Don’t mess with the women: Backlash over surf contest inequity leads to a reexamination of fairness, the law

Women on waves
(Courtesy Boots McGhee)

When Santa Cruz’s only big surf industry company, O’Neill Wetsuits, put on an event in October that for the first time included females, it could’ve been a happy story of progress at last. Instead it “came off wrong,” according to many who followed it closely, and the company has said very little about it. Others, though, had much to say.

The road to a professional surfing career has never been paved in gold — regardless of whether it was a boy or girl dreaming the dream. But as in most pursuits, the females have always had more obstacles to hurdle.

From grossly unequal prize purses to heats held during the worst tide conditions to bikini contests run at the same time female surfers competed, the male-dominated pro surfing industry has always been a ripe equal-rights battlefield.

Women fought back, from Mary Setterholm founding the Women’s International Surfing Association in 1975 and a strong female contingent of world champions emerging, such as Margo Oberg and Frieda Zamba in the 1980s, Lisa Andersen and Wendy Botha in the ‘90s, and Layne Beachley, Stephanie Gilmore and Carissa Moore carrying the torch in the 2000s.

Though there has never been a woman from Santa Cruz to make the world tour — only three men have reached pro surfing’s elite playing field — there have always been talented and passionate female surfers.

Adam Replogle making a critical bottom turn at the 1998 Pipe Masters on Oahu.
(Jeff Devine via Adam Replogle’s Instagram)

And in 1996, a group of locals started the Women on Waves contest to create a recognized female space in the Santa Cruz surf comp scene. It was about the same time that two longtime local women opened Paradise Surf Shop in Pleasure Point — the first women-owned and female-surfer-focused store anywhere.

Former pro Adam Replogle, one of the local three men to make it to the sport’s pinnacle, runs the Billabong store a stone’s throw across 41st Avenue from where Paradise once sat (it closed in 2010). While some would argue there have been advances in opportunity at the highest levels of the sport, the father of two daughters doesn’t mince words when asked about equity in pro surfing.

“(I’ve seen) women who surfed insane but weren’t as ‘marketable’ and got pushed aside because of that,” he said. As a female pro surfer, “You gotta be good-looking and rip.”

The topic arose in October when O’Neill Wetsuits, Santa Cruz’s lone industry behemoth, put on a local contest in which the men’s prize purse was $10,000 and the women’s $1,000.

(I’ve seen) women who surfed insane but weren’t as ‘marketable’ and got pushed aside because of that ... You gotta be good-looking and rip.

While the company reacted to harsh criticism by reversing course and splitting the money evenly, it led some to question whether there are legal implications at play when it comes to events permits being issued and whether an industry that now preaches inclusion is actually practicing it.

They are relevant questions because of what’s not unclear: There are as many young, talented female surfers in Santa Cruz than ever before. Which is why Lookout deemed it worthy to reach out to more than a dozen people in the local surf industry and beyond to get perspective on the issue and see if this next generation of aspiring Carissa Moores or Tyler Wrights — girls who might now be dreaming of Olympic stardom as a surfer — are getting every chance they deserve.

‘It just came off wrong’

The O’Neill Freak Show has been around forever — but until this fall, the local competition had never included females. In 2019, 64 men competed for the $10,000 purse at Steamer Lane. Why was there suddenly a women’s division in 2021 and why did it take so long? Multiple messages to O’Neill’s vice president of marketing, Brian Kilpatrick, who secured the permit for the contest, went unanswered. The social media reply from the company stood on its own:

Freak Show social post

Some prominent O’Neill-sponsored surfers and company reps openly grumbled on Instagram that the uneven pay system was fair, that the men had to get through more qualifying heats, that since only eight women were signed up for the contest, there were fewer entry fees that make up the prize purse.

But there were two problems with that math: More than eight women were interested in competing, but O’Neill had created only eight spots; the men’s $10,000 prize purse, meanwhile, did not equate to 64 men’s surfers paying a $100 entry fee — that would only be a $6,400 purse.

Replogle said he believes surf companies must “come up with a whole new program” and noted that O’Neill’s decision to cut into the men’s prize money rather than throw more into the women’s event was “a bummer” that was more divisive than unifying.

To O’Neill, Replogle said, an extra $5,000 would’ve been “a drop in the bucket. “There’s so many women surfers around here you’d think they’d want to do that just to make everyone happy,” he said. “The way it went down — ‘We’re gonna have to pull from the men’ — it just came off wrong.”

