You know a pro surfer, right? Maybe not Kelly Slater, but you know a guy who's sponsored. He gets free energy drinks, a little travel budget, and $15,000 a year to slap stickers on his decks. Bear that in mind as you read the next sentence. Some surfers on the World Tour don't have sponsors.
While Owen Wright may not need the $300,000 Quiksilver paid him for his win in New York, surfers such as Bec Woods and Raoni Monteiro don't have the backing of Red Bull, Ford, Billabong, their rich uncle … or anyone at all. They need prize money to pay the bills and put food in their mouths. Not to mention fund airfare, accommodation, and competition fees. Kieren Perrow reportedly spends up to $100,000 on travel in a single season. And he's not spending it at Club Femme Nu. At the halfway point this year, he's earned $31,000 on Tour.
Woods had a better sponsorship deal at age 15 than most surfers will ever get. She received clothes, wetsuits, and contest incentives.
"I had a great run with a company and was sponsored through my peak, for 11 years," Woods says. "When you are in a male-dominated environment, you are also competing for their share of the pie, so you have to do pretty big things to be recognized as a female."
"Big things" may include being the best female surfer in your geographic region or exceptionally photogenic.
"Now I am a bit older, I am one of five Aussies on Tour (and the lowest-ranked) and I am not a model," Woods continues, "I see it as the company I was with was struggling in marketing funds, and the first place they look to cut costs is female team riders."
At 27, she's sponsorless and she's not alone. Four women in the Top 17 don't have any sponsors. For nearly a quarter of the elite women, prize money is a lifeline.
Prize purses are complex and breaking them down can reveal some interesting stuff. Consider the recent Billabong Pro Rio de Janeiro. This event, which includes men's and women's competitions, capitalizes on the ever-exploding Brazilian talent and its fervent fan base. The Billabong Rio Pro entices its male competitors with a $500,000 purse. It's the highest-paying event on Tour. The women's purse is $120,000 -- second only to Layne Beachley's Commonwealth Bank Classic in Sydney.
Yes, it does appear that there is a massive difference between the men's purse and its female counterpart, but in some ways that discrepancy is deceiving. Twice as many male competitors are on the tour, so it makes sense with more male winners to have more checks cut after each round, but the math is still flawed.
"I think it would be a fair call to do it in proportion to the number of competitors on each Tour," Sally Fitzgibbons writes via e-mail. "For example, the men's prize pool is [usually] $425,000 with 36 surfers in the draw, which is roughly $11,800 per surfer. So to be fair, the women's prize pool should be $11,800 x 18: approximately $210,000. Our prize pool, at the moment, only stands at $110,000. It should also be noted that the men's first-round losers receive $7,000, which is enough to cover their travel and make a little money from the event. The women's first-round losers earn around $4,500 and don't always cover the costs."
It should also be noted that the men's tour events also have higher viewership and therefore might justify a higher dollar value. It's pretty standard in the sports world -- except maybe in tennis.
As this year's Billabong Rio Pro women's winner, Fitzgibbons received $25,000. Men's champ John Florence walked away with $100,000. Are $100,000 prizes really necessary when there are gaping holes in the tour schedule where iconic events used to be? The Quik Pro New York's purse could have easily been called "absurdly large," and serving up more modest sums would certainly save money, but what about the surfers on tour who barely break even?
"Some of the athletes at the top of the ASP rankings may not flinch if they see a reduction in prize money (to support events in prime venues) because they are making enough through sponsorship endorsements," explains ASP International media director Dave Prodan. "However, there are a number of surfers (especially in the ASP Top 17) who rely upon that prize money to fund their international campaigns. A reduction to the prize purse for them could have negative effects on their ability to compete."
Woods says, "To be honest, I was considering not going to Brazil because with the accommodation and flight, if you lose in the first round, you don't break even. I am surviving off my savings from the past and it is hard to make a call. I got a third in Sydney and $7,500 certainly helped get me to Brazil. For sure, I have to cut on accommodation -- like not staying central to the contest zone, and this can be disadvantageous. [With] the amount of heats it takes to take out an event and the amount of time and expense for board, equipment, nutrition, cross-training, mental prep, technique training, heat training, organizing travel, and balancing finance, it is, in fact, a full-time job. There is no way that earning [only] prize money, you can be at your optimal peak to take out the top 17 women in the world."
And the surfers whose competitive earnings are just sprinkles on top of a satisfying sponsor-flavored sundae -- are they less hungry? In more ways than one? And let us not forget that prize money was a big part of the whole Slater-rebel-tour-revamped-ASP-thing, two years back.
"My personal opinion is that the disparity between sponsorship endorsement and competition prize money needs to be significantly narrowed," Prodan says. "In the early days of professional surfing, sponsorship endorsements and prize money had a smaller financial gap between them. The general consensus within the industry was that if the sport were to progress, the incentive to perform in the live arena must exist. In the following decades, both sponsorship endorsements and prize money have grown significantly, but the latter has grown at a slower rate. What we now have is a substantially larger gap between some of the endorsement contracts athletes are receiving and the prize money awarded in the elite events."
"The fiscal incentive for the aforementioned athlete is diminished somewhat because of the disparity between what they make from endorsements and what they make in prize money," he continues. "Of course, the unspoken paradox in all of this is that athletes are getting paid $3 million a year in endorsements because they are ASP World Title contenders." Or their names kind of sound like Rain Deynolds.
And that begs the question of whether a free surfer who pushes performance, follows swells, and gets heaps of footage should be paid for his [or her] work -- and how much? Big paychecks and competitive chops are far from mutually exclusive, and a medley of personalities -- free surfers and competitive animals alike -- is one of the things that makes surfing interesting. Strictly concerning surfing in the contest setting, it may be argued that the pressure to make ends meet fosters ambition.
However, when a guy can purchase land using a single contest's take and many of the women on tour are lucky to cover their travel expenses, it might be time to, at least, re-examine the purse situation. The possibilities are limited, as reducing purses would create even larger fissures between sponsors' endorsements and comp checks.
The first-round losers can't really withstand a blow to their shares, either. Increasing purses increases expenses, which is the opposite of what we're going for here -- unless a higher purse somehow equates to higher event visibility and, in turn, greater revenue. Is it possible to spread the love more equally between men and women, first and last place? Not level it, but pay the men's winners slightly less and increase each of the losers' checks by a few thousand?
Socialism is an admittedly unlikely and eccentric solution to the prize purse pickle, but it may also be the right one. The point, after all, is that if there's no money to finance a Tour, the Tour itself remains in peril. In other sports, there are such things as salary caps, but many surfers don't even consider themselves athletes. Also, no one can limit what LeBron James makes if kids want to wear his Nike P.S. Elites -- just as all the surf kids dream of themselves in Dane Reynolds' Vans.
"I think companies have pushed surfing to go mainstream. I see Billabong in landlocked places when I travel," Woods says. "Tourists entering surf camps for summer in Europe makes for a s---ty, crowded lineup, but it also lines the pockets of the industry, so I say it should be paid forward to athletes and the Tour -- both men's and women's. I know times are tough, but I do believe everyone who is on the elite Tour should be sponsored. The gap [between sponsor support and purses] makes it a tour designed for the most-supported to succeed. And that they do."