Sea Changes for Women's Pro Surfing
This feature is the third installment in Women Of Action, a new series about women in action sports that is rolling out every two weeks this spring on XGames.com. The series explores the often-underexposed issues surrounding females of all ages and abilities and covers a range of stories, from blurred gender lines in motocross racing to profiles on some of the most powerful and talented women you've never heard of and the changing tides in women's professional surfing -- which we explore below.
In 2012, women's professional surfing was suffering a slow death on the industry sidelines. With an anemic world tour schedule, dried-up financial support and fading fan interest, competitive female surfers faced the very real possibility of their career paths soon vanishing completely.
Then a funny thing happened. Out of a mélange of mergers, acquisitions and millennial focus groups of the last decade emerged a private company from California called ZoSea Media Holdings. Their intent? To purchase the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), pro surfing's governing body, and transform surfing's majors -- the World Championship Tour (WCT).
Now, just two years later, and that heady combination of cash, commitment and passion has already turned the elite series on its head, injecting excitement into a newly revived and wholly re-energized women's tour.
Before ZoSea, endemic surf brands independently financed and produced each stop on the ASP World Tour and sponsored the athletes who competed in it. When the 2008 recession hit and consumer spending cut back sharply, the surf industry's financials plummeted, and the women suffered most. Pulling support from the women's side of the tour proved an easy place for companies to cut costs: It was whittled down to six contests in one season, in contrast to the men's 11 events.
Competitive female surfers have always contended with gender disparity. The ASP men's tour boasts 32 of the best surfers in the world, while the women's tour stands at 17. Before 2014, prize money offered for women's contests was roughly one-quarter of the men's purse. And when contests were besieged with suboptimal conditions, women were typically made to compete on smaller waves while men waited for conditions to improve.
But as this season has progressed -- the third stop of the 2014 WCT wrapped Wednesday at Australia's Bells Beach, with Mick Fanning (men) and Carissa Moore (women) taking wins -- it appears that the new ASP's innovations will bring women's surfing back from the brink. Four events have been added to the 2014 women's tour, at renowned big-wave spots like Tavarua in Fiji and on Maui, and contest dates have shifted to calendar windows that are likely to see better conditions.
Perhaps ZoSea's biggest statement so far, however, has been with women's wallets: For the first time in history, the total available prize money for women matches the men's tour, a shift not unlike that experienced in women's tennis at Wimbledon in 2007.
ZoSea was co-founded by former Quiksilver board member Paul Speaker -- now the ASP's CEO -- and Kelly Slater's longtime agent, Terry Hardy. But the new guard at the ASP also includes billionaire Dirk Ziff and his wife, Natasha, both of whom are now ASP partners and board members.
Natasha, in particular, has been a behind-the-scenes champion for changes to the women's tour. A passionate surfer, she describes her experience with the sport as "transformative."
"Our primary focus in Year 1 has been the ASP's recommitment to provide a stable and quality performance platform for the athletes -- to put them in the best waves on the planet," she told ESPN in an exclusive written statement. "With the addition of [women's competitions in] Fiji, Trestles and Maui, we have delivered on this already."
The new energy around the women's tour is rippling through the industry. "The rivalries that are building, the [contests] that are intensifying, the world title battles," said four-time ASP World Tour Champion Lisa Andersen. "The women's tour is becoming super-healthy. It's got fat on the edges, it's juicy and meaty, and it's interesting."
This isn't the first time women have been the focus of renewed excitement in surfing, but it may be their first true shot at realizing the promise of their wave-riding forebears. A fictional girl helped launch surfing's popularity in the 1960s, but real-life, hard-charging female athletes on tour in the late '90s and early 2000s have had the biggest impact on women's surfing.
"This whole convergence of elements came together," Andersen explained. Quiksilver, the 45-year-old publicly traded surf behemoth, launched its sister brand, Roxy, and flooded the market with girl-centric surf products and advertising. Roxy debuted female-specific board shorts, which "made girls comfortable and made them get out there," Andersen said.
Add to this the new generation of surf moms and dads teaching their daughters how to surf, and the $50 million Kate Bosworth box-office hit, "Blue Crush," about a young woman trying to become a professional surfer in Hawaii, and voila -- all the necessary elements were in place to spark a firestorm of progression in women's surfing.
"[Before,] you couldn't find another girl for miles in the surf, and now you've got girlfriends, wives and daughters all out surfing," Andersen said. "It was incredible. There's never been anything quite like it."
While the recreational side was booming, the competitive side of women's professional surfing was also seeing a surge in respect from the industry.
"The prize money was about the same, but the tour itself was very different," said Keala Kennelly, who was among the top 17 at the time. "We had events at waves like [Fiji's] Cloudbreak, [Tahiti's] Teahupo'o, [Hawaii's] Sunset Beach and Honolua Bay. These waves of consequence challenged athletes. They forced you to dig deep and pull groundbreaking performances out. For me, these were the best moments of the tour."
