Do surf event organizers have a responsibility to plan for inclusivity?

Do surf event organizers have a responsibility to plan for inclusivity?

Equality isn’t something that’s gifted, it’s achieved by recognizing issues and working hard to make positive change — like addressing the disparity of gender pay in surfing.

The World Surfing League has made progress in recent years to ensure that both men and women receive equal prize money on their Championship Tour, but this didn’t just magically happen. It was manifested through the hard work, diligence and the efforts of high-level female athletes (and their male counterparts) who were willing to stand up and demand equal pay.

But in the fight for equality, there’s always more work to be done.

A recent win for gender equality in surfing came from the first-ever women’s event at the Banzai Pipeline on the WSL Championship Tour. Keala Kennelly, who has championed gender equality in surfing throughout her career says that this positive change has had to come from fighting to clarify legalities:

surf event organizers have a responsibility

“Women advancing to compete in Pipeline is a result of enforcing the law and changing the permitting system,” Kennelly told FanSided. “Back when there was a big wave event in California called the Titans of Mavericks, which was run by male, chauvinistic, crusty guys who were not into letting women in the event. We tried for years and years to get women in the event. Finally, we got a female on the California Coastal Commission who pointed out the fact that surfing events occur on state lands, and you can’t gender discriminate on state lands.”

“So excluding the women from the event was against the law,” said Kennelly. “When the WSL took over the permit and included women, we also said we’re putting ourselves in the same amount of danger, so we want equal pay, referencing the law. The WSL said no, and pulled their permit request. Then we got all kinds of hate mail, and we were blasted all over social media, being told that we were ruining things for the guys and destroying surfing. Finally, the WSL came back and announced they were gonna do equal pay for all events, so that was a huge win. We basically used the permitting system to get that win.”

There are still fewer places on the women’s Championship Tour, so equal opportunity for female athletes on a high level still needs to be addressed, something Kennelly has also worked on.

“I kind of took that formula, because I had noticed that in Hawaii, there hasn’t been any professional women’s events on the North Shore for over a decade. So I went with a group of women to the city and county in Honolulu. Together, we drafted a resolution which passed unanimously basically saying that if any contest organizer wants to pull a permit to run a professional surfing event on the North Shore of Oahu, they must include a women’s division. That’s why you’re seeing these contests now. Because if they want to run a men’s contest, now, they’ve got to run a women’s contest.”

“You want your life to mean something, you know, you want to leave a legacy. I’m really proud of the legacy that I’m leaving behind. I’m happy that I’m leaving it better than when I started.”

Planning for surf inclusivity means addressing pay gaps in multiple ways

There has been a resurgence of longboarding in recent years, particularly among women surfers. It’s a more traditional surfing style that is perfect for smaller, less powerful waves. When we think of surfing in terms of earning potential, longboarding has become one of the most lucrative aspects of the surfing industry.

In an Instagram poll, @building_the_revolution, a community of surf shop supporters, found that 82 percent of surf shop owners stated that they sold more longboards than shortboards to women. Yet this year, the WSL has announced that they are considering reducing the World Longboarding Tour to a one-day event. This came as a disappointment to longboarders of both championship level and enthusiasts, as it gives fewer opportunities for longboarders – in particular, women — to compete at a high level.

One reaction in particular to this news has been met with controversy. Joel Tudor, the reigning WSL longboarding champion took to Instagram in February to speak up regarding the potential World Longboarding Tour reduction, and criticize the disparity between pay for the competitors on the Women’s Longboarding Tour vs the Women’s Championship Tour. The World Longboard Tour event offers a prize of $10,000 for both male and female competitors, whereas the Championship Tour event offers $80,000 for both men and women. At 45, Tudor is the oldest longboarding world champion ever, and aside from performing magic on a log, he’s also not afraid to speak his mind. Tudor’s posts, which have since been deleted, sparked an outcry on social media from the surfing community.

