Permitting agencies are requiring Mavericks surf contest organizers to provide equal pay for male and female athletes participating in the event, and, as the November window opening nears, the World Surf League is still scrambling to meet those requirements. 

The Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing — a group made up of female big-wave surfers and their advocates — has urged permitting agencies such as the California State Lands Commission and the California Coastal Commission to require equal prize money, and government staffers appear to agree. 

“We had been hearing from the public (about) making that request,” said Sheri Pemberton, a spokeswoman with the California State Lands Commission. “It wasn’t something we took lightly.” 

The requirement for equal pay was outlined in the State Lands Commission agenda for a meeting late last month. The commission was slated to consider granting the surf organizers a permit for use of waters over roughly 1,000 acres of ocean floor, but the World Surf League pulled the item and won’t get another chance until the commission meets again in mid-October. 

The California Coastal Commission is placing similar demands on the contest organizers. 

Last month, it issued a letter to the World Surf League to notify the organization that its application was incomplete and didn’t include an explanation of how women would be included in future events. This was a condition the commission placed on the previous contest organizer, Cartel Management Inc., when it granted the organization a one-year permit.

“We need more information in order to determine whether or not the plan you provided is consistent with the requirements of (that permit),” the Aug. 17 letter stated. 

World Surf League staff did not respond to a request for comment, but Brian Overfelt, who serves as the event manager and community liaison for the Mavericks event, noted his concerns about how the contest has evolved over the years. 

“I’m bummed Mavericks has gone so political,” said Overfelt, who is a longtime Coastside resident and surfer himself. “It’s gone so political and away from the sport of surfing.”

Overfelt says he and other local organizers, such as Mavericks founder Jeff Clark, have always supported female surfers. A few years ago, they invited a handful of woman surfers to a special contest at the famous surf break. It didn’t work out because a couple of the athletes declined, Overfelt said. 

“I’m 100 percent behind women,” Overfelt added. “I don’t know the ins and outs of equality (and) what they should get paid. … if they have money, pay them.” 

Sabrina Brennan, a San Mateo County Harbor commissioner who is affiliated with the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, says that she’s heard from the World Surf League that the organization would not be able to afford equal prize money for each of the surf contests it holds globally. 

Like Overfelt, big-wave female surfer Bianca Valenti takes a more nuanced view on the debate. 

“I think there’s actually confusion around this,” the San Francisco resident said. “Obviously, we want equal pay, right? Doesn’t everybody?” 

Valenti noted, too, that men in the sport are still not earning a living and she says she is hoping to boost both men and women by encouraging more interest in the sport. Valenti said a World Surf League-run contest in Hawaii recently lost its permits. 

“The organization overall is losing money, so that’s why we’re trying to help,” Valenti said. “I’m focusing on the surfing and being excited for that and knowing that big-wave surfing is at an all-time high.” 

If the permit application makes it on the October State Lands Commission agenda, at least one of the three commissioners might be pushing for equal pay. 

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom serves on the commission and a spokesman stated in an email to the Review that Newsom “agreed with the staff analysis and recommendation that women should receive the same logistical support and prize money as their male counterparts in this competition.” 

The spokesman, Rhys Williams, noted however that Newsom would also consider the World Surf League’s arguments before making a final decision.

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