Why you should care
For female athletes, snowboarding and other winter sports can be a haven of pay parity.
Canadian Spencer O’Brien is one of the best snowboarders in the world. The 30-year-old Olympian stomps tricks that most riders can only dream of, and is a threat to take any competition she enters.
But there was a time when O’Brien considered a different path in life, a path that would have seen her pursue soccer professionally instead of snowboarding. O’Brien chose snowboarding, among other reasons, for one specific aspect of its culture: While the gender pay gap is endemic in the sporting community, it’s notably better in winter sports.
“It was a decision I had to make when the responsibilities of each [sport] became too demanding to keep doing both,” O’Brien says. “There were other reasons I chose snowboarding, but culture surrounding pay equality in snowboarding did factor in.”
O’Brien has few regrets about the choice. The Canadian slopestyle and big air snowboarder made history, in 2015, as the first woman to land a backside 900 (two-and-a-half full rotations in the air) on a snowboard at the X Games. She’s won world snowboarding tours, has five X Games slopestyle medals, including one gold in 2016, and won a Dew Tour slopestyle competition in 2017. For the majority of O’Brien’s career, the monetary value of her success has been equal to that of her male counterparts, something she would never have experienced as a soccer player.
In the 2017–18 snowboarding season, all but one of the top-ranking female athletes outearned the man with the equivalent ranking.
Of the eight winter sports that reported their prize money in a 2017 BBC study, seven offered equal purses to both genders — 88 percent compared to 77 percent of non-winter sports. And it’s not just snowboarding: Exactly half of the top-paid alpine skiers, including the top overall earner, are currently women. Meanwhile, in the world of basketball, the average salary for a WNBA player in 2018 was $78,000 per year, while the average salary in the NBA was $7.8 million.
It isn’t easy to be a professional skier, female or male. As four-time U.S. Olympian Lindsey Vonn told CNBC last April: “If you are not in the top five or 10 in the world, you are struggling to not have to get a second job.”
For contestants in the biggest North American winter sports competitions — the Winter X Games, the Dew Tour and the Burton U.S. Open — endorsement contract values skew overall incomes, but potential earnings from the events are equal for men and women, from the top of the podium to last place, and have been since 2009. The Burton U.S. Open and the Dew Tour, which have operated since 1982 and 2008, respectively, have always paid male and female contestants equally, allotting equal parts of an overall prize pot to the winners of all the competition’s events. The Open is a snowboard-only event, while the Dew Tour, like the Winter X Games, holds competitions among freestyle snowboarders and skiers alike.
The International Ski Federation, the international governing body responsible for snowboarding and other winter sports, has only one woman in a major leadership position and a 12-person council made up entirely of men. But there are other advocates for women in snowboarding, including Jake Burton and Donna Carpenter, the co-founders of major snowboard company Burton. Meanwhile, the Alliance — a group of women lobbying for gender parity in action sports — was widely credited with pushing the X Games to offer equal prize purses for male and female athletes.
“The girls are just as hungry as the guys. They get up and train and work just as hard as we do to become better snowboarders. It’s super cool to see right now because they’ve been killing it the last few years,” says 2018 Olympian slopestyle silver medalist Kyle Mack. “They want it in their hearts just like we do. Everything about our craft should be the same, pay included.”
While officials for the Winter X Games are tight-lipped about its competition winnings purse, a source with knowledge of the prize money values reported that athletes got a share of $3 million in 2017–18, with a gold medal worth up to $30,000 for both genders. While the biggest events in the sport are leading the way, lower-level competitions still have pay gaps, and as female snowboarders progress on the mountain, such events may have to reassess their contest purses.
As more female snowboarders take flight at top-tier competitions like the recently completed X Games in Aspen, Colorado, not having to fight for equal pay means they can focus all their energy on stomping their landings.