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The Long Fight for Women’s Parity in Action Sports

From surfing to cycling to skateboarding, women make less money and have fewer opportunities than men. Athletes and organizations are working for change, but barriers remain.

by Mary Catherine O'Connor
Oct 29 2015, 6:15pm

Photo by Fred Pompermayer

When Blue Crush hit theaters in 2002, critics generally considered the film weak on plot and strong on surfing sequences. The latter was mostly due to the casting of pro surfers Keala Kennelly and Kate Skarratt, including their stomping the famous Hawaiian break Pipeline in one of the film's climactic scenes. Blue Crush premiered as the number of women surfers was growing, and the scene likely provided stoke for countless girls to try the sport. It also showed that women surfers can be as big a draw for their athletic performance as men.

But here's the rub: Kennelly and Skarratt earned far more filming their cameos in Blue Crush than they did from winning major events as professional athletes. For years, the same unfortunate calculus has been true for women competing in action sports from cycling to skateboarding to snowboarding: You can be among a sport's most decorated athletes, but your winnings may not pay the rent. For these women, achieving parity with the salaries, sponsorship endorsements, and competition prize money that their male counterparts enjoy has been slow to come.

READ MORE: A Danish Woman's Chance To Become The First Female IMSA Champion

When Kennelly began competing at an elite level in 1998, on the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) championship tour, a mid-pack female surfer might earn around $30,000 in winnings in the course of a year, around half of what her male counterpart might make, even though the men's field was more that twice as large (36 men versus 15 women). Because surfing venues span the globe and athletes generally cover their own travel costs, earning a decent salary as a female athlete was nearly impossible without an endorsement deal or side job.

Prize money for both genders did improve incrementally during the years Kennelly was on the tour (she stopped competing in 2006) but the women's total purse per contest remained roughly a quarter of the men's. Even so, women kept entering the sport. In 2002, the ASP added two more seats to the women's tour, a 12 percent growth, and overall, more women started surfing recreationally in the early 2000s.

Between 2001 and 2010 the women's ASP purse grew some 66 percent. At the same time, however, the men's purse grew 60 percent, and so women still made roughly a quarter of what men were awarded per contest. Some top female pro surfers, including Layne Beachley and Lisa Anderson—seven-time and four-time ASP world champions, respectively—made public appeals for equal prize money during the mid to late 2000s, but by 2013, the total women's purse, per event, was $120,000—still less than half of the $425,000 that the men competed for, per event (not including the Billabong Pro, which was $500,000).

In 2014, as the ASP's original owners buckled under falling stock prices, an under-the-radar holding company called ZoSea Group stepped in to rejuvenate and realign competitive surfing. To get their buy-in, ZoSea Group also needed to address the needs of the athletes, who held a stake in the ASP. So along with a new name—the World Surf League—the new ownership promised to grow contest purses and offer the athletes pensions. It also pledged to make serious inroads at narrowing the pay gap between men and women surfers.

"[ZoSea Group] looked at the women's product and realized they had a really talented group of females," said Dave Prodan, WSL's vice president of communications. "If they were going to be true to their personal beliefs, they needed to institute a parity situation for prize money."

The move may not have been driven solely by surfing performance—"Women are extremely marketable, and the WSL is recognizing that," one veteran sports promoter, who wished to remain anonymous, told me—but in 2014, the WSL began offering proportionate purses to men and women based on the number of competitors. Thirty-six men and 18 women currently compete in the WSL Championship Tour; the men's field pulls from a $525,000 purse for each event, and the women pull from a $262,500 purse.

In another mark of progress for gender equality in surfing, the women's tour is returning to the marquee waves that were cut during the recession: at Fiji, Maui, and San Diego's Lower Trestles. WSL's women's tour commissioner and former pro surfer Jessi Miley-Dyer thinks that the new stops—particularly Lower Trestles, which she called "probably the most high-performance wave in the world"—will showcase the high level of surfing on the women's tour and the WSL's increased attention to those athletes.

"When I first started, if you told me surfing would be trying to become this shining light for women's sports, I would have laughed at you," she said.

Today, Miley-Dyer says, it's possible to make a good living in the WSL competition tour. None of the top 17 women (the 18th slot is a wildcard) on the tour have day jobs, she says. The very best athletes have long lists of sponsors and are rumored to each be pulling in more than $1 million a year. Even those who do not generally make the podium garner enough through winnings and sponsors to support themselves.

Keala Kennelly paddling out. Photo by Fred Pompermayer

Although most professional women surfers can make a living without relying exclusively on top-three finishes, the same is not true for female mountain bikers. Other than the top-ranked women, most professional female mountain bikers can't earn enough through their sport—or through hard-to-come-by endorsements—to pay the rent.