Surfers across the board shared, commented and posted in support of Tudor’s argument. Stories of unfair treatment of female longboarders were told across social media. On Feb. 13, Hollywood actor (and surfing enthusiast) Jonah Hill shared a petition for the WSL to rethink their decision to reduce the event. In response to the outcry, the WSL issued a statement referring to equal prize money for men and women longboarders but did not address the disparity of pay between high-level longboard and shortboard competitors.

Tudor expanded upon his argument for Stab, stating “their tune changed because everyone from Rob Machado to Jamie O’Brien putting it up and backing it because they have daughters that longboard and girlfriends that longboard. Firewire put up a post saying that the largest growth sector in surfing is women’s longboarding. Ask the blank companies. 70% of blanks sold are longboard blanks. Look at all mainstream marketing campaigns around longboarding. The lifestyle, friends on the beach, community, the real shit that you see at real surf communities around the world… There’s a reason these brands are pulling from their culture — it appeals to their audience.”

It’s often reported in surf media that longboarding has shown the biggest growth in sales, and glass and resin longboards make the lion’s share of surfboard sales. So it seems natural that longboarding is often used in surf brand campaigns for women. It’s welcoming. The aspirational lifestyle surrounding the sport is often associated with good vibes and a relaxed attitude. But it’s also a more accessible variation of surfing that can be enjoyed on smaller waves by anyone, without the need to dive for your life under 10-foot waves on a shortboard. It makes perfect business sense. The more women who adopt the longboarding lifestyle, the wider a brand’s potential consumer base.

Many longboarders rely on exposure at high-level longboarding events to fund their careers. The reduction of the Longboard World Tour would also significantly reduce advertising value, which equates to fewer brand partnership opportunities, and therefore significantly fewer financial opportunities for longboarding competitors. It’s hoped that the petition and the noise made by high-level surfers throughout the industry might convince the WSL to reconsider future World Longboard Championship events. Only time will tell.

One thing is certain: the WSL hasn’t taken Tudor’s criticism lightly. On Wednesday, March 9, the WSL issued a short statement to confirm that Joel Tudor has been suspended from all surf-related League events. The length of Tudor’s suspension has not been specified, but this is the first time that a reigning world champion has ever been suspended by the official governing body of surfing. Surf media have blamed the suspension on the social media outcry that had been sparked by Tudor’s now-deleted Instagram posts.

Planning for surf inclusivity is about culture, not just gender

As the governing body of professional surfing, the WSL have shown an ability to adapt their surfing competitions to become more inclusive. In 2019, they started the equal pay movement for professional men and women surfers, which has set an incredible standard for other sports to follow. But sometimes it takes a brave athlete like Keala Kennelly or Joel Tudor to point out where improvements can be made. Rather than seeing Tudor as a saboteur, this could be a fantastic opportunity for the league to listen to the surfing community and its needs to progress and grow.

Meanwhile in Mexico, the Mexilogfest is set to take place in April in Sayulita, Mexico. It costs $175 to enter the main event, and the organizers have set up a separate competitive event in association with the Sayulita Surf Club for Mexican surfers to compete for one of 10 places for men and 10 places for women that have been reserved for local surfers to enter the main event. At first glance, this may seem like a fair opportunity to allow local surfers who may not have otherwise been able to afford to to join the lineup. However, it has been argued that because local established champion surfers need to compete to enter the competition rather than simply be invited, it causes yet another hoop to jump through that could cause barriers for entry for potential participants that don’t come from affluent backgrounds.

Kirra Silver, two-time national longboarding champion, recently took to Instagram to argue that this event’s $175 entry fee has priced-out local surfers and that the fact Mexican surfers need to compete for a place rather than having established champion longboarders receive an invitation creates an added barrier for participation. Posting on Instagram, Kirra stated:

“This year’s event there isn’t any Mexicans invited, there’s a contest beforehand to decide which top 10 women and men deserve a spot, if you’ve ever been to Mexico you know we don’t have the best economy, so imagine how much work we to do before, just to go and see if you get a slot on the main event.

