Organizers for the U.S. Open of Surfing announced Monday that this year's top female surfer will take home a prize of $20,000, doubling the amount given to the women's champion last year.
However, the purse remains much smaller than that given to the top male surfer, who will earn $100,000 for the second year in a row.
The Huntington Beach surfing competition made headlines last year when it offered a world-record six-figure sum to the men's champion. Some, though, raised their eyebrows over the discrepancy at the top prizes; the highest-scoring woman was originally set to win $4,500 before organizers pushed the amount to $10,000.
James Leitz, the senior vice president and director of action sports for the marketing firm IMG, said the controversy inspired his group to seek a higher women's prize this year. IMG, which produces the U.S. Open, and Nike, which sponsors it, successfully lobbied the Assn. of Surfing Professionals to increase the purse, he said.
"You want to make things as fair as possible, and some things don't change overnight," Leitz said. "But in this case, we felt this was a really good solution, given the current structure of surfing."
Leitz said he expected a time to come when men's and women's prizes were equal. For now, though, he said several factors influenced the larger purse for men — including the fact that more men than women compete in the U.S. Open, the favoring of male surfers by corporate sponsors and that the two competitions are ranked differently. The women's competition this year is rated as a six-star contest, while the men's competition has a "Prime" rating, a label recently introduced by ASP, which identifies it as one of the top surfing events in the world.
According to Jennifer Hernandez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Open, the association sets minimum amounts for prize purse totals depending on the rank of the event. A women's six-star purse should be at least $35,000, while the men's Prime minimum is $145,000. The U.S. Open exceeded both marks this year: The total purse for all female winners is $60,000, while the men take home a collective $250,000.
While both men and women compete in the ASP World Tour, for which the U.S. Open is a qualifying event, Prime contests allot more points to the winners. At present, there are no Prime contests for women due to the small number of female surfers in the world, Hernandez said.
Evan Slater, the media director for Costa Mesa-based Hurley, a subsidiary of Nike, said the $20,000 was comparable to the highest prizes given to women surfers in other events. He said that after last year's U.S. Open, in which Orange County teenager Courtney Conlogue took the women's prize, he wanted to narrow the gap between the purses.
"I'd like to see them continue to be more comparable to each other," Slater said. "The women's surfing at the event last year was just incredible."
Meg Bernardo, the executive manager for ASP in North America, said in the past, her group had increased the women's purse every time it increased the men's. Because the women's purse is smaller, though, ASP went ahead and doubled it this year even though the men's prize stayed the same.
Bernardo said for the women's prize to equal the men's, women's surfing — and clothing brands in particular — would have to become a more lucrative industry. She said that trend had already started, with Roxy and other surfwear lines growing in popularity, but there was still a ways to go before sponsors would invest as much money in the Stephanie Gilmores of the world as they would the Mick Fannings.
"You have to balance it out," Bernardo said. "You have to take in both sides of the picture."
The U.S. Open, which takes place by the Huntington Beach Pier, is scheduled for July 31 to Aug. 8.