Sporting Paradise Surf Shop gear along West Cliff Drive.
(Courtesy Boots McGhee)

It was 2018 when the World Surf League, the sport’s equivalent of the NBA, NFL or MLB, succumbed to pressure and implemented an equal prize-purse system among men and women competitors. “How female surfers won the pay-equity fight,” wrote The Atlantic. “Equal pay for equal shreds,” said NPR.

So people like Sally Smith-Weymouth are left to wonder whether O’Neill was just not paying attention the past three years. As one of the founders of Women on Waves and Paradise Surf Shop, Smith-Weymouth has had a front-row seat to the industry. She wonders why the WSL’s equity example wouldn’t have trickled down to where surfing dreams begin — particularly in a place like Santa Cruz, a university town that is a coastal extension of the Bay Area.

Not only was O’Neill behind the curve to begin with, she said, the company then squandered the opportunity for real change in the aftermath: “O’Neill’s corporate executives were quick to sweep it under the rug to prevent any bad publicity,” she said. “They posted their response to spin it in a way that makes them look like they are all about equity in pay for women surfers, as well as listening to the community.”

Local longboarding legend Ashley Lloyd.
(Courtesy Kaili Reynolds)

Ashley Lloyd is a Santa Cruz longboard legend and one of its only female surfboard shapers. She said she saw the Freak Show advertised and “got a spark to enter” but says there weren’t any spots left by the time she tried to get in. Rather than be bitter, Lloyd said she hopes the conversation it has stirred will help people “see that things can be different.”

“I’m assuming that the people that put together the contest put it together how they know best,” she said. “When it was brought to their attention, they made a change. I appreciate that the movement of change is happening for women in surfing, and support O’Neill in taking this opportunity to continue to make the changes that are right for their community.”

Santa Cruz’s Autumn Hays, who has been chasing her pro surfing dream for seven years as an O’Neill-sponsored surfer, became the first woman to win first place in a Freak Show event, edging up-and-comer Zoe Chait of Half Moon Bay.

Hays says “O’Neill has supported me since I was 13 years old. They’ve always been professional and treated me with respect. They’ve always been there for me as a female athlete and supported my dream of traveling around the world to compete.”

Law might have DQ’d O’Neill

Per California’s Equal Pay for Equal Play bill, passed in 2019 with zero opposition, the purse inequality of O’Neill’s original Freak Show format would have likely been illegal. Tremain Hedden-Jones, head of Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation, confirmed there is a permit-violation process which is first triggered by a complaint, then goes to the city attorney’s office where potential fines are dealt with.

The law requires athletes to be paid the same regardless of gender, that “any competition held on California state land, including the oceanfront, must award equal prize money for all athletes at all participant levels, regardless of gender, as a condition of receiving a lease or permit.”

Any competition held on California state land, including the oceanfront, must award equal prize money for all athletes at all participant levels, regardless of gender, as a condition of receiving a lease or permit.

It was actually a group of pioneering big-wave surfers — a small but growing niche in the pro surfing world — whose organizing and activism led to first steps toward gender equity and equality in the sport. The work of Bianca Valenti, Andrea Moller, Paige Alms, Santa Cruz’s Savannah Shaughnessy and others led to what became known as the “Mavericks decision.”

State representative Tasha Boerner Horvath (D-Encinitas) explained Assembly Bill 467 this way: “These aren’t privately held lands. When events are held on state lands, they should reflect state values. No other place in California would allow unequal pay. If this is their place of work, women shouldn’t be paid unequally.”

Mavericks pioneer Sarah Gerhardt.
(Via Boots McGhee)

Big-wave surfer and Cabrillo College chemistry instructor Sarah Gerhardt, famed for being the first woman to surf Mavericks, takes surfing’s gender inequality gap a few steps further. Gerhardt sees “a gap in the expectation of women’s surfing” because it is still “defined from a man’s perspective.”

It’s as ingrained, she says, as the language “used to describe waves and maneuvers — sick, gnarly, killing it, smashing it, tearing — it’s still masculine and aggressive, which is an indicator of the unconscious bias that exists against feminine surfing. Although many female surfers have closed the performance gap — which is, again, defined from a man’s perspective — the male-dominated surf industry is lagging far behind in its rewarding of that surfing.”

