The New Generation of Professional Surfing

Photo: WSL

Photo: WSL

Caroline Marks is the youngest competitor on the WSL Championship Tour and the most formidable. No woman was spared as she tore through the first event of the season on Australia’s Gold Coast; after taking out local favorite and seven-time-world-champ Stephanie Gilmore, her ferocious backhand catapulted her through the finals where she won the trophy over Hawaiian legend Carissa Moore. Marks will claim a $100,000 check as one of the first women to benefit from the WSL’s new equal pay policy.

This equal prize payout marks a historic moment, and one that came to fruition thanks to a years-long campaign by the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS). Regrettably, the WSL has taken credit for this change without so much as a nod to the activists behind it.

The courageous CEWS team, comprised of attorney Karen Tynan, San Mateo County Harbor Commissioner Sabrina Brennan, and four leading big wave surfers — Bianca Valenti, Paige Alms, Keala Kennelly, and Andrea Moller — applied legal and political pressure to advocate for equal pay. WSL argued for months that a change in their prize money allocation formula was both unnecessary and unfeasible before abruptly changing their tune.

The equal pay decision came in September of 2018. In a surprise press conference, CEO Sophie Goldschmidt announced that years of work had culminated in their decision to offer equal pay across all WSL-controlled events worldwide. “We’ve been pushing for equality for a while; this isn’t a sudden decision,” she declared.

As The Inertia’s Dylan Heyden wrote, “the [equal pay] gesture is substantial – a monumental shift, potentially a tipping point for all sports to follow. Still, it’s important to contextualize this development and acknowledge at least some of those on the periphery who fought tooth and nail to make this announcement a reality…”

The idea that other sports might follow suit is gaining traction. In February, legislation inspired by the CEWS precedent was introduced in the California State Assembly. In a press release, Brennan described the proposed bill: “AB 467 would require equal pay for all athletes regardless of gender as a condition for approving a lease or permit for events held on state land. The bill would also require that the lease or permit be declined unless that competition affirms its prize pay will be equal for both men and women categories at each participant level.”

In making the progressive decision to invest in women’s surfing, the WSL has taken a very meaningful concrete step towards leveling the playing field. It’s an auspicious sign for the future of the sport, and speaks to the ability of the organization’s leadership to take risks and achieve lofty goals. But with the work that remains to be done – to name one major area for improvement, the vast majority of WSL competitors are white – one would hope for more transparency and less shadiness when it comes to collaborating with trailblazing activists.

It’s important to note that equal pay does not extend to most Qualifying Series events, which means that only athletes who have already reached the elite echelon can benefit.

Of course, the WSL is a corporate bureaucracy which exists principally to turn a profit. It’s in their interest to maximize the commercial appeal and mainstream popularity of surfing, a concept which many surfers find repulsive. The WSL is not going to stop climate change, save the oceans, or diversify the lineup (though they will certainly perform activism to that end when it’s what the fans want). They are, however, going to broadcast heroic feats of athleticism, and we love to livestream heats while jazzing ourselves up to paddle out – or, more likely, while grumbling at the fifth-straight week of onshore two-footers in the forecast.

Professional surfing is as inspiring as it is entertaining, and the fact that the WSL is ahead of most other sports leagues in their efforts to advance gender equity is something to be celebrated. The results of improved institutional support are already showing in next-level athletic performances across the board, and it’s only the beginning. Thank you, CEWS!

Molly LockwoodComment