And What of the Current State of Women’s Pro Surfing?
“It’s time to take women’s competitive surfing to the next level.”
These words have been echoing through the halls of women’s surfing since pro surfing began in earnest in 1976. Then, only 20% of the total prize purse for competitions was allocated to female competitive surfers. With the exponential growth in participation and interest in women’s surfing over the years, one would expect this percentage to shift towards a more equitable number, but this has not been the case. This year, with the take-over of the ASP by privately owned ZoSea Corporation and the effective disconnect of ASP control by major surf brands, that’s all supposed to change.
How could disconnecting the ASP from the brands that have profited from women’s surfing be in the best interest of women’s professional surfing? After all, with Roxy leading the way, the creation of all-female surf brands during the mid-to-late 1990s, flooded the surf industry with billions of dollars at a time when it was in a financial slump. This resulted in a “golden era” for female professional surfers, the first industry supported group of surfers. Due to the brands’ symbiosis with the ASP and the surf media, the women saw pro tour events added in such places as Tahiti and Maui, and were treated to their very own line of clothing, wetsuits, and surf movies. The surf industry had not experienced financial growth like that since its inception, when another female surf phenomenon piqued a mainstream interest in surfing in 1959, through the film Gidget.
Despite this female-centric, industry wide growth, which lasted until the recession of 2008, female pro surfers continued to collect substantially less than the men in both sponsorships and prize money. They were not give equal opportunity to surf the best conditions in competitions, and often saw non-surfing models replacing them in advertisements for the brands’ women’s clothing lines.
Since about 2010, a second generation of industry supported female surfers has fully emerged in the midst of a surf industry struggling, once again, to pull itself out of a dire economic situation. The surf media and surf brands have been heralding them as “younger, hotter, sexier” and “the best generation of female surfers ever to hit the scene.” Yet, the percentage of the total WCT prize money given to these women last year was a mere 17%. They lost multiple WCT events, were consistently put out in competitions during the most lackluster conditions, received less sponsorship money, and if they were portrayed in the surf media at all, it was often sexualizing, trivializing, or both.
The surf industry has a history of using women’s surfing as a trampoline for growth without giving proper due to the female surfers themselves. Why is this?
Bronwyn Adcock, in her article Is it hard to surf with boobs?, tackles this issue and comes up with some stunning answers, mostly revolving around a state of denial by the brands that there is unfairness between the genders in surfing, while trivializing female surfers’ own opinions.
When Adcock spoke with Rod Brooks, the international contest director for Quiksilver, regarding the women surfing in inferior conditions at the Snapper Rocks event in Australia in 2012, he said “I know the girls (the surfers) have that impression. [T]hey tell people that, but it’s not true.” Brooks went on to explain that “the girls are just too sensitive, and that ‘[t]hey get a bit antsy and make all sorts of assumptions.”
Anyone who watched that event could see that the women’s heats were held in inferior conditions. Still, the newest generation of female surfers killed it, making the most of the conditions at Snapper Rocks. The day was dubbed “the best day of women’s surfing ever.” The next year at the 2013 Rip Curl Bell’s Beach event, the men decided not to surf on a day that was forecasted to be inferior during the waiting period. The women were sent out and the swell unexpectedly increased and the conditions stayed smooth, a situation that gave the women the opportunity to perform at higher levels than they had on tour for years. It was a “mistake” that the commentators spent much time pondering during the webcast. The day was dubbed the “best day of women’s surfing ever.”
Adcock illustrates the loop that has had women’s competitive surfing in a stranglehold in her discussion with “industry stalwart” Randy Rarick. He explained that “[s]ponsors back pro-surfing to drive product sales, but women’s competitive surfing doesn’t sell product. The market is not interested in women as athletes, what they are interested in is… the ‘lifestyle’ side of the sport – that is, the girls in bikinis.” Rarick commented further, “It is not about the quality of the surfing, [or] the quality of the athletes themselves because they are better than ever, but it is just the market reality.”
Rarick’s opinion is so commonplace that some of the young women have noticeably sexualized how they present themselves in order to grab a sliver of the surf industry pie. Racier, sexier images of female surfers have created a veritable hot-bed of discussion and strong opinions throughout the surfing world. This isn’t simply the surf industry sexualizing the women, the women are self-sexualizing in order to increase their value as products. This is executed, by the women, through gaining followers on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook.
The emphasis on garnering followers is encouraged by brands and the new ASP. It represents a shift in advertising strategy. The more followers the athlete has, the more valuable they are to everyone in the industry. Paul Speaker, CEO of the new ASP, explains that social networking is an integral part of the success of the new ASP because “surf fans are two times more likely than the average sports fan to engage in social media.” Everyone assumes that more followers translates to more eyes on events for the women. While it is a fact that the women who have the most followers are those who self-sexualize, does it follow that they represent the best chance women’s surfing has to increase viewership of its competitions?