“Israel (the event organizer) says he does it for the love of art, then charge $175 US dollars to the Mexicans, seems to me he does it more for the money, he wants to give the opportunity to those who can’t leave the country and compete, but charge us the same rate or even more than an event outside of Mexico. No Mexicans in the MEXI log event, go do it in California or Hawaii and just invite 10 women & men a slot, see how that goes #boycottmexilog Btw I’m not looking for a spot in this event, I don’t want to support an event in Mexico that doesn’t want us in it, just want everyone to be conscious what kinda event they’re participating in.”

Mexilogfest responded via Instagram: “To all the Mexicans who feel that they deserve a place to compete in the Mexi Log Fest and are upset (or as we say here in my ranch, pissed off, enchiladas, disappointed, aguitados,) because they were not invited since they are Mexican or local, or that they have many likes on their IG and a lot of views on their #tiktok and their fans comment that they deserve to be invited… well, what I’m looking for is to actually have the best Mexican men and women representing us in this competition and for this reason @sayulitasurfclub will organize a selective tournament on April 18, probably also on the 19th depending on the number of competitors.”

Kirra Silver spoke with FanSided to explain further: “It’s a great idea to host a pre-event for the locals in Sayulita who live there, and offer them an opportunity to compete. But if surfers are coming from other parts of the country to compete, and they’re just spending so much money just to go and see if they have an opportunity. I feel like something is not right.”

“I’ve attended a lot of events, and mostly the entry fee is not that high. If it is, it’s probably a QS event or something higher level, with higher rates of pay. It shouldn’t be this outrageous. Usually, events charge Americans who come to compete in US dollars and then the locals get charged half of the price so it’s more affordable and accessible. If you’re running an event in Mexico, you need to understand that maybe in the US, most people earn $175 in a day, but here in Mexico that would take the average person a month to earn that money. You’re pricing us out of an event that is supposed to celebrate Mexican surfing.”

“It’s not easy to become the national longboarding champion of Mexico. As a surfer and athlete in Mexico, brands don’t have much money allocated to support us, which sucks. The focus is more on influencers than athletes, so it’s really hard if you’re surviving on a salary from Mexico to be able to travel, pay your plane tickets, your surfboard fee, competition entry fees, hotel, transportation, food, all of that. It’s crazy. I’m lucky enough that now I’ve opened my own business. And I can go and compete when I want to. But not everyone has the same opportunities and can’t afford to compete and represent Mexico. It’s really not fair on them.”

These recent events have led many to wonder if it might be time for global surf event organizers to listen to the surfing community, and make further changes to ensure a higher standard of inclusivity at high-level competitions. It has been widely established that there are pay disparities between men, women and categories within specific events because Joel Tudor’s post is not the first time that pro surfers have had to speak up on the subject to enact change.

Everyone understands that there are barriers to entry in surfing, which have disproportionately prevented communities of surfers who cannot afford to keep up with the price tag of competing at a high level. Experiences like Silver’s at Mexilogfest are not stand-alone issues. Surfing is one of the most progressive sports out there, and it’s beautiful that the community can have these conversations to enact change. It’s how progress is made. But the people at the top need to listen and make changes accordingly.

Costa Rica’s Brisa Hennessy surfs on the final day of the Hurley Pro Sunset Beach held at Sunset Beach on Oahu’s North Shore on February 18, 2022 and wins the competition.

An example of where listening to these concerns has worked is this past year’s Triple Crown events. Understanding the global surf community’s concerns for inclusivity, Vans adapted their Triple Crown surfing events. The Triple Crown events have been held annually since 1983 on Oahu’s North Shore. The events include the Hawaiian Pro at Haleiwa Ali’i Beach Park, the World Cup of Surfing at Sunset Beach, and the Pipeline Masters at Ehukai Beach Park. All three events have champions, as well as an overall crowned champion each year, which goes to the surfer who consistently performed best at all three events.

