Surf ContestsFair Play on Equal Pay 

-Words by Mat Arney, images by WSL/Kelly Cestari, Ballito Pro

On Wednesday September 5th, during the build up to the inaugural Surf Ranch Pro in Lemoore, California, WSL’s CEO Sophie Goldschmidt announced that starting with the 2019 season the league’s female athletes will receive equal pay to their male counterparts across all WSL controlled events.

This will make the World Surf League the first and only U.S.-based sport league with pay equality.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

It was a landmark announcement, preceding a landmark contest in the history of professional surfing. The timing could not have been a coincidence; one way or another, surfing would have passed the lips of a fair few sportscasters on the evening news shows across America that evening, aiding in the WSL’s mission to broaden competitive surfing’s appeal and audience. And why shouldn’t they have taken the opportunity to achieve maximum coverage for both news items? The level playing field offered by the Surf Ranch’s artificial waves, regardless of how the venue and format is perceived and received by their current “core” audience, offers the perfect parallel for announcing equality of pay; identical waves demand identical opportunities in winnings, surely? 2019’s tour calendars had been released the day before, with the women’s Championship Tour mirroring the men’s in all but one event, that being the Tahiti Pro at Teahupo’o.

“The 2019 Women’s Championship Tour schedule is one of the strongest I’ve ever seen in my career, both as an athlete and as a commissioner. It’s a testament to the WSL’s commitment to both women’s surfing and creating a true platform for the advancement of the world’s best surfing.”
Jessi Miley-Dyer, WSL Women’s Commissioner

Up until this point, the disparity in prize purses has been put down to the higher number of competitors on the men’s tour, and the larger audience figures that the men’s events garner. The WSL has been committed to parity of prize money since 2014, however the reality of this (because of the definition of parity) is that that the prize purse has been determined by the number of surfers in the draw, with each entrant contributing the same amount. Therefore, if there are fewer competitors in the women’s draw then the prize pot is less. This was illustrated, starkly and uncomfortably, earlier this year when an image of the winners of the Billabong Balito Pro Junior event in South Africa went viral showing the female winner Zoe Steyn holding a novelty cheque with half the amount of Rio Waida who won the men’s. In this case the men’s winner received double the winnings because there were twice the number of competitors as the women’s side of the event. But a photo posted and shared across social media doesn’t explain this, and it didn’t look good.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica
“On first glance that photo does look like a huge disparity. It highlights an issue, but it’s a very complicated one.”
Will Hayden-Smith, WSL Australia/Oceania Regional Manager

To rectify the discrepancies that currently occur, and that have reflected so badly on the system in the past, the two options would be to either increase the number of female surfers competing to match the men’s side of the draw, or scrap the proportional system and make the prize purses match. To increase the field in female events, with the accompanying risk that there may not be sufficient depth in the talent pool (the average ratio of male to female competitive surfers is approximately 3:1) could result in some less engaging heats and a devaluing of the audience experience. When the name of the game is no longer bums on seats, but eyes on screens, maintaining the level of performance and competition at the most engaging and exciting level possible is key. The possible reasons for the difference in the number of female competitors compared to males are many and varied, and to a large extent the result of many years of an entrenched and institutionalised neglect of female surfing that is only just starting to be broken down and corrected.

With that route not available, the only other option is to do what was announced this week, and scrap the ratio system in favour of equal prize purses.

“The women on the Tour deserve this change. I’m so proud that surfing is choosing to lead sports in equality and fairness. The female WSL athletes are equally committed to their craft as the male athletes and should be paid the same. Surfing has always been a pioneering sport, and this serves as an example of that.”
Kelly Slater, eleven-time World Champion

With equal pay now achieved, the drive to grow the sport among young girls and to improve opportunities for female surfers through training programmes, sponsorships and coverage, should in no way ease off. There is still a way to go, and surfing having the feather in its cap of being the only U.S.-based sport league with pay equality does not mean that the job is done.

One could in fact go so far as to say that, whilst the WSL has absolutely done the right thing, rather than being applauded so much for that our collective attention (as members of society, rather than solely as surfers) should turn to the other sporting leagues, institutions and businesses who have not yet done the right thing and are not yet paying individuals based purely upon the job that they do, regardless of anything else.

“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.
Nelson Mandela once said, “Sport has the power to change the world.”
I truly believe that.
And I really hope this decision can be the start of a much bigger movement not only in sport, and eventually, in society.”
Stephanie Gilmore, six-time World Champion