At the first mountain bike races in Marin County, California, in the 1980s, prize money was far from equal for men and women. Since then, though, women within the sport have been speaking out and fighting for equitable purses, which in turn has produced dividends.

In 1993, race officials handed mountain biking pioneer Jackie Phelan the wrong prize envelope. After placing sixth overall in the race, she mistakenly received the $400 prize earmarked for the sixth-place male finisher. As the first-place woman, Phelan was supposed to have won $37 instead. As Pehlan tells it, the incident inspired her to became a vocal advocate for parity. Eventually the national racing tour began offering equal prizes for the top-three male and female finishers.

Cycling's international governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), has required parity for men's and women's world championship events since 2012. But not until this year did it extend that policy to all categories of mountain bike racing, thanks in large part to another racer turned advocate, Georgia Gould. The four-time national champion and Olympic bronze medalist in cross-country racing played an active role on the UCI's mountain bike commission in order to shepherd that change.

Gould's focus now, she says, is on creating a lasting legacy of equal pay for women. "I am really thinking about the women who come behind me. Our grandchildren and great grandchildren will hopefully live in a more equitable society."

Purse money across mountain biking races generally isn't enough to live off, for male racers as well as women.

"In cross-country and endurance [marathon] events, if you won the four biggest races in the U.S., you might come home with $15,000 in prize money," said Jennifer Smith, a racer with Stan's NoTubes all-women mountain bike team. "So you need a day job or income from somewhere else."

In the case of professional mountain bikers, that additional income usually comes from landing a spot as a salaried member of a product team or scoring product endorsements. Securing those opportunities isn't easy for men, but it's harder for women, Smith says. While there are fewer women racing than men, team spots and sponsorships are available to women in disproportionately lower numbers. As mountain biking's popularity has declined since its peak in the late '90s and early 2000s, brands and sponsors aren't putting the resources toward funding teams and competitions to the degree they once did.

Most bike manufacturers, such as Trek and Specialized, have only one or two women on their mountain bike teams. Only three teams in the U.S. are exclusively female: NoTubes, Juliana, and the Luna Chix Pro Team. NoTubes covers some of its athletes' expenses and race entry fees, but it does not pay team members a salary. Juliana, the women-specific mountain-bike branch of Santa Cruz Bicycles, supports a three-member enduro team. The Luna Chix team, which Clif Bar owners Gary Erickson and his wife Kit Crawford launched 15 years ago, pays its six members a salary.

"We're compensating [Luna team riders] as well or better than what the majority of pro males earn," said Luna Pro Team general manager Dave McLaughlin. But, he added, the top five guys in the sport are making "a lot more money than the top five women," and that includes Luna team members.

Smith says that at the less than elite level, women's racing is suffering from a classic chicken-and-egg problem: The women want more opportunities to get a financial foothold, through team positions or endorsements; at the same time, race promoters and sponsors want to see more women in racing to justify bigger financial output to support them.

"I'd love to see the women's fields be equal to men and then there would be no question as to whether we'd offer equal purses," said Bob Holme, events manager at Winter Park Resort. A downhill race held there this past summer, part of the Colorado Freeride Festival, offered $1,000 for the first-place man and $750 for the first-place woman.

Andrea Waldis of the Luna Chix Pro Team at the 2015 UCI-sanctioned Windham World Cup. Photo by Matt Delorme

Like mountain biking, the chicken-and-egg impasse—a lack of professional participants to guarantee a sponsor's return on investment—has slowed progress toward parity in other sports. Overcoming that impasse has meant convincing a financial backer to devote the resources to ensure equality. In 2009, the ESPN-owned X Games, one of the most lucrative stages in action sports, did just that: it ponied up the cash to ensure proportionate prize money for men and women. That move was largely the result of skateboarding's movement for equality, started by two female skateboarders, Mimi Knoop and Cara-Beth Burnside. (Burnside is also an Olympic snowboarder.)

In 2005, Knoop and Burnside founded The Alliance to advocate for female athletes. They lobbied the X Games for equal purses in skateboard events, and it worked: the X Games subsequently declared purse parity not just in skateboard but across all sports with men's and women's fields, including snowboarding, surfing, and skiing. Today, The Alliance oversees the X Games' women's skate events.

"We didn't realize what kind of impact we were going to have. It's not like we marched in there and said 'OK, we're going to make ESPN do this, this, and this,'" said Knoop, who still works with Burnside and other skaters to promote and support women's skateboarding. "At the time, we were mainly working together as skateboarders, because the [X Games] organization was so lacking. We'd often get invites, as competitors, to the events a week before they happened. We were really just an afterthought. So our goal was to fight for skateboarding, but then it just bled into all these other positive changes as we went."

