Within the larger action sports world, women’s surfing stands as a sort of barometer and case study for female counterparts in skateboarding and snowboarding. Pro skater, Jenna Selby, told me earlier this year during an article for Huck Magazine about women in skateboarding: “I’ve noticed recently that some magazines are more interested in the girls that fit a certain profile: one that looks ‘right’ rather than one that has a certain skill level,” she said. “That’s something we are trying to avoid because I know surfing has gone down that route. Skateboarding is at a point right now where it can go one way or another and we are just trying to keep the importance on skill and personality, not on what a girl looks like or how she dresses.”
There is some speculation as to why the surf industry is having trouble figuring out whether it wants to market T and A, or performance or both. Most of the company reps I contacted with regards to the article either declined to comment or did not answer repeated queries. According to an industry insider who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, there is a long held belief that women’s surfing events and the associated media show a very small return on investment when it comes to promoting retail figures, ie: encouraging people to buy clothes. The same is thought to be true of most female surfers, unless they are very big names like Stephanie Gilmore or Alana Blanchard. Hence, minimal investment in female surfing in general. “Marissa Miller is a model that surfs, rather than a surfer that models – and that is the way round that we’re finding the media require it,” the source says. “The flip side to that is someone like Carissa Moore, who…has scored significant media and promotional points through her personality, but again it’s the package of the person [that is important] with the fact that she surfs being a relatively small component.”
The ASP often cops the blame for the current state of women’s competitive surfing — ie, few events, bad venues, and little promotion — but that’s a red herring. The ASP is not an entity unto itself; it’s a not for profit governing, sanctioning, and licensing body made up of event representatives, pro surfers, and three independent actors who volunteer their time. In short, the ASP is the Industry, and the Industry is the ASP.
In a habit that is now nearing farce, the very people who make or influence its “decisions” often scapegoat the ASP. For instance, the ASP actually made a rule stating that any company who runs a WCT or Prime event must stage a women’s event as well. This apparently worked until the Global Financial Crisis cut the budgets of many surf brands and they simply began to ignore the rule that they had more or less set for themselves.
And so the unofficial line is that any investment in female surfing is essentially a charity project. The real money goes to the men, and to the chicks go the scraps. If you squint hard enough, the argument seems to make sense. But what if you were to approach women’s surfing from a different direction?
“On the surface, the money-making argument is legitimate,” said Dr. Kerrie Kauer, a sports and women’s studies scholar at the University of California. “But if you are trying to market surfing, for instance, to young female surfers, why not show young female surfers surfing, instead of lying down with boards on the beach? What they are doing is marketing women’s sports to young men in the 18 to 35 age range…If you actually sell to people interested in sport you have a whole new market.”
One company that appears to be trying to achieve this with their female team is Billabong. The Girls’ Team Manager, Megan Villa, believes that filling a surf team with women who have a variety of looks and surfing styles is the best way to appeal to the widest possible market. Citing a roster that ranges from performance bar setters to models who surf quite well, she says: “I think it is all about utilizing different girls’ strengths to market the brand. We have different types of consumers so we need to be able to identify with all of them. Most of the girls that buy our product do not even surf, but they would love to live that lifestyle so they love girls like Catherine Clark and Ellie-Jean Coffey that are more of the lifestyle side of surfing. But we also have diehard surfers who are obsessed with Keala, Maya [Gabeira], Silvana [Lima] and Courtney [Conlogue]. So I think that sexiness, athleticism and talent all play into how we choose to market our team.”
Another factor in this increasingly complicated mosaic is the incursion of non-endemic brands into the market. They have siphoned off rising talent with promises of more money, better organization, and more professionalism than the old bros surfing network can offer.
Chris Moore, father of 2011 World Champ, Carissa helped his daughter secure sponsorship deals that sit almost completely outside of the traditional surf brands. Moore has a reputation in the industry for being a hard-nosed businessman and although he’s never directly commented on why he and Carissa chose non-endemic brands over endemic surf brands as her main sponsors (I’ve asked), a quick Google image search of Carissa compared to that of some of the other top competitors in the ASP shows an image that is plainly focused on performance over lifestyle. “Carissa’s sponsorship deals were developed with idea of finding sponsors that would be supporting Carissa as an athlete,” he says. “Red Bull, Nike and Target have always looked at Carissa as an athlete first, so however they market her, it is done with that focus.”