Thirty surfers descended on Half Moon Bay, California, on Oct. 26, boards and wetsuits in tow. The athletes were gathered for a ceremonial paddling-out, a celebration to kick off the official start of big wave surfing season, which traditionally begins in early November and runs through March. For the next four months, the surfers will spend most of their time in a holding pattern, biding their time for a day that meets the sanctioned conditions to compete.
Winter on the Pacific Coast yields the largest swells, with waves reaching upwards of 60 feet. It’s dangerous, to be sure, but a challenge suited for the top surfers in the nation—specifically the elite crew at Half Moon Bay. The athletes are contenders for the Mavericks Challenge, one of the most prestigious invitation-only surf competitions and one of only three global big wave face-offs this year, along with events in Maui and Portugal.
Big-wave surfing is a precarious, fickle sport, and the environment must be just right to allow for fair competition. From now until March, the surfers—all part of a group that participates in sanctioned Championship Tour events around the world—will be notified 48 hours in advance when the surf proves viable. In some cases, like last year, a proper day may never materialize at all.
Standing on the beach in October, the 10 participating women beamed alongside their male counterparts. They smiled for photos, hopeful not just that conditions would prove fit for competition, but also for the opportunity to make history. If Mother Nature abides, they will be the first women to compete in Mavericks, and the first ever to contend for equal prize money in surf competition.
In September, the World Surf League announced that it would adjust its allocation of prize money so that top surfers in both male and female heats will compete for the same amount beginning in 2019. Prior to the policy shift, 18 female surfers were competing for half of what 36 male surfers were: a collective total of $303,900 in 2018 compared to $607,800.
These numbers stem from an earlier WSL policy that mandated that all professional surfers, regardless of gender, earn the same average amount. If you do the math, breaking down the prize pools by number of surfers within each gender bracket, the allotment appears equal. However, this is not how prize money is actually allocated across competitions. Until now, the men’s top prizes were significantly higher than the women’s, giving male surfers a better opportunity to win larger prize values and widening the pay gap.
For example, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, when elite female surfer Paige Alms won the women’s heat at the 2017 Pe’ahi Challenge in Maui, she received $15,000, while top male surfer Ian Walsh left with $25,000. Bianca Valenti was awarded $1,750 for winning the Puerto Escondido Challenge in July; her male counterpart earned $7,000.
“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,” WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt wrote in a statement about the new policy.
But this win for women didn’t come without a significant fight, thanks to deeply ingrained sexism in the sport and the wobbly internal politics of the WSL itself. As in countless other women’s sports, navigating the various stakeholders and institutional discrimination has led to a difficult fight for parity.
“The ‘bro culture’ in surfing is very prevalent,” said San Mateo County Harbor Commissioner Sabrina Brennan, a member of the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, or CEWS, a lobbying group that played an integral role in getting women to the event formerly known as Titans of Mavericks. “I can only think of a few sports that are more misogynistic than surfing. It’s cultural. It’s the way surf culture is.”
Mavericks only began allowing women into the event in 2016, when its former owner Cartel Management reluctantly agreed to feature a women’s heat in the 2016–17 season. Even then, the decision was the result of a mandate from the California Coastal Commission, which manages event permits. That mandate came thanks to persistent requests by CEWS rather than an effort by Cartel itself.
Since then, the competition has continued to be plagued by strife. In February 2017, Mavericks was canceled after Cartel filed for bankruptcy following a slate of financial woes and a contentious legal battle with Red Bull, at the time the one remaining sponsor. Though the WSL seized control of the event the following August, poor conditions ultimately prohibited competition in the 2017–18 season.
Alms and Valenti, who have been among the most outspoken advocates for pay equity, are also both founding members of CEWS, which is made up of professional surfers and policymakers alike. Brennan said the running argument against equal pay was the lack of female surfers, chalked up to a “numbers game” by the WSL.
Brennan said that in several meetings in the lead-up to the WSL’s September decision, the organization routinely claimed that any discrepancies in pay were a response to the smaller pool of women. Despite Goldschmidt’s effusive public statements in support of the change in pay status, emails provided by Brennan show that both Goldschmidt and Graham Stapleberg, WSL executive vice president and general manager of events, had previously been opposed.
According to Brennan and CEWS member Karen Tynan, in a July 23 meeting, Goldschmidt used the term “poor performance” to describe the women’s showing at the Pe’ahi Challenge, despite Paige Alms’s victory in what Surfer magazine described as a “well-deserved win” within a contest that “saw arguably the best top-to-bottom surfing that has ever gone down at a big-wave venue.” At that same meeting, Brennan said that pay equity was more important now than ever. Brennan and Tynan said that Goldschmidt, who became the first female CEO of the WSL in July 2017, made “thinly veiled threats” about not holding the Mavericks event if the request for equal prize money persisted, and called it “an abuse of the #MeToo movement.”
Goldschmidt denied making these statements in an email sent to Deadspin on Nov. 16:
Those claims are wholly inaccurate and actually the opposite is true, as shown by WSL’s actions in recent years where we have invested in the right to run a competition at Mavericks for the good of the athletes, women as well as men, and the Big Wave Tour in general. We will continue to do everything we can to celebrate Mavericks as the iconic location and wave that it deserves to be, and the athletes that surf it.
Regardless, the decision is important not just to the surf community, but also to the larger fight for parity in women’s sports. It comes amid the legal complaint issued by Hope Solo accusing the U.S. Soccer Federation of unfair treatment for paying members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team less than the men’s team.
“Once you box women out of competitive events and don’t let them compete, the way that’s happened with big wave surfing, it creates a vacuum,” Brennan said. “It discourages girls or women that want to do something that is so hard to be a part of. They think ‘Why do something if there’s such an uphill battle?’”
Tynan, who has worked as the CEWS’s pro-bono attorney, said she has continued to be troubled by WSL claiming ownership over pay equality, and its repeated claims that it had been an effort long in the works.
“I congratulate them on doing it, but they had no choice,” she said. “I want to make clear I think it was a great step, but certainly they could not run a surf contest in California at the beach without doing it. It was clear that California was not going to be a place where pay inequality and differences between male athletes and women athletes was going to work.”
Tynan said her hope is that Mavericks will help set the bar for global pay parity for women in surfing and beyond. However, she believed the sport still has room for improvement: Even at the Mavericks opening ceremony at Half Moon Bay, the female athletes were still referred to as “girls” rather than “women.”