On January 19, skiers and snowboarders kicked off the first competition of the 2020 season of the Freeride World Tour, in Hakuba, Japan. But the excitement surrounding the event wasn’t just about the athletes riding insane lines down the the South Bowl or hitting massive airs. Last week, the FWT announced that it would pay equal prize money across all categories. That means that now skiers and snowboarders will receive the same cash prizes, regardless of gender.
“It’s one of the biggest steps that freeride has taken in the last five years, and freeride has grown exponentially in that time,” says Emma Patterson, a rookie skier on this year’s World Tour. “It gives validation to us as freeride women. I think it will really grow our sport in the long run.” Other women on the Tour agree that it’s about time. “We’re all working just as hard,” says Jacqueline Pollard, a second year skier on the Tour. “We’re all putting in the same time and effort, so we deserve the same amount of money.”
The FWT’s old prize money system tried to be fair. Since freeride competitions were first organized 25 years ago, there have always been more men than women at the start gate. Today, there are roughly 50 elite athletes competing on the World Tour circuit—the highest level of competition. Athletes compete in five events, on some of the most challenging alpine faces in the world. On the current World Tour roster, there are 24 male skiers, 12 female skiers, 11 male snowboarders, and 8 female snowboarders.
Theoretically, it’s harder to podium in the men’s skiing compared to women’s skiing because there are more athletes in that discipline. To account for these differences, the FWT issued prize money based on the number of athletes competing in each discipline. The result? Staggered payouts—$6,000 to the top male skier, $4,000 to the top female skier, $4,000 to the top male snowboarder, and $3,000 to the top female snowboarder. Prizes at Xtreme Verbier, the World Tour’s iconic final event, were slightly higher.
Mathematically, you can make an argument for why this makes sense. It’s proportional. When the total event prize money allotted to any given discipline was averaged across the number of competitors in that category, the dollar amount allocated per athlete was roughly the same. So, since there are more male skiers, they received a larger pool of resources.
But over the past two years, the discussion around pay parity and gender equality heated up—within FWT management and among athletes—and the FWT decided it was time to make a change. While the old system may have been mathematically fair, it was hard to understand and explain the calculations behind the numbers. And it definitely didn’t look or feel equal.
Nicolas Hale-Woods, CEO of the FWT, says that he had a hard time justifying the system to critics at times. “Most of the people did not understand it or did not agree,” he says. “You would have the argument that in the starting gates, the female skiers and snowboarders would take the same risks as the men and would have the same costs to compete on the Tour,” he says. He acknowledges that the World Surf League’s commitment to offer equal prize money to men and women (beginning in 2019), despite differing numbers of male and female competitors on tour, influenced the decision. In the end, he believes it’s the correct decision and sends the right message to women on Tour and in the qualifiers, to girls on the junior circuit, and to everyone watching.
Now, regardless of category, the first place winner receives $5,000, second place receives $3,000, and third place receives $2,000. Not only do female skiers and snowboarders get a bump in prize money, male snowboarders do too. As one might expect, some members of the men’s skiing category were frustrated. With money from their category reassigned to other groups, they feel the financial loss directly. Plus, despite having the largest class of competitors, they’re competing for the same prize money as disciplines with fewer athletes.
And prize money parity doesn’t just apply to World Tour events. All prizes in the qualification circuit, a series of 60 events that feeds up-and-coming talent into the World Tour, will also be the same. “We believe it’s important to be consistent across the whole pyramid of the sport,” says Hale-Woods. Juniors and Qualifiers are already subject to the same judging criteria as the World Tour—equalizing prize money was a logical next step. (At the Junior level, athletes don’t receive cash prizes.)
It’s no surprise that there are more men competing on the FWT and in freeriding in general. Like other action sports, there are systems and an overall culture in place that encourage and invest more in boys and men. For example, men’s skiing was first introduced on the World Tour in 2004, while women’s skiing didn’t debut until two years later. On the current qualifier circuit, there are 813 male athletes and only 260 female athletes.
To counter this historical advantage, along with the equal prize money news, the FWT also announced the creation of Girls Just Wanna Have Pow, a program designed to grow women’s involvement in freeriding. The public can share ski and snowboard sessions with pro FWT female athletes at three of the competitions this year—at Kicking Horse in British Columbia, Canada; Ordino Arcalis in Andorra, Spain; and Fieberbrunn, Austria.
“It’s a domino effect. If you’re a young boy, you see there is more opportunity,” says skier Jackie Paaso, who’s in her 11th year on the World Tour and a member of the pro freerider board that consulted with the FWT on the equal prize money decision. “I was a mogul skier back in the day, and I remember being told, you don’t need to do 360s. When has anyone ever told a young boy when they’re 10, 11, or 12 years old that you don’t need to do that? I was constantly told there’s too much risk. It’s hard to progress when you only have so many options for movement.”
The move to parity in prize money begins to change the old narrative, and is one step toward building the infrastructure necessary to nurture and encourage women freeriders. With this decision, the FWT joins a growing number of sports that are making a commitment and taking a stand in favor of gender equality. In addition to surfing, sports like cycling and ultrarunning have instituted new equal pay and maternity policies in recent years. And the WNBA just announced a historic eight-year collective bargaining agreement that provides players with higher salaries, better travel conditions and accommodations, and full paid maternity leave.
The FWT is betting that by investing in female athletes, more girls and women will come to and stay in the sport. And that in turn will grow freeriding as a whole, in terms of audience and sponsors. It’s a necessary bet. Participation numbers, opportunities, and progression in the sport won’t magically level up without more investment and opportunities.
At the end of the day, it’s not really about money. When Pollard, who grew up skiing at Alta in Utah, saw the number of young skiers from the ski academy repost the FWT equal prize money announcement, she realized the decision impacts more than just the athletes on Tour. “It helps younger generations realize that female skiing is going somewhere,” she says.
“We’re still doing this for the love of the sport,” Paaso says. “We’re not talking NFL salaries. Young girls need to see that there are opportunities out there for us, that there’s something worth fighting for.”