Sick, gnarly, killing it, smashing it, tearing — it’s still masculine and aggressive, which is an indicator of the unconscious bias that exists against feminine surfing.

Gerhardt’s feelings echo those of surfer/author Lauren Hill, partner of famed free surfer Dave Rastovich, who writes in her 2020 book “She Surf: The Rise of Female Surfing”: The story of women’s surfing has often been told through a comparative lens to men’s surfing. I find that perspective to be the least interesting angle. Women’s surf culture actually has defining characteristics that are quite different than men’s — many women come to wave riding with different goals and intentions than many men do.

Such disparities have discouraged promising female athletes from pursuing the sport professionally, thus perpetuating the cycle. Former pro surfer Aylana Zanville, who now runs Ola Chica Surf & Swimwear in Santa Cruz, raises the issue of how much money goes into competing, the need for sponsors to pay for entry fees and travel.

“That’s why I stopped,” Zanville says. “I was putting money in, but not winning money. It’s a controversial subject, going back to women always getting paid less than men, period. Women were second-class citizens and have been for a long time.”

Bigger victories are being won in big-wave surfing, where Red Bull brought back a women’s-only event and a new vision for a Mavericks competition will be completely gender equal — and led by a female.

Andre Gioranelli watches over a few of his groms.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Former pro surfer, current WSL broadcast analyst and Santa Cruz-based surf coach Andre Gioranelli works with some of the top young girls in the area dreaming the traditional WSL dream. The solutions to improving that path he believes are “increasing the prize money” and having women’s heats “in better tides,” as women’s heats have typically been held during the worst conditions of competition day.

“I think it’s great that WSL is paying more for girls because for so many years they paid less,” he says. “When you rent a place, the landlord doesn’t care if you’re a male or female, the price is the same. At the supermarket you don’t get 30% off because you are female. Who is paying less money for the girls? That makes me sad.”

At the supermarket you don’t get 30% off because you are female. Who is paying less money for the girls? That makes me sad.

Not offending ‘the big dogs’

The opportunities that women such as Smith-Weymouth, Valenti and others have publicly fought for over many years, that the WSL approved, and that California passed into law, still run into tensions with what water photographer Kaili Reynolds terms “the culture of cool” that has been “making people feel they have to tiptoe around issues because there’s localism in the water.”

And, she adds, “No one wants to offend the big dogs. It’s gatekeeping.”

Busting down those gates has been a mission for Sabrina Brennan, who founded Surf Equity & Sport Equity and co-founded the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, the group that won inclusion to the Mavericks competition. She said when it comes to fighting sexism in sports, “It’s not in the athlete’s best interest to speak out against whatever the organization is.”

Sabrina Brennan (left), with Carissa Moore, has been a frontline fighter for women's rights in surfing.
Sabrina Brennan (left) has been a frontline fighter for women’s rights in surfing.
(Via Sabrina Brennan)

Since multiple athletes Brennan knows have been blacklisted, fighting ongoing pay and participation gender-inequities in professional surfing and athletics is largely left to activists such as herself: “If athletes work with me, they’re taking a risk. There’s no reward for the athlete to do that.”

The equity battle is not unique to California. North Shore Contest executive director and Pipeline pioneer Betty Depolito, aka Banzai Betty, has spent over three decades fighting for equity and says there are not enough women leading the surf industry.

“The industry is still led by corporate men,” she says. “Men in big corporations making the big decisions. It’s changing but going slow. Guys who have daughters are realizing how hard it is for their daughters in sports, so it’s getting better.”

Still, Depolito points out, “We have equality rules, and they have excuses: ‘Men are better, there are more of them.’ The girls can’t speak up because they are afraid to lose their sponsors.”

The Surf Industry Manufacturers Association’s board of directors is made up of the leaders of brands such as O’Neill, Vans, Quiksilver and Billabong. Of the 29 people who are part of the board, only four are female, according to the SIMA website. And only one woman has ever served as president in its 36-year history. Analysts estimate surfing will keep growing into an estimated $3 billion industry by 2026.

Rachel Kippen, who publicly resigned as O’Neill Sea Odyssey’s executive director earlier this year, said she learned a lot about the consequences of speaking up through the experience. “It’s a risk to be vocal about equity,” she said via email. “When I think about issues of equity and ocean access, I wonder, where are all the white men? The surf allies for women in this contest? The surf dads? I know that it matters to them, too.”

