Parity Meets Progression: Looking at Pay Equality in the World of Pro Surfing

The figures might surprise you.

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May 24 2016, 2:45pm

WSL / Steve Robertson

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Australia.

The figures might surprise you.

Sport, inherently, is sexist – sometimes that means men are put at a disadvantage, sometimes women are put at a disadvantage. And it's both the athletes' and the governing bodies' jobs to keep their sports as evenly parred and fairly played between competing men and women.

For a long time, however, women's surfing was under-supported. Much like Raymond Moore (the Indian Wells Tennis Garden CEO) believes the women's tennis tour rides "on the coat-tails of men", that's how the women's surfing tour was viewed for a long time in the industry.

Rebecca Woods, Photo : ASP/ Kirstin- WSL

But all of that changed in 2014, when the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) was officially consumed by the World Surf League (WSL). Up until that point in time, the women's tour was in a state of disarray, mostly due to the fact that the main sponsors at the time (Billabong, Quiksilver and RipCurl) didn't see market value in the female side of the sport.

Because of this, women were losing main events (the events that they did have were held in crap surf) and prize money was vastly skewed in favour of the men.

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"When the three big surf brands at the time started going bad, it reflected onto the women's events," Rebecca Woods, Women's World Tour surfer from 2005 – 2013, tells VICE Sports. "The women were struggling for events, so if the ASP put the prize money up, we wouldn't have had a tour to compete in. That's what we were faced with. I mean, we felt that there was a market for women's surfing, but the sponsors had all the power and they didn't think there was money to be made out of it – and that was really disheartening. It was a weird time in women's surfing history."

And right when Woods fell off tour at the end of 2013, the ASP was officially swallowed up by the WSL*. In that first full year, prize money was brought to parity between tours, the women's tour saw the addition of Fiji, Trestles and Maui as events (all world-class waves), and the event in France was moved to a better location during a better part of the year for surf.

"Essentially, every surfer (male or female) in a WSL CT (Championship Tour) event today takes home an average of $15,306," Dave Prodan, the VP of Communications for the WSL, tells VICE Sports. "The math that breaks that down is you have 18 female surfers in a women's CT competing for a prize purse of $275,500 in total. $275,500 divided by 18 is $15,306.

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"The men have twice as many contestants in their fields for CT events, at 36 (double the women's field) and they're competing for a prize purse of $551,000 (double the women's prize purse). $551,000 divided by 36 (competitors) is also $15,306."

And if you're wondering why they wouldn't just even out competitor numbers between the men and women's tours, the answer is simple – the figures don't add up. To get onto the World Tour, athletes have to make it to the top of the Qualifying Series (QS) ladder. Anyone who wants to surf in a QS event can apply for entry, and if space allows, will get the go-ahead. Right now, 866 men are vying for entry onto the World Tour via the QS, whereas only 234 women are competing on the female side. If those numbers of prospective tour surfers are an accurate representation of male/female surfers (or at least those with hopes of going pro), one could even say that women are overrepresented. If the same number of men and women were filtered through to the World Tour, the WSL could potentially be risking the standard of talent on the CT.

VICE asked Dave if there was ever talk of running equal prize purses, despite the difference in competitor numbers. "Well, if you were to run 'equal' prize money for equal places from men's to women's, then the women would end up with a prize purse of $380,000 and an average of $21,111 – to the men's $15,306 – so there would be a disparity there."

And since the prize purse has been leveled out between men and women, the women's tour has seen more progression than ever before. There have been more 10-point rides, more airs, more barrels, more commitment and more drama than women's surfing has ever seen. The level of the sport has skyrocketed. We asked Woods if she thought this could be attributed to the prize purse and added events. "Women have been given a big self-esteem boost, and given a sense that they do belong in the industry. Whereas before that, a lot of the women felt like we were just the sideshow, the afterthought."

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Lakey Peterson Shredding. Photo Courtesy : WSL / Kelly Cestari

Lakey Peterson, a current World Tour competitor who was also on tour before the WSL took over, agrees. "I remember being on an email chain with Stephanie Gilmore, myself and Sage Erickson. Jessi Miley-Dyer (the WSL Women's Commissioner) gave us a heads up on the change in prize money, and I read it and was blown away. Within a few minutes Steph and Sage both wrote back and said something like, 'Wow, next year is going to be pretty sweet!'

"But honestly, I think it was a long time coming, and I think it did get to the point where the difference between the men and women's prize money was pretty bad. It didn't look good on women's surfing or the WSL. It got to a point where it was obviously uneven and, frankly, not cool.

"I'm so grateful that the WSL recognised that and made it a priority, because it's a lot of money when you add it all up. That's not just small change. For the first time we really felt noticed and recognised and valued. I personally felt like, 'Ok wow, they DO care about women's surfing and they DO think we're important.' It was a huge confidence booster, and gosh, it made me want to win more and really do my best. It adds motivation to want to do better, to make it further in the contest, to make a good living. I think it was the best thing that's happened to women's surfing in a long time, and I'm super grateful."

We asked Lakey if she believes the sport would have progressed so quickly in the past three years if the WSL hadn't stepped in...

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"Honestly? I don't know! I think that maybe we wouldn't be pushing so hard? Maybe some of us would, simply just because we love surfing, and for the sake of wanting to do our absolute best. But to be honest with you, I do think that the money has added a huge amount of confidence and dedication to the sport. For a lot of us, it made us take the tour a lot more seriously – I realised that it really is a job, and a career, and you can really set yourself up for the future. Whereas before I felt like it was a bit more of a grind – you were barely breaking even unless you were winning an event, with travel and everything.

"The WSL really does care about the surfers, and obviously they're trying to brand surfing right now and make the world realise how special the sport really is, and how fun it is. And I know they're trying to make money too, but I feel like they really do care about us – I feel taken care of. I think that they want us to feel like we're taken seriously, so that we do try hard and we progress and we do push the limits. It ultimately just makes everything better, all around. It honestly is good for everyone.

"When someone gives you a boost, you want to give back."

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In case all the numbers got a bit too much, above, here's a clear breakdown of women's and men's prize purses from 2012 (when the ASP had full-time care) up to today.

2012:

  • Men:
  • $425,000 / 36 = $11,806 / surfer
  • Women:
  • $110,000 / 18 = $6,111 / surfer

2013:

  • Men:
  • $450,000 / 36 = $12,500 / surfer
  • Women:
  • $120,000 / 18 = $6,668 / surfer

WSL takes over

2014:

  • Men:
  • $500,000 / 36 = $13,889 / surfer
  • Women:
  • $250,000 / 18 = $13,889 / surfer

2015:

  • Men:
  • $525,000 / 36 = $14,583 / surfer
  • Women:
  • $262,500 / 18 = $14,583 / surfer

2016:

  • Men:
  • $551,000 / 36 = $15,306 / surfer
  • Women:
  • $275,500 / 18 = $15,306 / surfer

* Technically, the sport was acquired by the WSL in late December 2012, it was a transition year in 2013, and 2014 was the first full year of operations.