Research by Dr. Janet Fink undermines the assumption that those who, for example, follow Alana Blanchard’s Instagram for its copious amounts of butt shots and modeling poses, will translate to ASP event viewers:
“The results… revealed the female athlete’s expertise, not her attractiveness, was the more important factor in athlete-event fit, and, subsequently, participants’ intentions to attend the event.” (more information can be found at Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Sport: Essays from Activists, Coaches, and Scholars Fink, p. 55)
In addition, this same research points to an across gender trend that the sexualization of any athlete diminishes the perception of that athlete’s ability. Fink uses study upon study to collapses the mistaken view that female athletes are more effective to brands and events when they are sexualized.
During the first WCT women’s event held at Snapper Rocks, this theory was put to the test when viewers of the women’s webcast were asked to tweet in who they thought would win the world championship that year. Sally Fitzgibbon topped the vote with 67% while current world champion Carissa Moore received 14% of the vote. Alana Blanchard, with more Twitter followers than Sally and Carissa combined and more Instagram followers than 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, received only 9% of the vote.
What the surf industry calls “market reality,” female competitive surfers often dub “not being marketed correctly.” 17-year WCT veteran, Rochelle Ballard puts it succinctly: “I just think [women’s professional surfing] hasn’t been approached right.” It is the opinion of female surfers who focus on their athleticism and expertise, and not the so-called “market reality” of industry stalwarts and those who self-sexualize to fit this mold, that aligns exactly with research that has been gaining momentum in mainstream sports by those who study female athletes and how they are marketed.
This research, most notably that of the above mentioned Dr. Fink, along with Dr. Mary Jo Kane, Dr. Michael Messner, and Dr. Cheryl Cooky, expose truths that undermine previously held beliefs in all areas of women’s sport, providing tremendous amount of research that proves that sex does not sell women’s athletics as well as cementing the fact that how female athletes are represented is just as important as equal visibility in the media.
The pre-2014, surf brand dominated ASP was not only working with a maladaptive market reality, but was using poor market research, bad judgement, and trivializing the very voices that mattered. It is going to take a new vision to elevate women’s competitive surfing: one that shifts the brands out of their illogical loop, includes the research of the Finks, Kanes, Messners, and Cookys in its scope, and does not deny or trivialize the voice of the athletes themselves.
This year, the year the LA Times has hailed “the Year of the Female Surfer”, it’s supposed to be different. The word “equalizing” is being thrown around a lot and after watching the webcast of the first event of the WCT season at Snapper Rocks in Australia, it seems the new ASP is attempting to make good on this claim. Three new events have been added to the women’s WCT tour, the prize purse for the women has more than doubled per event (the women will be making 31% of the total prize money on this year’s WCT tour), and the women were given the opportunity to surf in superb conditions. The first day they ran the women’s heats, the commenters hailed it as “the best day of women’s surfing ever!” This time, it wasn’t a fluke or a mistake.
What, or who, is behind these changes? In a poetic twist, this new vision of women’s surfing has music flowing through its veins. The two shadow players most likely influencing these shifts are Natasha Ziff, wife of billionaire investor to ZoSea, Dirk Ziff, and Margaritaville musician, Jimmy Buffett, who now occupies one of the seats on the ASP’s board of directors.
Natasha, who Sean Doherty contends is “the driving force in growing the women’s tour this year,” has a connection to surfing that hums through an artistic collaboration with Tom Curren. Buffett dipped his guitar strings into the competitive surfing scene back in the early 2000s when he sponsored the Professional Longboard Tour through Margaritaville. During this time, he also sponsored a group of four pro longboarders; all of them women.
There is still a troubling question here: are the women once again being used as a trampoline for a new surf venture, without adequate recompense, based on an unsound marketing strategy, this time, via social networking? In a quick comparison of the 8 male and female surfers with the most followers on Instagram, the women beat the men by nearly 500,000 more followers. Is the new ZoSea, a business investment after all, hoping the women will be the difference between a struggling professional sport and a thriving one?
A harsh reality lies just beneath the top 17 WCT female surfers, where a stagnant and less visible women’s World Qualifying Series (WQS) has felt very little, if any, change for years. The prize money is lower than the men’s WQS, the women have 12 events while the men have 29, and the WQS women struggle with the worst surf conditions of both WQS and WCT tours.
The women’s WQS requires a minimum of approximately $40,000 (travel of self, boards, baggage; lodging; food; ground transportation) to reach the necessary events scattered around the world in order to win enough points to qualify for the WCT. In most cases, other four-star and one-star events have to be traveled to in order to make up for lost points, adding to this amount substantially. There are far less, if any, opportunities for sponsorships at this level (not surprisingly, self-sexualization is rampant), which has led to some women turning to crowdsourcing to raise the funds needed to follow the WQS.
“Surf is about nature. Beaches are not catwalks and athletes are not fashion models,” says Silvana Lima on her blog, silvanafree.com, which is part call for revolution and part crowdsourcing. Without sponsorships, the paltry pay-outs of the WQS aren’t enough to sustain a drive towards the WCT and world title contention. Until the rhetoric of “equalizing” becomes a tangible equality for all female competitive surfers, there is still much work to be done in the realm of competitive surfing.
First published in www.corischumacher.com 19/03/2014