Stab Magazine | The WSL And Hawaii Bid 'Aloha.’ Or, The Unfortunate Misadventures Of Sophie Goldschmidt

The WSL And Hawaii Bid ‘Aloha.’ Or, The Unfortunate Misadventures Of Sophie Goldschmidt

‘I reviewed the variances you are requesting and I am unable to accommodate the WSL.’ – Kirk Caldwell, Mayor of the City and County of Honolulu.

news // Feb 8, 2018
Words by stab
Reading Time: 7 minutes

This morning the World Surf League received the following letter (attached below) from the Mayor of the City and County of Honolulu Kirk Caldwell.

Dear Ms Goldschmidt:

Thank you for your letter dated January 31st, 2018, regarding the 2018-2019 North Shore surf applications and calendar. In your letter, you outline the requests for changes to your permit applications.

I understand that you are new to the World Surf League, but the organization has been doing business in Hawaii for decades, and your local representatives are knowledgeable and experienced in honoring the competitive process. As you know, the high quality of surf in Hawaii during the winter season is the reason we have so many organizations applying for the same beaches at the same time period. As such, we have a process in order to make a selection that is fair and systematic, and to ensure that everyone is treated equally.

I reviewed the variances you are requesting and I am unable to accommodate the WSL…

Kirk Caldwell


Without fail the yearly application process for North Shore surfing events is a contentious one. Despite the large amount of waves on offer the City and County of Honolulu only allows for a relatively small number of events.  

Events cannot run concurrently. Events cannot run two weekends in a row. Events on Sundays are forbidden. Holidays as well.

Only select beach parks can be employed, such as Ehukai, Sunset, Mokuleia, or Waimea. Wave craft, gender, impact on local community, and local participation are all taken into account when evaluating applicants.

This creates a zero sum game in which, no matter the result, most are left disappointed.

On October 19th, 2017, a letter was sent via certified mail to all current applicants for surf contest permits on Oahu’s North Shore. It informed applicants that there were numerous conflicting requests, as well as applications that did not comply with regulations regarding the permits. It stated that an extension was being granted and that all applicants now had until November 9th, more than three weeks, to submit any amended applications.

It also stated “…late applications will not be processed and will be returned to the applicant.”

The World Surf League did not submit an amended application, despite the fact that Deputy Commissioner Renato Hickel had publicly announced in October plans that made said amendments an absolute necessity for the WSL.

The WSL planned to end the 2018 season with the Pipe Masters, then run the event again, approximately a month later, in order to kick off the following year.

However, permits are granted based on season, not year, meaning that in order to fulfill this plan the WSL needed to apply for two separate Pipe Masters permits for the 2018/2019 winter seasons.

It did not. And by missing the November 9th deadline the WSL was unable to rectify the error.

In an effort to win an exception, the WSL made an effort to lobby local government. On January 28th letters (also attached below) were received by the offices of Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and US Representative Tulsi Gabbard requesting intervention on behalf of the World Surf League. In addition, last week Sophie Goldschmidt, newly minted WSL CEO, flew to Oahu in order to meet with local representatives and attempt to affect change in the company’s favor.

At issue was the World Surf League’s request that the pending application for the Volcom Pipe Pro be changed, so that the event could be run as the first event of the WSL’s revamped schedule.

Ms. Goldschmidt met with council members Anne Kobayashi and Ernie Martin, and attempted to schedule a meeting with Mayor Kirk Caldwell. Upon being informed that Mayor Caldwell’s schedule was full, Ms. Goldschmidt informed the Mayor’s office that the meeting needed to take place prior to midday the following Monday, February 5th, after which she was scheduled to return to the mainland. Ms. Goldschmidt was informed the office would make efforts to arrange the meeting.

On Friday, February 2nd, Ms. Goldschmidt arrived at the Mayor’s office unannounced and requested a meeting. At the time, Caldwell was not available as he was in the process of testifying at the Hawaii state capital.

She spoke with members of his staff who informed her that the WSL had missed the November 9th amendment deadline. Ms. Goldschmidt failed to provide any reason for missing said deadline. Furthermore, she was told that permit applications are not vetted by the Mayor, nor by the Director of Parks and Recreation. The decisions are made by a panel of Parks and Recreation staff in order to avoid an appearance of favoritism.

The Mayor’s staff told Goldshmidt they would work through the weekend in an attempt to find a solution.

However, over the weekend Ms. Goldschmidt approached the Honolulu Star Advertiser. In the resulting article Ms. Goldschmidt states that she believes the World Surf League is not being “treated fairly.”

“We’re not asking to add any windows or days,” she told the Star Advertiser. “It’s a very minimal administrative issue. From our perspective; it’s a no brainer.”

In reality, the WSL’s request is fairly large. Ms. Goldschmidt’s argument skirts the facts that, not only did the World Surf League miss the November 9th deadline, the permit application process is currently ongoing.

Thus far no permits at all have been awarded. Furthermore, the permitting process not only takes into account purported economic benefits to the City and County, but impact on local residents as well. As the Volcom Pipe Pro attracts only a small portion of the spectators compared to the Pipe Masters, the applications would not be evaluated in an identical fashion. In addition, the Volcom Pipe Pro features many more local Hawaiian surfers than the Pipe Masters, an issue which is considered and counted in favor of the event.

