Last week the debate about female surfers representation and sponsorship once again reared its head in the mainstream media, after The Huffington Post penned an article stating that ‘When it comes to athletic sponsorships of women, brands often seem to value female athletes more for their looks than their actual athletic merit.’ Whilst I agree wholeheartedly with the statement, the piece merely did the same as so many before it, outlining the problem without really suggesting a way it’s readers could drive the industry to change.
As the Huff post correctly deduced, there is a very simple reason this problem exists. It’s tough times for surf brands and many would rather have models for the price of a sponsored surfer (which sometimes just amounts to a bit of free gear) rather than paying extortionate model agency fees. Right now the companies who fill sponsored surfer positions with models have decided, rightly or wrongly, that girls are more likely to buy a bikini modelled by a women with a certain look than one who is a very talented surfer. And whilst this undoubtedly isn’t fair and does hinder the progression of the sport, can we really expect fairness from an industry totally driven by personal sponsorship and consequently, free market economics?
The power to change this current system is in the hands of three groups. The first of these groups is the companies themselves. So are we going to demand that they risk taking a hit to their profits by either only hiring surfers based on their talent and shelling out for models, or using their sponsored surfers (who may not have ‘the look’) to model their gear? My guess is that we could demand till we were blue in the face, but if a change to marketing strategy lead to a forecast dip in profits, the demands may well fall on deaf ears.
The second group is the surfers themselves. Should they be the ones to speak out and and refuse to let themselves be marketed in this way? It seems unfair to pin the onus on them, as they’re just trying to make a living and you’d have to be pretty saintly to choose a moral stand over doing the thing you love for a living. However it’s wrong to claim they have no role to play at all. At one point the article states that Alana Blanchard ‘through no fault of her own’ has come to exemplify how much more a female surfer can earn if she focusses on the modelling side of her career. To suggest she has had no hand in the building of her brand is both disingenuous and disempowering. Her’s is a carefully crafted image and professional surfers, both male and female, have a responsibility to think about how their representation is affecting the sport as a whole.
The final group is you. The consumer. The group who supposedly has the biggest power share in making companies change their ways. Anyone in sales will tell you that companies will switch up their marketing strategy at the drop of the hat if it’s no longer the most profitable. Therefore if this is really an issue people care about, they should only buy from brands who they deem to be supporting female surfers for their talent, rather than merely sponsoring for their looks. Try this; every time you go out to buy a bikini or a new T, tweet the company who’s product you saw but didn’t purchase saying ‘Today I didn’t buy your tee because you sponsor more for looks than talent!’ Think how quick they’d change things up if they got 2000 tweets like that a day.
Cover Photo courtesy of WSL / Kirvan Baldassari