Meet The Female Executives Who Bring Vans US Open Of Surfing, World’s Largest Action Sports Festival, To Life
Despite its name, the Vans US Open of Surfing is more than a surf competition. The festival, which runs for nine days in 2022, includes skateboarding and BMX competitions as well. And since 1959, when the first West Coast Surfing Championship was held, the US Open of Surfing has grown to become the world’s largest action sports festival.
The World Surf League (WSL) has sanctioned the event since 2015; before that, when the WSL was still known as the Association of Surfing Pros (ASP), it began working with IMG, US Open of Surfing owner and operator, since 2001. Vans came on as the title sponsor in 2013.
Today, female executives at each of those companies form the backbone of the event. Together with Huntington Beach, the home of the US Open for six decades, these stakeholders—Cherie Cohen, global chief revenue officer & advisor at WSL; Jen Lau, vice president of action sports events at IMG and Carly Gomez, VP of marketing, Americas at Vans—oversee an action sports powerhouse that generated $55.3 million in economic impact in 2018, the last time numbers were released. (Before that, direct total spending generated by the US Open was $21.5 million in 2010.)
It’s no secret that action sports have historically been male dominated. Key industry stakeholders have made strides in recent years to counteract that fact—the WSL announced prize money equality in 2018; surfing, skateboarding and freestyle BMX debuted with equal numbers of men and women in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021; and X Games and Vans Park Series have offered equal prize money to men and women for years.
Despite the equitable earnings for female athletes, however, action sports still retains a heavy male presence—from agents to executives to brand owners, even to the members of the media who cover it. So the fact that the three pillars supporting the Vans US Open of Surfing are all high-level executive women is no small feat—and they credit each other with the event’s success.
“Working in an industry that was historically male dominated, I just want to stop and recognize this moment where we have three incredible female executives bringing this amazing platform to life for all surfers, skaters and BMXers,” Gomez said. “Putting on the Vans US Open of Surfing requires grit, influence, empathy and candor, and I have appreciated how each of us has leaned into those virtues to create a strong partnership for us and our teams. I am honored to lead alongside Jen and Cherie as we host this event for all.”
IMG’s Lau connects the dots between Gomez, representing the title sponsor in Vans, and the WSL, helmed by Cohen as chief revenue officer.
The WSL, as the governing body of pro surfing, is responsible for all aspects of pro surfing at this event—which is part of the qualification process for the World Surf League—as well as all key commercial relationships and the global broadcast.
As the title sponsor, Vans designs the scope of the event, including the theme—this year, that’s sustainability, which is reflected in everything from operations to marketing activations and even storytelling through the broadcast—site activations, retail experience and community engagement pieces.
“Our sustainability goals were top of mind as we planned every aspect of this event,” Gomez said, citing partnerships with OC Coastkeeper and the Surfrider Foundation. “We want to ensure that we leave the location better than we found it, and to ensure that is the case, we have a beach clean-up planned for August 11.”
The glue that binds the WSL and Vans is IMG, which ensures that both partners’ visions are executed while also handling legal, finance, budget, city zoning and permitting. “This is a 365-day-a-year project,” Lau said. “We start literally after the event ends this year planning for 2023.”
In its modern form, the US Open of Surfing is anchored by surfing, skateboarding, and BMX competitions, as well as activations on the festival side that include on-site surfboard shaping, surf clinics, public skate and BMX sessions, and product demos and samples from industry brands.
The surfing component is the largest—in fact, the US Open is the biggest surfing competition in the world.
During Covid, the WSL completely reformatted and restructured its pro system into a three-tier format. There are three disciplines in pro surfing: shortboarding is composed of the Men’s and Women’s Championship Tours (CT) and the Qualifying Series (QS), which includes the newly formed Challenger Series (CS) events, of which the US Open of Surfing is one.
There are also the Longboard Championships, the Big Wave Tour and the XXL Big Wave Awards.
The US Open of Surfing features a Men’s CS and a Women’s CS event, beginning with a Round of 96 in the former and a Round 64 in the latter and crowning a champion in the final. A win is worth 10,000 points toward the CT rankings.
The event also features the Men’s and Women’s Duct Tape Invitational, a longboard competition featuring a field of 20 men and 20 women that is the second stop on the 2022 Longboard Tour.
The Vans Showdown skateboarding contest is less about competition and more about culture—literally, it’s called a “pointless contest.” Skaters, including Team Vans pro riders, are awarded for style and unique approach as opposed to traditional scored contest runs in a jam session and a cash for tricks contest.
The US Open is also home to one of the most progressive freestyle BMX competitions in the world. At the Tokyo Games in 2021, freestyle BMX joined its racing counterpart on the Olympic program, with nine athletes from eight nations competing in the men’s and women’s fields.
