Peter Mel of Santa Cruz takes off on a wave in the 2014 Mavericks Big Wave surfing contest—a competition that's become a flash point for gender pay equity in California. Photo by Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group
Peter Mel of Santa Cruz takes off on a wave in the 2014 Mavericks Big Wave surfing contest—a competition that's become a flash point for gender pay equity in California. Photo by Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group

In summary

The state’s requiring equal prize money for men and women to hold the Mavericks surf contest on a public beach. Will it set a precedent for other sports?

Bianca Valenti conquered 20-foot waves at a surfing competition in Mexico this summer, winning first place in Latin America’s first big-wave contest to include women. Her prize: $1,750. The surfer who won the men’s division at the same competition walked away with four times as much prize money: $7,000.

But when Valenti, of San Francisco, competes on the shores of northern California in the famous Mavericks surfing challenge this winter, she’ll be eligible for the same amount of prize money as the men. Why? Because the state of California insisted on it.

Like Hollywood, tech and many other industries, the sports world is being forced to confront its historic practice of paying women less than men. Though the ranks of female athletes have grown dramatically since 1972, when federal law, through Title IX, began prohibiting gender discrimination in schools and colleges, pay gaps remain huge in most sports. Basketball and golf have struggled for years with pay equity issues, and female players have sued U.S. Soccer for wage discrimination, arguing they’re paid 40 percent of what their male counterparts earn, despite outperforming them on the field.

What’s unusual with the Mavericks surf competition is that the government—a state commission, in this case—preemptively stepped in to compel equal pay as a condition of holding the event. Experts said they couldn’t think of a similar situation in another sport.

But the Mavericks case could set a precedent for local governments to demand equal pay in any sporting event held on public property, said David Berri, a professor of economics at Southern Utah University who researches gender in sports.

“In any event where you are going across public land, then any government entity could say ‘You have to make this equal,’” he said.

Following the lead set by some tennis and cycling competitions, the World Surf League, which runs the Mavericks contest near Half Moon Bay, announced a new plan this week to pay men and women equal prize money starting on October 1. It came after an obscure three-person state panel indicated last month that it would only lease the public beach for Mavericks if women and men are awarded the same prize money.

“The waves do not discriminate,” the staff of the State Lands Commission wrote in an unusually blistering report.

“Male athletes are surfing and competing on the same waves as the female athletes… There doesn’t appear to be any reasonable justification to treat prize compensation differently.”

The commission—which includes prominent Democratic politicians Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Controller Betty Yee—hasn’t yet voted on the issue because the league pulled its application for the lease when the report came out. But the panel was likely to approve the equal pay requirement.

“We believe there ought to be gender equity with respect to the purposes of any use of our state lands,” Yee said in an interview.

Newsom also supported the requirement, said his chief of staff Rhys Williams: “A lease application that doesn’t reflect equal pay isn’t going to fly with him.”

Now that the league has crafted a plan to pay men and women equally, it will likely re-submit its application for Mavericks, which is typically held between October and March when the waves swell to more than 25 feet.

Under the original plan, the prize purse for women was set at $44,400 while the prize purse for men was $106,600. The purse was to be divided among all competitors in each division, with $15,000 for the woman winning first place and $25,000 for the man earning first place. Second- and third-place prizes were to have even greater gaps, with the women earning less than half of what men would. The league previously defended the plan as fair because the men’s division included more competitors.

The league did not specify the prize purse or number of competitors under the new plan, saying only that it involved “equal prize money” for male and female athletes. It declined to answer questions for this article and, in a press release, cast its new arrangement as part of a “long-planned strategy to elevate women’s surfing.”

But women who have been advocating for equal pay for surfers said the change never would have come about without the government taking a stand.

Said Sabrina Brennan of the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing: “It’s what gave us leverage.”

Brennan is not a surfer but she sits on the board of the San Mateo County Harbor District, so she knows a little something about government approval processes. Her fight for women surfers began in 2015, when she learned Mavericks could only take place with a permit from the California Coastal Commission. At that time women weren’t allowed to compete in the event.

“That’s when I initially realized there was an opportunity to ask a state agency to intervene and add a condition on the permit that would require women be allowed to compete,” Brennan said.

The commission agreed, and in 2016 required Mavericks to include a heat for women. But the event hasn’t been held since then, due to a lack of ideal surf conditions and a change of ownership in the management of Mavericks. So this winter was set to be the first time women would compete at the event.

As the surf league sought a new round of government permits, Brennan began to focus her lobbying on the issue of equal pay. She organized some of the world’s top female surfers—including Valenti—to send letters to the Coastal and State Lands commissions asking that they require Mavericks to pay equal prize money. A lawyer volunteered to beef up their letters with citations to relevant civil rights cases.

“It’s unfortunate that it took a tiny group of women athletes, an activist, an attorney and a couple state agencies to get them to do the right thing,” Brennan said after the league announced its new pay plan.

“But, whatever. I’m just glad it happened.”

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Laurel covers California politics for CalMatters, with a focus on power and personalities in the state Capitol. She's been included in the Washington Post’s list of outstanding state politics reporters...