Creating an Olympic-style ideal

Replogle, who works for Billabong, is surprised there isn’t more money backing female pro surfers since women are such drivers of the market. But he also recognizes that companies’ priorities are on the bottom line.

“You have to have your Instagram account showing millions,” he says, emphasizing again that for female surfers the onus is on model good looks. “Contest results may be the third or fourth on the list of things they have to perform to get their incentive. You can be a really ugly man surfer and be a world champ, get all the endorsements in the world. You don’t see that with the women.”

Adam Replogle enjoying a visit from his old friend and competitor Kelly Slater in April.
(Via Adam Replogle’s Instagram)

You can be a really ugly man surfer and be a world champ, get all the endorsements in the world. You don’t see that with the women.

O’Neill product designer John Hunter didn’t want to wade in on his company’s place in surfing’s gender equity discussion, but as the dad of a 10-year-old daughter trying to learn the sport, he understands the practical challenges — like the fight for available resources. Which is why, he says, he finds himself helping push her into waves at the Hook.

“Surfing is a weird sport,” he says. “It’s competitive, there’s ego — it’s tough out there for guys, girls, kids … I’m hucking my daughter into waves because it’s very competitive.”

Hunter detailed a recent session when his daughter and a friend were battling amongst a group of 25 surfers “and not a single person gave them a wave.”

“That’s the reality of surfing today,” he said. “It hurts to see that. You’d think more people would be like, ‘Go!’ but no.”

Hunter mainly sees the gender equality issue from the product point of view. “I’d love to have every women’s suit we do in more colors,” he says. “The demand is not there yet. The demand is so much higher for men’s product in surf that you have more colors and styles. We’d love to change, but if you build more and no one comes it affects your bottom line.”

Brennan, meanwhile, would like to see a universal bar set on par with the Olympics, with “an equal number of women and men athletes and equal prizes, as they always do with the medals. That is the bar everyone needs to meet including O’Neill and the WSL. I would hope O’Neill would take a hard look at the positivity that came from the Olympic games and try to emulate that. Maybe they could be groundbreaking.”

I would hope O’Neill would take a hard look at the positivity that came from the Olympic games and try to emulate that. Maybe they could be groundbreaking.

But Brennan believes the city of Santa Cruz should pass a resolution in order to prevent unequal prize money and unequal caps on competitor numbers from happening again. In February, Brennan will address the Santa Cruz Parks & Recreation Commission regarding establishing an equity and inclusion policy for events.

Perhaps fallout from the O’Neill Freak Show contest can serve to further the ongoing quest toward equity and eliminate disparities in future contests. The women who initiated the move toward equality, often at the expense of their own careers, have created a future that looks, as Hays describes it, bright for women’s surfing. “I’ve seen more females surfing recently than I ever have,” she wrote.

Nat Young, Santa Cruz’s longest-tenured world tour surfer who recently requalified, said he sees more young girl groms out in the water these days than boys. But he cautions them all that, regardless of gender, getting to where he is now “is no safe bet … a lot of things have to go your way.”

Carissa Moore of Hawaii
Carissa Moore of Hawaii became the first American woman to qualify for surfing’s Olympic debut.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Replogle posits that a solution could lie in finding innovative ways for surfers of any gender to get sponsored and make a living. To create an entirely different system, one that looks less insular.

“Women’s surfing has shown the most growth,” he says.

An example is the skincare brand Shiseido in Japan. “A billion-dollar brand is sponsoring pro surfers in Japan,” he said. “They should have a Shiseido tour. The beauty industry that’s benefitting from women surfing, they should get in the market.”

Replogle notes how many new people have been coming over the hill to surf, particularly since the pandemic began. “Amazon, Google, Netflix … we should get a Netflix world tour and then run a reality show about it,” he said. “I’d love to see behind the scenes of the world tour.”

In a recent full-circle effect came Surf Equity’s biggest 2021 win: complete gender parity, in both number of competitors and prize money, in the next Mavericks competition, with a Bay Area woman, Elizabeth Cresson, at the helm. The Half Moon Bay native, who credits her lack of surfing background as a positive when dealing with industry stakeholders, even partnered with an event producer and filmmaker with deep ESPN X Games experience.

Perhaps Replogle’s vision for the future is already in the works.

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