The Tokyo Games marked a huge step forward for women’s freestyle BMX, which has very few pro-level competitions for women. Freestyle BMX doesn’t have a medal event at X Games (men compete in BMX dirt, BMX park and BMX street, as well as a BMX best trick contest). X Games used to have a women’s demo, organized by veteran of the sport Nina Buitrago, but that’s been off the schedule in recent years.
The Vans US Open features a men’s and a women’s BMX competition, the Vans BMX Waffle Cup. The final was held on August 1, with Kevin Peraza taking the men’s title and Perris Benegas, the women’s.
Benegas, 27, was one of two women who competed in freestyle BMX at the Olympics, finishing just off the podium in fourth.
“Something we’ve championed from the very get-go is equitable competition,” said Lau. “From prize purse parity at the WSL and working with them in our surf competition over the years to equality for the women with the Vans Duct Tape Invitational and the same for skate and BMX. That opportunity for equitable position and opportunity for competition has been really important for us.”
And the US Open of Surfing is just as much about providing an opportunity for spectators to actually pick up and try out a new sport as it is to expose them to their favorite pro athletes.
“We’re setting the foundation for a growth trajectory,” Lau said. “To expand on why the US Open of Surfing is important, it’s not just about the competition level but the opportunity for the fans to participate. It can be through surf camp or to session in that skate park in BMX and skateboarding. So not only is it providing that platform for athletes we may already be familiar with, but we’re even opening up these venues and providing access for a general public. I grew up playing traditional team sports; now you see this new generation picking up a skateboard just as quickly.”
Some of those spectators may not go on to compete in the Olympics down the road—but they may instead end up in an executive role like Cohen, Lau or Gomez.
When Lau got her start in action sports at IMG more than 20 years ago, she was the only woman in the space—now, she says it’s amazing to see the evolution and how many women occupy the brand space.
“Looking at the US Open of Surfing and my other two partners that are women, it really is about those opportunities and setting the tone. We scan show the younger generation of females that there’s a place for them,” Lau said. “That is something action sports was able to offer me, that opportunity within IMG which is predominantly male dominated with the other sports we represent. I was able to grow and develop the US Open of Surfing. My peers and the other two stakeholders as females is great story for me to tell. I love exposing people to what it is that they do, letting the females of our industry know there is a place for them and their ideas can be heard.”
With surfing, skateboarding and freestyle BMX all on the program for the Paris 2024 Olympics—and Los Angeles 2028 on the horizon—the Vans US Open of Surfing will continue to progress action sports.
“We are very excited to be a qualifying body again for the 2024 Olympics in France,” Cohen said. “The Tokyo Olympics were our first Games, which were very successful both from a publicity and awareness standpoint. Our athletes gained a tremendous amount of publicity coming out of the Games, then came back to the CT in January and raised the profile of our sport.”
To wit, Carissa Moore and Italo Ferreira won the first Olympic gold medals in surfing in July 2021. Then, in September, Moore claimed her fifth WSL CT title. Moore was also the only surfer of the 40 who competed in the Games of Native Hawaiian ancestry, shining a light on how surfing can still make waves when it comes to diversity and opportunity.
“We are very excited to also have a few initiatives on the ground [at US Open of Surfing] that will help us invite new young, diverse athletes to the sport, like the Rising Tides program” Cohen said. The program is a grassroots movement aimed at inspiring young competitors. “Vans has these initiatives as well that we’re happy to support.”
There’s no question the US Open of Surfing—and now, its feeder initiatives—is the breeding ground for the future of surfing. Take Kanoa Igarashi, who essentially grew up at this event. In 2016, he was the youngest rookie on the CT; last year, he represented Japan in the Olympics.
Cohen, who was formerly senior vice president, portfolio sales and client partnerships at NBCUniversal and senior director, multi-media sales at ESPN, says she was excited to work for the WSL for three reasons. She believed in the momentum and potential of the sport, she liked that the WSL is one of the few global leagues that operates a men’s and a women’s professional tour—with equal pay—so she could work on both men’s and women’s sports and she is excited about the opportunity to develop a pipeline of young, diverse athteles.
“We pay our women equally in the jersey and in the office—I’m an example of that,” Cohen said. “We have several women on the C level. I think it’s also about coverage—you’ll see a lot about media coverage and the lack of media coverage that has held back women’s sports. We’ve moved to a model where all our events are integrated, which allows us to provide equal coverage and be very fluid between men’s and women’s coverage of the sport.”
Cohen cites what she calls the “bedrocks” to building a longstanding career: equal pay, equal coverage and an investment in developing the next generation of athletes.
“If we can get those things really right, then I think we will see all of the things around the sport—viewership, sponsorship, and more participation—increase,” she said.
The Vans US Open of Surfing is free to attend and runs through August 7, with the Women’s and Men’s CS finals, the Vans Duct Tape Invitational finals and the Vans Showdown final. The full schedule can be found on Vans US Open of Surfing’s website.