Surfer girls riding an unsteady crest
They may be a hot commodity in Hollywood, but sponsorships and interest lag on the professional circuit.
For Rochelle Ballard the North Shore of Oahu is an ideal spot for her day job. A top female pro-surfer, Ms. Ballard spends her working days tunneling through crystalline blue waves and dodging wipe-outs on breaking faces the size of large buildings. Her office is palm-lined Oahu and other top surf spots around the world. Her uniform, a swimsuit and sunscreen.
Ballard has adroitly ridden a pop-culture wave to fame and fortune. Last year she had a cameo as herself in "Blue Crush," a movie that might be described as "Rocky" with teen girls on surfboards. Now, the MTV television channel has announced that it will air a reality television series based on the lives of competitive women surfers living in Hawaii.
Yet, for all their Hollywood cachet, Rochelle Ballard and other top female surfers have grown increasingly disenchanted with the professional side of their sport. In what should be a glorious winter of waves, they have watched interest in women's contests dwindle and contest venues move to less desirable surf spots. They believe they are getting short shrift from the professional body that runs both the men's and women's tours, the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP).
"Our exposure level has grown tremendously. In some cases, it has gotten more exposure than men because of 'Blue Crush' and other things " says Ballard. "I don't think they are pushing and embracing women's surfing as much as men's surfing."
The timing certainly seems right for a big push to grow the women's professional tour. Nearly 20 percent of recreation surfers today are women, well up from the low single digits a decade ago. Sales growth of women's surf clothing is outpacing the sales growth of clothes for men. And surfing has entered the mainstream of haute couture; models at the Chanel show in Paris this fall clutched surfboards. Elegant women surfers in paradisiacal setting have graced the fold of numerous women's magazines.
To be sure, top female surfers such as Layne Beachley, Keala Kennelly, and Kate Skarratt have garnered some interest in recent years, including sponsorships. For her wave savvy Ballard brings home a six-figure income, enough to buy a house on the beach she loves. It's more than any female professional surfers could have expected a decade ago.
Yet in 2003, the World Championship Tour (WCT), managed by the ASP, has only attracted sponsorship for six women's events with none during the prime Northern Hemisphere surf season of October and November. That's half the number of events for men.
What's more, men's events enjoy sponsorships from big brand names such as Coca-Cola and Microsoft. By comparison, last year the women's tour lost its big brand name backer, liquor company Kahlua. Surfing insiders say the company became frustrated it was not getting the coverage and signage at events guaranteed in it's sponsorship contract. And for the past two years the ASP has contracted with a television crew to provide footage for the men's tour. That arrangement has not extended to the women's tour.
"Companies approach me all the time. The ASP doesn't get it. They need a specific marketing program for women's surfing," says Ballard.
Some of the lack of sponsorship comes from decreased visibility. While the men's events invariably hit the world's top breaks, some women's events get shunted to lesser waves such as Turtle Bay, Oahu. In one case top men's and women's events were scheduled on the same day on different islands in Hawaii. That meant the women had to compete directly with the men's event for publicity and TV coverage.
"The press does not cover women's sports equally and the sponsors are going to look at that. You look at the sports section in any paper and you are not going to see equal coverage," Carol Phillips, president of the non-profit professional organization, the Women's Bodyboarders Association.
Prize money is another sore spot. The 18 women on the tour have to split six purses of $60,0000. Many of the women lose money competing on the professional tour and must rely on sponsorships to recoup their traveling expenses. Ballard says she lost $10,000 on the women's tour circuit last year. By comparison, many male pros cover their travels with their winnings alone.
"Why is it we are not on a par with men? We are not even at half," says Ms. Phillips.
For its part, the ASP claims it hopes to build the women's tour in the coming year. Tour director Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew anticipates upping the number of women's WCT events to eight by 2004. A few years ago there were an equal number of women's and men's events. But when the ASP decided to double the total contest prize purses for both men and women - and require higher commitments from sponsors who wanted to own event names - the men's events held steady, while sponsors decided not to pay for the women's events. "In many respects, market forces dictate prize money and sponsorship levels," says Mr. Bartholomew.
For now, Ballard and other women professionals still get to surf the planet, but it's not quite the same with fewer people watching.