It's Not the Market, It's You

 Keala Kennelly smashing the glass ceiling at Puerto Escondido. Photo: Kimmi / @surface.photography

Keala Kennelly smashing the glass ceiling at Puerto Escondido. Photo: Kimmi / @surface.photography

Women made history last weekend competing for the first time at Puerto Escondido, but the winners took home seventy-five percent less prize money than their male counterparts did. Though pay equity in sports has improved overall, this disparity is nothing out of the ordinary. On Forbes’ annual list of the world’s highest-paid athletes, there are one hundred men and zero women.

Participation in women’s sports has increased dramatically over the last twenty-five years, yet news coverage remains pathetically low, accounting for only about three percent of airtime. It’s an exasperating chicken-and-egg problem: more viewership requires more exposure, and more exposure can cost more money than ad revenue provides. But instead of blaming this dilemma on the market and shrugging it off, many believe it’s time for the industry itself to take responsibility. What if women’s sports can be made more profitable by improved representation?

In surfing, there are many steps that could be taken to achieve this. Rhonda Rokki Harper of Black Girls Surf says professional leagues need more women, and women of color in particular, as judges, commentators, officiators, shapers, and, of course, competitors. The lack of women behind the scenes in these organizations inevitably results in coverage that fails to speak to its audience. A quarter-century study of women’s representation in sports media points out a “stark contrast between the exciting, amplified delivery of stories about men’s sports, and the often dull, matter-of-fact delivery of women’s sports stories.” (Cooky, Messner, & Musto, 2015.) This problem extends beyond the competitive circuit to media outlets and magazines, many of which continue to perpetuate double standards under a guise of “empowerment.” Addressing these issues would surely help broaden the audience, and, in turn, bolster earnings.

The pay gap in surfing can also be attributed to lack of sponsorship dollars. In 2017, women’s world champion Tyler Wright earned more in contest prize money than men’s champion John John Florence, yet did not crack the top fifteen highest-compensated surfers. Stephanie Gilmore, the only woman in those ranks, made $1.7 million in endorsements, while John John cashed in at more than $5.3 million. Gilmore is one of the best of all time, with six world titles and unsurpassed style – but as a breezy blonde, she also fits the profile of the idealized surfer girl.

Silvana Lima and Analí Gomez have spoken about the added challenges that those who don’t match this biased standard face in building a viable surfing career. Gomez, who rips, has not been able to represent Perú on the international stage due to lack of funds. In an interview with El Comercio, she called out the pervasive and racist assumption that women like her aren’t marketable: "Lamentablemente no tengo auspiciadores, no he podido salir. Ahora es así, son un poco racistas. En el surf, las marcas están apoyando a las rubias, para las portadas."

As women’s surfing ascends to new heights globally, the industry is lagging behind. There are lots of people rallying to move it forward, and it’s thanks to them that there was a women’s contest in Puerto Escondido at all. It’s time for the marketing team to catch on.