Women earn 77.9 cents for every dollar earned by men. When it comes to fixing that disparity, not all heroes wear capes. Some of them carry surfboards.
Surfing is the latest professional sport to award equal prize money to male and female competitors. The World Surf League recently announced that starting in 2019, all of their athlete competitors will receive the same prize money. Clothing company Title Nine noted that the WSL is the first U.S.-based sports league to offer prize money equity.
To give you some idea of the gap so far: Kim Cross at Outside Magazine notes that Bianca Valenti, “a San Francisco–based pro who conquered 20-foot waves to win Latin America’s first big-wave surf competition this summer…won $1,750—a quarter of the $7,000 men’s purse.”
A Wave of Change
Often, women aren’t even allowed to compete in the same contests as male athletes.
For nearly two decades, the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing has fought to allow women to compete in the elite level surfing contest at Mavericks in California. (Notable, because it takes place on public land.) Recently, the state decided that women must be allowed to compete for the same prize money in order for the event to receive a permit.
The waves do not discriminate. Male athletes are surfing and competing on the same waves as the female athletes. While, according to staff’s understanding, the prize formula is based on the number of female and male athletes competing, the Applicant has sole discretion in determining the standards participants must meet in order to qualify for the event. So other than the participation evaluation process which is controlled solely by the Applicant, there doesn’t appear to be any reasonable justification to treat prize compensation differently for female athletes versus male athletes.
This is a big win, not only because women will potentially gain access to massive purses. They’ll also gain visibility and potential sponsorship by big brands.
The Future of Gender Equity in Sports
Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Given that many professional sports take place in arenas and stadiums built with public funds, advocates see an opportunity.
“Every time I drive by one of those ginormous sports stadiums, I’ve always thought about how much public funding goes into them,” CEWS founder and attorney Sabrina Brennan says. “So now we’re looking at what can this do for other sports?”
“The resulting publicity put a spotlight on the inequality that pervaded other areas of the sport—like prize money. And the victory for women’s surfing could have larger implications for other sports that play out in publicly funded venues,” writes Cross.
Surfing Pros on Prize Equity
“It’s not only wonderful for us right now as professional surfers, it says a lot to the next generations that there is a future in this sport and there is something to look forward to and to work towards,” says Carissa Moore via Facebook.
She should know a little about it. She’s an American professional surfer and the 2011, 2013 and 2015 WSL Women’s World Tour Champion. (Here’s a video from her recent competition in South Africa.)
WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt says that prize money equity “is a huge step forward in our long-planned strategy to elevate women’s surfing and we are thrilled to make this commitment as we reveal our new 2019 schedule. This is the latest in a series of actions the League has undertaken to showcase our female athletes, from competing on the same quality waves as the men, to better locations, and increased investment and support.”
Male surfing pros are speaking out on behalf of female competitors. Kelly Slater, holder of 11 World Championships and 55 Championship tour event victories, says, “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.”
Reactions from Fans
“Sensational. Well done WSL,” writes Teresa Richards on Facebook in response to the announcement. “I shouldn’t be about men competing [against] women or everyone doing the same moves. It’s about one group of people getting the same rights, same respect and same reward for absolutely giving everything to their sport and blitzing it! Male and female top athletes give up everything else to train and compete and when they work at such a high level the deserve same level of respect.”
“I wonder how much money the girls generate compared to the guys? How good a spectacle it is to watch compared to the guys? Fair enough getting equal pay but you have to earn it. To me it’s a hand out and patronising [sic] to the girls,” writes Corey Hunter on Facebook.
Is Equal Prize Money Enough?
In professional sports, prizes are not always the main source of income athletes. They receive sponsorship deals and opportunities that arise from their fame. Female competitors still struggle to find equal access to opportunities that come with being a professional athlete.
Those that cry out because women’s sports have smaller viewership (and therefore somehow “deserve” smaller payouts) would do well to consider the chicken and the egg question. Do women’s sports have smaller viewership historically because they’re given less airtime, attention, national sponsorships and endorsement deals? Or, do those come because men’s sports already offer greater rewards?
See PayScale’s research on the gender pay gap.
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