Starting in 2019, the World Surf League, the governing body of professional surfing, will award the same amount of prize money to male and female competitors. This will be across the board, for all types of contest the WSL organizes, from the elite-level World Championship Tour to the Big Wave World Tour and lower-tier qualifying series events.
This is a very big deal. The WSL becomes one of the first global sports organizations to award the same amount of prize money for men and women.
The news also comes on the heels of two somewhat embarrassing events in terms of a gender pay gap in surfing. Back in June, a photo went viral of the male and female winners of a Junior Series event in South Africa holding their oversized winner’s checks; Rio Waida, the male winner held a check for 8,000 rand while Zoe Steyn, the female winner, received only 4,000. For the same contest win. Hundreds of commenters on social media expressed outrage at the disparity. The WSL awarded prize money based on the number of competitors in each event, and since there are typically far more male competitors than female, the men’s draw had more prize money to spread around. Still, the optics rankled.
Then, in August, it was announced that a prestigious big-wave contest at California’s fearsome break, Mavericks, which was including a full women’s slate of competitors for the first time, was unlikely to receive the necessary permits from the California State Lands Commission to run the event unless men and women competitors were awarded the same prize money.
Bianca Valenti, a big-wave competitor and member of group called the Committee for Equality in Women’s Surfing, said in a recent interview, “If you want to promote pro surfing, you have to support the surfers. Including and paying both men and women equally is about accountability.”
The WSL retracted their application for the Mavericks contest in the wake of the commission’s decision, and the surf world waited with bated breath for the fallout.
Nobody expected they’d announce, out of the blue, a decision to go all-in on addressing the gender pay gap.
Multiple World Champion Stephanie Gilmore wrote of the decision in an article in the Player’s Tribune:
“Today is a very proud day for me. I’m proud to be a surfer. Proud to be a female surfer. I feel like the momentum in our society to have this conversation is incredible — because it’s not just in surfing, or in sport, that women are fighting for equality in the workplace. It’s everywhere. And for this announcement to come now, and for it to happen during my career — and then to have the support of so many male surfers, including Kelly Slater — is unbelievable.”
Kelly Slater, easily the greatest competitive surfer in history, and, at 46, still the sport’s most marketable face, contributed to the same article:
“What [pro women surfers] are able to do out there is every bit as difficult and as dangerous and as impressive as what any man on the tour does. And starting now, they’re going to receive equal prize money for it.”
For years, women’s professional surfing has been something of a sideshow, a warmup act for the men’s draw. Most years see the women’s tour have fewer events, often at lesser surf spots. Typically, during a contest period when the men’s and women’s draws are competing at the same break, the women will be forced to surf when the waves are smaller or windier or otherwise not as impressive as the surf during the men’s heats. And of course, the prize money women received would be dwarfed by the men.
Recent years has seen an improvement in the wave quality pro women surf, and has seen them make inroads on the competitive big-wave surfing scene as well—see their inclusion in the Mavericks event, and a women’s heat in a competition at Maui’s terrifying break Jaws—but elevating the pay to reach that of the men was a step few saw coming.
“This is a natural next step for us,” said the WSL’s CEO Sophie Goldschmidt. “We always said it was a question of when and not if. It has always been a part of the conversation since the new ownership group took over in 2013.”
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