California law makers weigh in on pay gap in athletic competitions
The Santa Clara
April 25, 2019
The globe’s biggest sports stars are making more bank than ever. The athletes on Forbes’ most recent Top 100 List made $3.8 billion over the last 12 months, up 23 percent from the previous year. The list includes elite athletes across the sports landscape, including Lionel Messi, Lebron James and Tiger Woods. But no women appeared on that list.
Focus, determination, skill, courage, grit— it’s all a part of the sport whether you are a man or a woman. As a female collegiate athlete myself, I know that female athletes are dedicating equal amounts of effort toward their success as male athletes, so it can be discouraging as a female athlete to know that our efforts appear less valued.
In March, just weeks before the 2019 Women’s World Cup, the U.S. Women’s Soccer team demanded pay raises. Last year, the U.S. Women’s Hockey team threatened to boycott the upcoming world championship due to unequal pay compared to the men’s squad. Women’s National Basketball players are also taking action. Now, professional women surfers are riding the same wave to end the gender pay gap themselves.
On April 19, California lawmakers signed the bill “Equal Pay for Equal Play” that would grant permits only to competitions providing equal pay for all athletes competing on state property. Surfing, cycling, open-water swimming and triathlons are examples of the primary contests that would be affected.
The bill was written by surfer Tasha Boerner Horvath. She is a member of the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS)—a group dedicated to ensuring fairness and equality, regardless of gender, in the sport. The bill is an effort to challenge the inequality norms of paying women less than men across many pro sports.
“When we look at these athletes, this is their place of work,” she told The Mercury News in March. “This is where they earn their money and where they perform.”
The idea for the bill arose late last summer. Elite surfer Bianca Valenti of San Francisco made history as the first Women’s Big Wave Champion, winning the Puerto Escondido Cup during the summer of 2018. She was paid $1,750 by the World Surf League (WSL). Meanwhile, her counterpart in the men’s division took home $7,000—four times the prize money for the same waves.
Valenti, among many other professional female surfers, is a member of CEWS. The committee decided to write a letter after Valenti’s victory to the California Coastal Commission— the state agency in charge of land use and public access in the California Coastal Zone—to notify them that the WSL has shown gender-based discrimination by allocating its prize money based on gender differences.
The letter also requested that a change be made to the annual Mavericks Challenge Surf Contest, which takes place near Half Moon Bay every March. Organized by the WSL itself, it is one of the most exciting competitions in the world of surfing due to its great location and unpredictable waves—some of which reach 60 feet. CEWS urged the California Coastal Commission to approve the Mavericks Challenge only if the event offered the same prize money to both genders—something that has never happened in the sport of surfing.
“Women athletes should have an opportunity to compete for equal prize money in a multi-heat women’s division,” wrote Valenti in the letter. “It will be good for women, for the Mavericks legacy and it will ensure fair and equal access to coastal waters.”
Under the pressure applied by CEWS in the letter, the World Surf League announced that it would offer equal prize money beginning in 2019 to both men and women—becoming the first U.S.-based global sports league to apply equal pay. The WSL added that it is deeply committed to the growth and support of women’s sports. Soon after, the Mavericks Challenge followed suit, allocating equal pay as well as increasing the number of women’s heats in their competition to three.
While the event was canceled last month due to harsh weather conditions, Mavericks will be one of two contests including women in the upcoming Big Wave Tour season this year. The other is the Women’s Pe’ahi Challenge in Maui, which will also follow a threeheat format.
Female surfers of CEWS have been diving head first into legislation meetings up and down the coast ever since. Now, with the “Equal Pay Equal Play” bill passed, Boerner and Gonzalez have sent multiple letters to major surfing competitions in the past weeks demanding equal prize money for female athletes.
“When I was told there was going to be equal pay for men and women, I pretty much cried,” Stephanie Gilmore, the world’s No. 1 female surfer, said to CNN.
Kelly Slater, winner of 11 Men’s World Championships and 55 Championship tour titles, concurred. “The women on the tour deserve this change,” he told WSL. “I’m so proud that surfing is choosing to lead sports in equality and fairness.”
The argument for disparity in the pay gap does make sense to a degree. Many men’s sports bring in more money and sometimes more of an audience than their female counterparts. But I think the real issue women are concerned about is equity and fair treatment as athletes in the sports industry.
This issue has been surfacing across the sports world. Soccer, hockey and most notoriously professional basketball have large pay gaps too.
In March, all 28 members of the current U.S. Women’s Soccer team sought equitable payment and treatment from the National Soccer Federation, which they had not been receiving despite being the most successful women’s team in history. In the lawsuit, the players argued they have the same responsibilities as their male counterparts, “playing with the same size ball; on the same size field; have the same duration of matches and play by the same set of rules.”
The women’s team is simply more successful than its male counterpart. The men’s team failed to make the the last World Cup while the women have won three Olympic World Cups and four Olympic gold medals. And yet, the women still receive smaller paychecks. Currently, the U.S. Soccer Federation is looking to find parity in compensation.
Similarly, the U.S. Women’s National Ice Hockey Team had been battling off the ice for equal pay last year. According to The New York Times, the players were asking for the same treatment the men’s team received, such as having their disability insurance and transportation costs covered. They also needed to make a living off of their sport, which the men’s team easily does with six-figure salaries. After a year of negotiations, the USA Hockey finally agreed to a four-year contract honoring many of the athletes’ requests.
Players from the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) are also taking a stance. They are not asking for the multimillion dollar contracts that NBA players take home—they merely are asking for equity in their sport. While the NBA pays its players between 49-51 percent of its revenue, the WNBA only take home approximately 22.8 percent according to NBA.com. Negotiations for fairer treatment are currently underway.
Sports have historically mirrored society, with the pay gap persisting in the athletic world just as much as in the professional world. The progress is slow, but it is happening. As recent news shows, women are fighting back—demanding, and now winning, equity and equality at last.
Contact Lacey Yahnke at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.