On The Path To Equality, Is The WSL Pitting Men and Women Against Each Other?
"I think [the WSL] has a tremendous opportunity to revolutionize the sport and it could have global implications."
It's no wonder the WSL has pinned so many of its hopes and dreams on Lemoore, California.
The constant struggle to find quality waves in surf's natural environment, not to mention the all encompassing hassle of obtaining the permits necessary to privatize public resources, combine to make the process of running any surf contest a merciless chore.
The WSL's latest fumble involves the Mavericks Challenge, an event long plagued with political and bureaucratic SNAFUS, and this time around the WSL may fail to acquire the necessary permits to hold the contest.
"But wait," one might say, "Isn't the event a foregone conclusion? Didn't the WSL purchase Cartel Management's multi-year permit during last year's bankruptcy auction? Aren't they in the clear?"
It's not so simple.
The Mavericks Challenge requires permits from three different agencies. One permit from the San Mateo Harbor Commission, of which the WSL is already the proud owner, one from the California Coastal Commission, and another from the State Lands Commission. The last two are only available on a yearly basis and the WSL has, thus far, failed to secure either.
The State Lands Commission stated in a staff report that the permit will be withheld until prize money for men and women is equal, or the WSL states a reason for disparity that is considered valid:
“Male athletes are surfing and competing on the same waves as the female athletes… [s]o other than the participation evaluation process which is controlled solely by the Applicant, there doesn’t appear to be any reasonable justification to treat prize compensation differently for female athletes versus male athletes.”
To learn more about the ongoing mess I turned to Sabrina Brennan. Ms. Brennan is a Harbor Commissioner for San Mateo County and, as co-founder of the Committee for Equity in Women's Surfing, is a bit of a thorn in the WSL's paw.
Stab: What's going on here? Mavericks might not run if the WSL isn't willing to pay the women equally?
Commissioner Brennan: We met [the WSL] in July and were able to come to an agreement on running three heats instead of one at Mavericks, so there's a true women's division. We agreed on ten athletes, potentially, versus the original nine. Sort of splitting hairs, it didn't really make that big a difference. But the three heats was a big deal. [Two heats plus a final, rather than a single exhibition heat.]
We were happy about that, but when we discussed the issue of equal prize money we got significant push-back. Sophie [Goldschmidt], the CEO, was there with Graham [Stapelberg]. Mike Parsons was on the phone via conference call, along with their attorney, Dylan, and the women's commissioner [Jessi Miley Dyer].
Me, Bianca [Valenti], Paige Alms via phone, and the attorney for Equity in Women's Surfing were there too.
We basically just came to the realization that we were in disagreement on the pay equity issue and we left a little bit bruised because Sophie Goldschmidt made some disparaging remarks about the women's surfing ability and said, in so many words, that if we didn't go along with this they would cancel the event.
I called it out, said that there's no point in making threats, and that's how we left it.
Our next move was to talk to the permitting agencies and find out what they were up to. We sent letters to the State Lands Commission, California Coastal Commission, and to the San Mateo Harbor District.
Apparently that didn't go over well with the WSL. They were ticked off about it and I think they got the word back from the agencies that their coastal development permit, with the Coastal Commission, was not moving forward, they weren't getting on the agenda, and they were, according to the Coastal Commission staff, 'unresponsive.'
Coastal Commission staff was saying, "We want to see the breakdown of the prize money for the men's division and the women's division," and they just weren't getting it. So they can't move forward with the permit application.
(Stab has attained the WSL's proposed prize purses and you can compare them below*)
It also appeared they were getting a lot of questions from State Lands too, and State Lands was considering adding some language to the lease needed for the event that made it clear they could not continue with any gender-based discrimination.
That got the WSL's attention but, as far as we know, the WSL is not budging. In fact, they sent us some emails containing legal threats and basically cut off communication with the Committee for Equity in Women's surfing.**
Then, when Paige Alms and Greg Long were down in LA recently they got pulled into a meeting with WSL management. I'm pretty sure it was Graham [Stapelberg] who was in that meeting. Possibly Sophie [Goldschmidt] too.
Management basically said they're possibly going to cancel Mavericks and the only way for the women to receive equal prize money is if the men are willing to take less.
What I heard from Paige [Alms] was that Greg [Long] was like, "We can't cancel the event, but that's not a good alternative."
Are they trying to pit the surfers against each other?
Yes, and they didn't need to do that. To pit the men against the women, it's so wrong because there are so few of these women athletes and they already have to deal with a hard time in the lineup and in life.
To then have this thrown at them, that now it's their fault, that they're taking money out of the pocket of the men surfers... I just wish that the WSL could handle this as a responsible organization. And maybe they will. But that's not how it's been done so far. I have been unimpressed with their level of professionalism.
What does this mean for Mavericks permits this year?
They missed the August agenda because they were unresponsive, they missed the September agenda. So now it would be October. Unless some miracle happens.
Every time they [the WSL] delays in working with these permitting agencies they're risking cutting into their season. Which is what happened with last season. They didn't get their act together with the Coastal Commission until the great conditions had already occurred.
Part of that we can blame on Cartel for the bankruptcy. But, really, everyone was bending over backwards to help them get the permits in order. Because we wanted an event and we were backing off asking for anything other than the one [women's] heat. We just wanted to see an event happen and we didn't want to do anything to possibly delay it because the WSL was already behind the eight ball.
And they blew it. So time moves on and we're like "Okay, so the women didn't get to surf last season. That was a setback, again. So screw it, we just need to ask for what we want or it's never going to happen." And that's where we're at with it.
WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt, at the Pipe Masters. Photo courtesy WSL.
What's it like working with Ms. Goldschimdt?
I really wanted to like her. I think she has a tremendous opportunity to revolutionize the sport and it could have global implications.
I hope that does happen going forward. But so far, her tone disparaging the women surfers' ability and some of the comments she's made that I think were really politically motivated, to undermine their request for equal prize money... it crossed my mind that she was getting poor advice from some of her management staff.
But at some point, you're CEO, you've got to be a leader. I came away from it still really wanting to like her, and hoping she'll do the right thing, but she just kinda came off as a corporate person who isn't willing to take a risk.
I didn't get the sense that she's leading the organization. I got the sense that there are other people in charge. Not all CEOs are leaders. I had hoped that she would be, and maybe she will become one.
What do you think of the sentiment that men deserve more pay because they're a bigger draw?
I think that everyone is going to want to see the women surf. It'll be totally amazing and really increase viewership. There's been so much hype about including women for years, so many great stories in the press and so much drama around it, that people want to check it out. I think they're gonna tune in for that and there will be a lot of excitement around it.
I think it will be a lot easier to get sponsors when you're supporting the women athletes and doing the right thing.
When you incentivize the sport it gives girls and women more of a reason to stick with it.
Evening the playing field, and bringing equity, is a way to build the sport and encourage girls and women to stick with the sport and be competitive in it.
Ed.'s Note: When reached for comment, The WSL was "not able to provide responses to the specific questions at this time," instead, replying with the following pre-written statement :
"WSL is a huge advocate of women's surfing and has consistently pushed the boundaries of what has gone before in terms of competitions, additional and improved event locations, athlete development, and increased prize money and marketing support. WSL works closely with the women surfer representatives across the different tours to ensure best interests are served, in a commercially sustainable way, including surf locations, athlete development, financial investment, and marketing opportunities. We will continue to invest in all aspects as we celebrate the unique attributes of both the sport and our athletes. In terms of Mavericks permitting, the criteria have recently changed and so we will be resubmitting our application in due course.”
** The emails previously in this article have been removed.