CoCo Ho is sitting on a porch on the North Shore of Oahu trying to keep still as a makeup artist applies eye shadow to her lids. Earlier in the day, she had watched from the same porch as 35-year-old Australian surfer Kieren Perrow won the final heat of the Billabong Pipeline Masters, a contest that's been staged in her family's backyard since 1971.
Since 1983, Pipeline has represented the final stop of the men's Triple Crown series. Last year, when the women's Triple Crown lost a sponsor for its Maui contest, a four-woman heat dubbed the Duel for the Jewel was held at Pipeline in its place. Ho surfed in that heat, which drew heaps of exposure and was won by eventual Triple Crown champ Steph Gilmore. But this year, the sponsorship dollars simply weren't available to support a women's Triple Crown. So, for the first time in nearly 20 years, Hawaii did not host a women's event. Instead of competing, Ho, who's grown up dreaming of winning a Triple Crown title and is currently the sixth-ranked surfer in the world, is filling her days with photo and video shoots. And she's tired of sitting still.
"This is the first time since I was born that there isn't a women's event in Hawaii," says the 19-year-old Ho. "It's sad to be home and wake up every morning with nothing to look forward to. It really sucks. Everyone knows women's surfing is the best it's ever been and Hawaii is the proving ground, so we're all bummed there are no women's events for us this year. I hope this has made everyone step back and think, 'Wow. The women are getting pretty bad treatment.' I think it's going to turn around next year."
Randy Rarick, executive director of the Vans Triple Crown series and a member of the ASP's board of directors, says he believes 2012 will see the return of the women to the North Shore. "We have two permits for contests at Haleiwa and Sunset next year and I'd love to reinstate the Triple Crown," Rarick says. "I have the vehicle. I just need someone to buy the tires so that I can drive it. We need somebody who's stoked on women's surfing to show that with their checkbook."
Rarick says that "somebody" could be anyone from the head of an endemic surf brand to a CEO from corporate America to a collection of investors. "Wyland, the local artist, said he would be willing to put up money to see the women back on the North Shore," Rarick Says. "I'm sure there are more people like him, advocates of women's surfing who want to see the women surf here next year. Maybe we could cobble together a compilation of sponsors to put something on."
But that "something" may not be the Triple Crown in its former three-contest form, a series that mirrors the men's, with previous stops at Haleiwa (Vans Hawaiian Pro), Sunset (Roxy Pro) and Honolua Bay (Billabong Pro Maui). Rarick believes in order to attract new sponsors to the sport, the women's tour needs to change. And that includes its year-end series. "This year, we proposed to the ASP to put on a specialty Triple Crown series where we would invite four- to six of the top women's surfers, pay them an appearance fee and put on exhibitions," he says. "The ASP said we had to put on rated events or nothing at all. I understand why they said no, that they were looking out for the best interest of all the surfers, not just those at the top, but I think that was a huge mistake on the part of the ASP."
At the moment, the ASP -- the Association of Surfing Professionals, pro surfing's governing body since 1983 -- is busy dealing with its own problems, which includes searching for a new CEO following the resignation of Brody Carr in November. "One of the goals of the new CEO will be to stabilize the women's tour," says Dave Prodan, international media director for the ASP.
"Since I started five years ago, we have the most marketable, talented and beautiful girls on tour, but it's hard to have stable events. We need to add a few more, but only if they perform at the same level as the men's events with the same quality webcast, prize money and waves. They have to be something the women want to shoot for."
And events fans want to watch and companies want to sponsor.
"The current formula for women's surfing is not attractive to sponsors," Rarick says. "Quite honestly, people don't care about the lower ranks. They want to see the very best, just like they want to watch Kelly Slater. There isn't enough support for the tour as it currently stands, but if we make some format changes -- maybe the tour becomes a mix of regional competitions and showcase events -- I think we can re-ignite the interest in women's surfing."
Five thousand miles from the North Shore, four-time world champ Gilmore is at home in her apartment in New South Wales, Australia, also tired of sitting still. With no women's events in Hawaii, Gilmore opted to stay home rather than fly to the North Shore to watch the men surf. "Hawaii is one of the most respected venues on the surf calendar and for women to not be represented there is a step backwards," she says. Gilmore agrees that bringing the tour back to Hawaii rests on the shoulders of the ASP, but says to do so will require changes from a business and marketing perspective.
"Perhaps our tour is not packaged well enough to be marketed the best possible way for companies to want to be involved," she says. "Cracking the magic code of getting men and women interested in watching female sports is a task across many women's sports. The talent on tour has come so far, but that's only half of it. The rest of the equation is business. This has to be a priority for the new CEO. People need to be held responsible and others need to be brought in to think outside the box. Their focus needs to be on quality, not quantity. Holding 10 events is meaningless if four are held like local club rounds," she says.
Currently, the 2012 women's world tour schedule ends with the Nike US Open of Surfing at Huntington Beach in August, just as it did last season. "We as athletes are holding up our end of the bargain," Gilmore says. "We're presenting ourselves well, breaking into mainstream press, surfing at a new level. It's now over to the brands and the ASP. If the 2012 world title is decided at Huntington Beach, we should all be disappointed."
Starting with fans of women's surfing.