Outside of the X Games, purse parity is still rare in skateboarding. This past summer, the Van Doren Invitational, a Vans-sponsored event in Huntington Beach, doled out a $72,000 purse across the top 12 men, and $15,000 across the top six women. Street League Skateboarding, a race series that pro skater Rob Dyrdek launched in 2010, debuted a women's division, which The Alliance managed, at the Super Crown in Chicago this month. Street League did not offer parity with the men's field, but Brazilian skater Leticia Bufoni did walk away with $30,000, the most lucrative women's skateboarding payout of 2015.

Endorsement opportunities are growing, too. Bufoni, 22, signed a head-to-toe endorsement deal with Nike last year. Vert-and-park skater Lizzie Armanto, 21, has a similar (but reportedly smaller) deal with Vans. Avatars of both Bufoni and Armanto appear in Tony Hawk's upcoming Pro Skater 5 video game, as well.

Knoop says a few things are conspiring to stoke girls' interest in skateboarding right now: the growing popularity of skateparks; boys who skated in the 80s are now dads and have daughters whom they take to those skateparks; and the self-promotional value of social media, which, she says, gives girls a way to quickly foster a fan base that can lead to potential sponsors. All of that, combined with a deep field of young talents—like 11-year-old Brighton Zeuner—who are competing against far more experienced women, is setting women's skateboarding on a promising path.

Mimi Knoop during the Vert Attack competition last March. Photo by Fred Ferand

The International Olympic Committee announced this summer that it was considering skateboarding as an event in the 2020 games. As an event with both men and women's classes, Olympic skateboarding could encourage female participation in the sport at home. That's what happened when snowboarding became an Olympic event in 1998.

Snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler, who is an Olympic silver medalist and four-time X Games gold medalist, says that by the time she entered the sport in 2000 the pay equity issue had been settled. In fact, the USSA has offered equal purses for US Grand Prix events since the organization's inception, in 1996. The same has been true for most other major competitions, such as the Burton US Open. The pay parity situation isn't perfect, Bleiler adds, but she never felt as though she had a job to do that went beyond training and performing. Being on the Olympic track helped, since the USSA provides training support, physical therapy, and other services. But her work off the snow—branding herself and garnering a long list of endorsements—has also paid off.

"I didn't just say I wanted to be pro snowboarder," she said. "I got myself involved in business. I worked my ass off."

Like all athletes, female action sports athletes want a level playing field. They want to be judged for their on-field performance. They want their salaries to reflect their quality of work. They want to make money as professional athletes without finding a double standard at the pay window.

Mountain biker Katerina Nash, who is part of the all-women Luna Team, considers herself lucky to be riding for a salary. The problem, she says, is that women are judged on more than their athleticism. "But with men, all they have to do is be good athletes and not be assholes and they get respect."

Surfer Keala Kennelly says the same is true in her sport, where skill is far from the main driver of success.

"There are some women that make good money from endorsement deals but in order to do so they usually have to obey the guideline that sex sells," she said. "So being a good surfer at the top of your sport unfortunately is not enough for the women. You have to fit a certain image to be marketable and that image is young, pretty, feminine, and sexy."

"Oh yeah, and straight; no homosexuals make money in surfing," added Kennelly, who is openly gay.

The three-time world longboard champion Cori Schumacher has long advocated not just for equal pay for women surfers but equal respect. In 2013, she led a petition in response to a video by women's surf brand Roxy that focused not on the surfing acumen of six-time ASP world champion Stephanie Gilmore but rather on her ass and boobs. Schumacher's petition garnered more than 21,000 supporters; Roxy made a second video that featured Gilmore surfing.

Schumacher, who married her girlfriend Maria Cerda in 2008, also launched The Inspire Initiative, a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower women and girls through surfing and "initiate a grassroots effort to shift the current tide of sexualization."

For her part, Kennelly continues to hustle each day to reach her surfing goals and to break down barriers within the sport. "I take it day by day," she said. "I hustle so hard to make money so I can [keep surfing]. I know this is my calling and what I'm supposed to do."

In 2011, images of Kennelly's cheese-grated face went viral after she slammed into coral in a horrific wipeout at Teahupo'o. Just this summer, she returned to Tahiti to face that same break, and caught what is being called "the heaviest wave ever ridden by a female."

A shower of accolades followed, but that's where it has stopped. "People were calling me the Ronda Rousey of big wave surfing, and I got a few more social media followers," she said. "I expected that wave to change my life and my career. And it hasn't."