As a reaction to the surfing community’s outcry for more inclusivity, the brand decided to raise the profile of women surfers and include 40 percent native Hawaiians, giving a nod to the origins of surfing culture and creating more avenues for native surfers the opportunity to elevate into competitive surfing. Scott Sisamis, Global Marketing Director of Vans, who has been with the company for 26 years, attributes listening and making changes to suit its audience the key to the brand’s success.

“In the history of the 51 years of Pipeline and over 30 years of the Triple Crown, there were only three women’s champions crowned, and they were not crowned at the traditional locations, they were sort of makeshift things that were pieced together through a Maui event. So we consciously wanted to bring women to the Triple Crown in a meaningful way. Another challenge is the local inclusion from the Hawaiian community, in the traditional sense of facilitating and getting people into the stops. The three main events didn’t allow a clear path for the local community to get in, so that was a challenge that we were trying to wrestle.”

“So when the pandemic happened, we were all of a sudden shut down, and we felt like it was a good chance to pivot and look at some bigger changes that would provide solutions. So we worked out internally how a digital Triple Crown could look with all those factors in place, so we came up with a framework of 126 competitors equal field between men and women with a minimum 40% Hawaiian inclusion, whereas traditional Triple Crown, the years I’ve worked on it, the average local inclusion was about 5%. This enabled us to open a door for talented people who would not normally be in the Triple Crown to take part.”

“I do think these high-level decisions play a role in getting people to think differently. We leaned into the positioning of bringing more inclusion to events. To be honest, I think that it scares traditional organizations like the WSL, because they have a formula that they play into. But we look at this as like, we don’t own any culture, we’re just trying to participate in a meaningful way to make a cultural progression. And by putting a foot forward and listening and being willing to take the feedback, I feel like we’re doing the right things for the sport.”

In Costa Rica, Serena Xing noticed the disparity of opportunities between genders in competitive surfing, and resolved to take matters into her own hands and set up her own. “I was looking for local competitions to join, and realized there were barely any women’s categories,” explains Xing. “I kept noticing that prize money would be like $200 for guys and $40 for women. It just seemed really unfair. Costa Rica is famous for surfing and we have so many talented female surfers, so I wanted to create a community of female surfers and give them a platform to share their skills.”

“We started in 2020 with a non-formal contest. We got about 40 girls, who all joined for free. We didn’t charge anything, and we provided a lot of prizes from our sponsors. We actually get a lot of sponsors, because everybody thinks it’s a great idea. Plus, women are big consumers of surf brands – so it’s a fantastic opportunity for the brands to support the female surfing talent.”

Xing’s third Mermaid’s Invitational competition will be held this year in Playa Carmen Santa Teresa in Costa Rica. “The goal is to use this event as a platform for female surfers to feel more empowered, and confident,” says Xing. From there, they can join federation competitions and even go overseas to bigger competitions. There was another competition here recently, and all of the longboarding women came from the league that I created.”

“It’s important that men and women are treated fairly in competitive surfing, no matter the category they enter. My competition has helped to build a closer-knit community of female surfers here in Costa Rica. I hope to keep growing this community. Sometimes a male-heavy line-up can become really hostile, so I want to help females grow to feel confident, safe and empowered no matter where they paddle out to.”

Whether it’s key changes in high-level competitions or the development of new competitive opportunities, it’s clear that we’re at a pivotal moment in global surfing culture. According to a market study published by Global Industry Analysts Inc., the global surf market is set to reach $3.1 billion by 2026. Economic growth within surfing and more exposure means there is more scope to nurture genuine talent to turn pro, and more opportunities to cultivate a growing global community that share the same passion for wave-riding. This also means that lineups are getting a lot busier, which could further fuel the toxic traits often associated with surfing culture. But it’s clear that without inclusivity, surfing can’t evolve. But providing opportunities for everyone and anyone to be included will require both listening and making foundational changes from the top.

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