Finally, others had applied for the same January 29 – February 10, 2019 window. Their applications had been submitted in a proper, and timely, manner.

Ms. Goldschmidt went on to state that the World Surf League had been in contact with the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation for the last year, and had been informed only two weeks prior that “its request to switch dates for the two events might not be approved.”


In fact, while the WSL does maintain ongoing communications with the Department of Parks and Recreation, the DP&R was not informed of the planned changes until December 13th, 2017, more than a month after the deadline had passed.

In short, Ms. Goldschmidt was requesting that the City and County not only ignore the WSL’s inability to comply with the permitting process, but to also grant the permits without taking into consideration those submitted by others.

And there’s certainly more to this than simply “switching dates.” What the WSL is requesting is a cancellation of 2019’s Volcom Pipe Pro, and a substitution of a second Pipe Masters.

Because permits are granted based on winter season, rather than calendar year, the World Surf League’s proposal means that there would be a twenty-one month gap between Volcom events (reducing the amount of competition slots at Pipeline available to local Hawaiian surfers who have not qualified for the Championship Tour).

In tandem with Ms. Goldschmidt’s efforts, the WSL enlisted various surfers to speak on their behalf. Billy Kemper, Kelly Slater, and Fred Hemmings provided statements in favor of the World Surf League (and against the threat of World Tour surfing vanishing from Hawaii entirely).

Perennial Triple Crown standout and Hawaiian surfing icon, Sunny Garcia, volunteered to speak on behalf of the local surfers’ interests.

“It doesn’t take a fucking genius to figure it out, right?” he said. “We’re not going to have the Volcom [Pipe Pro] in January. Now it’s going to run in December. So what part of that are we losing? So now you still have the Volcom, which will be in December with the other two Prime events [Sunset, Haleiwa], so now we got three in a row. So how are we losing out an event? Because they’re not surfing in January, but they’re surfing in December??”

I pointed out that there would be a twenty-one month gap between events, and that local surfers would, in fact, lose an event that year in which to compete.

“As far as I’m concerned, [the Mayor’s Office] not helping this process, if the WSL takes their events and leaves, that fucks everybody. Tourism, the surfers, the state of Hawaii.”

When asked if the WSL truly planned to leave Hawaii should the permit fail to be granted, Sunny said he did not know, but, “If I were them I’d be, like, fuck Hawaii. Here we are bringing all this money and revenue into Hawaii and promoting it, unlike other sports like football and golf, who we pay to come here and don’t do anything for us. Yeah, if I were them I’d fucking pull that shit and be, like, ‘Fuck Hawaii.’ You know, you guys don’t want to fucking help us with some little stipulation in the rules, then why should we even be here?”

Of course, football games and golf tournaments take place on private property, whereas surfing uses a shared public resource. While those sports receive government subsidies, many argue that temporarily privatizing a public resource amounts to the same thing. The $7 million dollars the WSL reportedly spends on the contest each year reflects the price of logistics, only. Money paid to the City and County is minimal.

So how did we get here? In the past, the City and County has proven itself more than willing to work with the World Surf League. Of the sixteen total permits granted for the 2017/2018 winter season seven of them were given to the World Surf League. The Department of Parks and Recreation has also, in the past, been willing to grant variances in order to facilitate the World Surf League’s format. One example of which is the overlapping man on man, or three man, heat format. Regulations state that all heats must have at least four contestants.

The question remains whether the WSL is truly willing to pull out of Hawaii altogether, or merely cease running the Pipe Masters for the foreseeable future.

Evidence seems to point toward the former, as reflected by yesterday’s statement from the Mayor Kirk Caldwell, and Ms. Goldschmidt’s statement to the Star Advertiser.

“If we can’t get these minor administrative changes made, 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 said.  

Information from other sources confirms a willingness to withdraw from the state of Hawaii as a whole, should the World Surf League not receive the permits.

Unfortunately for all involved—fans, surfers, and businesses that profit from the events—Ms. Goldschmidt’s statements to the press has made that withdrawal all the more likely. The chance to arrange a backroom deal went out the window the moment the matter was made public.

There are many other stakeholders who have followed the regulations in the understanding that it would allow them a fair chance to attain a permit. Should the City and County ignore the regulations and grant the WSL what it desires, those same stakeholders would likely file lawsuits en masse.

They will have cause, and there is a good chance they would win. 

As a political issue, the matter looks even more grim, from the WSL’s perspective. Ms. Goldschmidt’s claim that the WSL spends $7 million dollars on events, which brings in another $20 million in “economic impacts” looks meager when compared to the total $15.6 Billion in tourist spending reported for 2016.

It would be an easy matter for the WSL to lay blame for the loss on the City and County’s doorstep, but in no way is that amount of money going to curry favor during election year—accusations that administrators sold out a public resource to a mainland corporation in the face of extortion don’t go over well in Hawaii.

The majority of voters do not surf, do not care about surfing, but place a high value on the ability to freely enjoy the state’s natural resources.

The entire affair seems to be the regrettable consequence of the WSL’s new CEO navigating clumsily through negotiations with an island on which the value of interpersonal relationships trumps all. If the WSL leaves Hawaii, it will be of their own volition, a result of failing to follow clearly established guidelines.

By all accounts, the State of Hawaii wishes to retain its storied and rich tradition of professional surfing. Whether that tradition continues is in the hands of the World Surf League.


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