After watching the women surf at the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach in Victoria over the weekend, one commentator was so impressed he called it one of the “best rounds of women's surfing ever," and offered Australian Sally Fitzgibbons the ultimate compliment in this male-dominated sport; she was as good as a bloke, “like [Kelly] Slater in his prime”.
Anyone who watches the sport closely already knows that the women who compete on surfing's World Tour are incredibly talented and watchable athletes. The real news is that finally a group of people with money and clout have also realised how good the girls are and, most importantly, how unsustainable it is to support rampant gender discrimination in a professional sporting competition.
As world champion Layne Beachley puts it: 'If the waves are shit, send the girls out.'
This year's World Tour – of which Bells is the third event - is under new ownership after a private Californian company called ZoSea Media Holdings purchased the tour from the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP). While the billionaire investors behind the company have said little publicly, their actions suggest they think sexism is bad business.
Female competitors in professional surfing have always experienced outlandish discrimination. It's not just the enormous disparity in pay - last year the female world champion took home the same purse as the male surfer who ranked 23rd – but while the men competed at the best wave locations like Fiji, Hawaii and Tahiti, the women surfed a succession of small beach breaks with little opportunity to demonstrate their prowess.
Worst of all has been an attitude and practice that has plagued professional surfing since women first started competing alongside men decades ago; a belief that men deserve the better wave conditions and that women should take their turn outside of these peak windows. Or, as seven-time world champion Layne Beachley puts it: “If the waves are shit, send the girls out.”
The women receive less coverage and promotion then the men, and when they are marketed they were usually reduced to an image of a bikini-clad bum paddling into a wave-less distance.
In 2012, while researching a story for the Griffith Review I spoke to surfing administrators and promoters to figure out why such a retro, Puberty Blues-esque approach was warranted in this modern era. The ASP seemed rueful; of course they'd like to give the girls a better go, but they had to think of the sponsors, and the sponsors didn't see a market for women's surfing. A promoter told me the problem lay with women and girls themselves – girls don't want to grow up to be athletes he said, they want to be bikini models, that's why there's little investment in the "sport" side of women's surfing.
The problem with the arse-trumps-athleticism "logic" though is that following it wasn't working for the sport, and the ASP was struggling to maintain a sustainable World Tour competition.
The actions of ZoSea since they purchased the ASP suggest they also are not buying this flawed logic. Under the radically revamped women's competition this year, prize money has been doubled – though still no parity - and Fiji, Hawaii and Maui have been added to the schedule.
The new chief executive Paul Speaker says it's “time to move these wonderful athletes onto waves that challenge them a little bit more,” promising the women an “equal voice” in the competition.
Speaker has made it clear that the rules of the game have changed: “It is imperative to understand we deliver the best product for our audience,” he says. “And that doesn't mean the best product for the men and find a way to place the women in.”
Speaker, a former president of Time Inc. Studios, is the father of four daughters, so perhaps he feels a sense of personal mission in his new role. But you can be sure this venture is no altruistic lark. Speaker and the investors he represents are in this to make money and secure a return on their investment. They have ambitions to build surfing into a mainstream sport and clearly see boosting the women's side of the competition as key to their overall success.
International economists and organisations like the World Bank think the same way about gender equality and economic development. Just last month the head of the IMF Christine Lagarde warned that blocking women's economic participation leads to a lower standard of living for everyone, whereas allowing equal participation would be a “global economic game changer”.
Trying to build a global, professional sport with a reputable brand while simultaneously marginalising half your participants never made any sense. As social research clearly shows, representing female athletes merely as sex objects doesn't build interest in their sport, it just builds interest in sex. Following such a counter-intuitive business model for so long suggests this approach was more about maintaining male power and privilege than supporting surfing.
Of course ZoSea is no panacea. Many structures and attitudes still exist that seek to marginalise young girls and women aspiring to be professional surfers. When the otherwise professional video coverage of the women surfing at Bells cuts to an advertisement showing a female surfer bumping and grinding like a burlesque dancer you know there's still a long way to go.
What ZoSea has done is cast a powerful vote of confidence in the ability of female athletes to attract a following and help build the profile of a sport.