By the end of the 2000s, interest in women's surfing had begun to taper off, and it was compounded by the global recession. As the contest stops began to fall away, so did available opportunities for female pros. A handful of magazines dedicated to covering women's surfing -- including Wahine, SG Magazine and Surf Life For Women -- folded one by one. Brands advertising women's products started replacing action shots of sponsored athletes with lifestyle photos of surf models. Female athletes had to work harder than ever to get sponsorship deals.
"When they took those events away, I decided to give up my place on [tour] to pursue a career as a professional freesurfer and big-wave surfer so I could continue to challenge myself and take my surfing to places I knew I wouldn't be able to with things as they were," Kennelly said.
While other female pros struggled to find financial support, the battle for parity -- or even improvements -- was being waged outside the water.
"In the early 2000s, we wanted to create a female union," said seven-time women's world champion Layne Beachley, who won titles from 1998 to 2003 and again in 2006. "There were times when we were competing alongside the men and conditions had deteriorated. The men would band together and say, 'We're not running, send the girls out.' The girls wouldn't band together because we would be threatened [to be dropped by sponsors]."
"The legends of the women's tour -- that was a really difficult road to hoe," Speaker said. "The women surfers today, and the ASP in general, owe a tremendous amount to its past champions because at any moment [they could have] just said, 'This is too hard, no one's supporting us, we're out of here.'"
When New Zealander Paige Hareb joined the women's tour in 2009, after the competitive heydays of both Andersen and Beachley, the tour was in the midst of an identity crisis. "When I first came on tour, the image seemed to be more about surfing. Then it went to a few girls seeing who can show the most skin. I feel like it's changing again to a more athletic, healthy lifestyle and look, and everyone is more focused on how good the women's surfing is now, which is what it's all about," she said.
In a sport that necessitates a minimally clothed lifestyle, with bathing suits that double as competitive uniforms, walking the line between having sex appeal and athletic prowess is a constant image-balancing act for athletes.
"Surf and sex are synonymous," said former Surfer magazine editor Chris Mauro, who now serves as Grind Media's editorial director. "[But] the reality is that a good-looking person is not a story. A lot of the women have interesting stories, and it comes back to the fact that the women have to work harder for everything they get."
"The girls are getting comfortable in their skin," explained Danielle Beck, former VP of marketing at Roxy. "I look at Alana [Blanchard] and the girls in the surf world, and they seem comfortable. No one's trying to be something they're not. They're strong individuals. I don't feel like a brand is putting them in a situation where they wouldn't have been OK with it. They have their own personal-brand perception of themselves."
The shift away from endemic companies as tour owners -- and with it, a release from their sales obligations -- has the secondary benefit for women of allowing the athletes to promote their personal brands over that of a sponsor. The result, according to Speaker, will be unprecedented authenticity in the representation of the female pros.
Translation? Baring all will not be a prerequisite for promotion -- a perception that plagued many women on tour in recent years.
The new ASP is effectively controlling distribution, messaging and content. With a new in-house production team creating original content, that content no longer has to promote an endemic brand's products. And all contests stream live at one central hub (aspworldtour.com), as opposed to webcasts previously being hosted on the site of the brand that was sponsoring a particular stop.
Under ZoSea's brand-agnostic umbrella, there will be room for the range of personalities that populate the top 17 this year, for as long as the new paradigm is in place. "I welcome individualism," said Speaker, whose philosophy is informed in part by his other role, as a dad to four daughters. "It makes fans decide who their favorites are. It creates role models."
ZoSea's arrival, and the centralized control and concurrent freedom that have come with it, have largely been met with open arms among the cognoscenti. But it has not been without concern that the deep pockets might close if the tour isn't monetized quickly.
"This is what surfing has needed -- some big-money supporter who believes in it, understands it, gets behind it and can let it ride for a little bit," Mauro said. "Back it through some rough periods, to where it can find its footing. Now it's just a matter of how long will they actually give it to be self-sustaining."
Speaker says they are playing the long game. "We are a very well-funded company that has a long look on the future, so we run strategies at three years, five years and 10 years," he explained. "The women's tour is part of our overall business model. We have a tremendous amount of runway to make sure that we resource this company properly."
As proof of ZoSea's commitment, Speaker points to the changes that have been implemented already: title sponsorship from Samsung, deep domestic and international distribution channels (including hourlong "World Of X Games" shows on ABC featuring highlights from each of the men's and women's WCT events), and the development of a media product he believes will continue to improve.
The new ASP has given the women's tour a chance to stand on its own two feet, freed from the shackles of sponsor requirements, and allowed its athletes an opportunity to root themselves in authenticity and begin telling stories that don't begin and end with the way they look.
"It's such an exciting time," said Carissa Moore after her win at Bells this week. "All the girls are taking it to a whole new level and it's just the start of the season. We have so many new venues, and it's going to be an amazing title race. The level is higher than it's ever been, and it's just getting better and better."
With some leaps of faith, buoyed by cash, this may be the only chance they'll ever need again.