trait and only then a professional characteristic. There is a right and wrong, whether we're dealing with people or numbers. Integrity should be part of who we are and not only what we do.
- Patience: The life of a company is never linear - it's a walk through high mountains and deep valleys. Overcoming setbacks, problems, misfortune, and complications and solving more or less serious issues occupy most of a CEO's time. It could be a pandemic, a sudden global economic crisis, or a disruption in the organization's regular activity. Patience is a valuable virtue.
- Business Background: The business world is highly demanding and rarely forgiving. You'll need to negotiate and sign contracts with suppliers and partners, design and approve marketing plans, decide on technological investments, control and review the finances, and deal with unexpected setbacks. Previous experience in launching and managing businesses could be highly useful.
- Competence: Some people can be really good at what they do. Sometimes, it's in their blood; sometimes, they develop skills with experience. Competence is the skill of being highly successful and efficient and an attribute you really need if you're the ship's captain. You either perform or you don't.
- Natural Leadership: The ability of an individual to influence, guide, and inspire others without being formally designated as a leader is not something you acquire or learn in the books. It just emerges naturally and effortlessly. The CEO of the WSL should draw not only their team towards them but also athletes, fans, sponsors, and other stakeholders. With charisma, emotional intelligence, cooperation, teamwork, motivation, confidence, and determined decision-making, the leader gets his team to respect their opinions and follow their directions.
- Ethics: Principles are a crucial element of a good CEO's leadership. An executive who values and promotes ethical behavior sets a positive tone at the top that trickles down to all levels of the organization. And it's more about what they do than what they say. Transparency, fairness, respect for others, lawful conduct, social responsibility, and accountability are some of the ethical pillars of a business leader, and they should never be negotiable.
- Problem-Solving: As we've seen above, patience is required to solve problems - all the time. There's an array of short-, medium-, and long-term issues to be addressed, from internal issues like conflicts between team members to external problems such as changes in market trends, regulatory changes, or even global crises. Anticipating problems and designing mitigation and risk management plans are also part of the game.
- Communication: Clarity sharing messages and active listening are two sides of the same coin when managing a business. Communication skills are crucial for a CEO's effectiveness. It's critical to explain complex issues in simple, understandable terms and provide clear directions that minimize confusion. Simultaneously, listening to the thoughts, ideas, and concerns of their employees, stakeholders, and fans and being open to feedback will only transform the organization into a well-oiled machine.
- Ambition: It's one of the most controversial aspects of executive life. An ambitious CEO is often portrayed as a ruthless representative of capitalism and greed. But is that mainstream idea really fair? Shouldn't a leader aim for a better, bigger, and more solid organization? Aren't companies born to thrive and grow? Weren't aviation pioneers driven by the dream to cross the Atlantic nonstop? A healthy dose of ambition, mixed with some craziness, makes waves.
- Board Alignment: A full agreement between a CEO, the board, and shareholders is crucial for the effective functioning and success of a company. The CEO is primarily responsible for executing the company's strategy. If the CEO's vision and approach aren't in line with that of the board and the shareholders, it can lead to conflict, mismanagement, and failure to achieve strategic objectives. The owner is the one investing his money and resources into WSL. However, it's important to note that "perfect alignment" doesn't mean that the CEO, board, and shareholders will agree on everything. Differences of opinion are natural and can be beneficial, as they can lead to more thorough discussions and better decisions.
Different times require different leaders. A good CEO for today might not be the right person to lead tomorrow's WSL.
And no one is irreplaceable.
But some timeless characteristics and skills could help transform the World Surf League into one of the most exciting sports circuits to follow and get inspiration from.
May the magical vision of the Dream Tour galvanize the next leader.
Words by Luís MP | Founder of SurferToday.com