The Fundamental Flaw in the WSL's Pay Policy

 Photo: WSL

Photo: WSL

Editor’s note: Since the publication of this article, the WSL has proudly announced that they are implementing equal pay across all events from 2019 forward. They are the first U.S based global sports league to offer true pay equity, and in doing so they demonstrate their commitment to supporting the development and growth of women’s surfing. This monumental decision was influenced by the perseverance and activism of athletes, attorneys, journalists, California permitting agencies, and the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing.

Same waves, half the prize money

Billabong and the WSL have made unfavorable headlines this week following the publication of a picture which perfectly illustrated the gender pay gap facing WSL athletes. 

The Problem

The WSL claims that the imbalance “stemmed from a pay parity execution based on original 32-man and 16-woman fields.” What this means is that the WSL’s prize-money scheme is at least in part determined by the number of competitors per division. This payment scheme, however, is incoherent. According to Appendix A of the WSL rules and regulations for the CT, the Men’s 24 format is apportioned a total of US$607,816 to be distributed to the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 9th, 13th, and 25th placed competitors – with 1st, second, and third placed competitors awarded $100,000, $55,000, and $30,000 respectively. Conversely, the Women’s counterpart – the Women’s CT 18 format – is apportioned only $303,908 – with 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place finishers receiving $65,000, $33,000, and $21,000 respectively. The WSL would probably defend itself by correctly pointing out that in both divisions the prize-money is equal at $16,883.78 per competitor. In theory, the WSL’s scheme ensures that each league receives equal prize money per surfer – and since the Men’s division is larger it makes sense that they are apportioned more money as a group. However, this attempt at constructing a fair and equal venue for competitive surfing has resulted in disparate treatment to the two formats.

The solution

In an attempt to construct a fair, ethical, and just payment scheme, I propose the following solution: rather than determining prize money by the number of competitors per format, the WSL should establish a tier system which apportions prize money (for any of the, CT, QT, JT, etc.) solely based on pre-established values for each awardee. In other words, first place in both formats is awarded equal payouts of $X, second place in both formats is awarded equal payouts of $Y, and so on for all eligible finishes. The benefits of this solution should be self-evident, but I’ll state the obvious for the folks at the WSL:

In response to the recent pay-gap at the Billabong Ballito Pro Junior, the WSL explained that, “withdrawals from the men's event left a 24-man field (withdrawals saw only 14 ultimately compete on the women's side) and a subsequent pay disparity between the two events.” While the pay gap is already embedded into the WSL award scheme (recall the difference above between prize-money for the awardees in both formats across all divisions), the WSL claims that less men competing in what was intended to be a 24-man field caused eligible finishers to receive more prize-money than they otherwise would have. The solution proposed in this post would eliminate any future possibility of distorted cash-awards – such as those cases cited by the WSL – since the value of the cash-prizes are already pre-determined. 

The crux of the argument against the WSL is that a first place finish is equally valuable for both men and women – and so on for 2nd place, etc. A pre-determined and fair tier-system would prevent unintended fluctuations in prize awards and ensure that surfers receive equal compensation for equal placements.