King of Darkness Water Ski Tournament

Show Me The Money! Exploring the Resurgence in Professional Water Skiing


Show Me The Money! Exploring the Resurgence in Professional Water Skiing

King of Darkness Water Ski Tournament

King of Darkness, along with other new events like Kaiafas Battle ProAm and WWS Calgary Cup, attracted large crowds this year (Image: Waterski Pro Tour)

By Jack Burden

In recent years, professional water skiing has appeared to be undergoing a resurgence. Record prize purses, a thriving European tour, and a jam-packed schedule are all positive signs. However, the question arises: is the situation genuinely improving or are we simply more attuned to all the events in this digital age? In this article, we delve into the cold hard facts of professional water skiing’s prize money.

Both 2022 and 2023 marked record-breaking years for professional water skiing, boasting higher prize money than seen in the past 15 years. Also notable is the change in distribution between men’s and women’s prize money. For years, women received around 60 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts in skiing events, yet this gap has remarkably reduced to just 10 cents over the last three years.

Professional Water Skiing Prize Money
Professional Water Skiing Prize Money by Gender

Total advertised prize money for IWWF sanctioned professional tournaments. (Source: IWSF, Waterski Pro Tour, etc.)

This is an incredible success story for our small, fledgling sport. The ability to sustain a proliferation of professional events while the base of tournament skiers has diminished reflects the remarkable efforts of tournament organizers in securing sponsorships.

Credit is also due to the season-long storyline of the Waterski Pro Tour, which transforms once-isolated, lesser-known tournaments into significant events. Similarly, the WWS Overall Tour has excelled in attracting sponsors from beyond the sport’s confines, presenting us with the first consistently organized professional overall events in this century.

Thanks to the convenience of webcasting in the present digital era and the exceptional efforts of TWBC, now might indeed be the best time ever to be a fan of the sport. Water ski enthusiasts can enjoy streamed events nearly every weekend throughout the summer.

Nonetheless, even the most dominant athletes struggle to sustain themselves solely from professional victories. Many competitors supplement their income through coaching, regular employment, or the benevolence of affluent parents – indeed, this is a sport largely for the elite. Even Nate Smith, who has outperformed all others in tournament wins over the past decade, has found himself needing a traditional job in recent times.

The surge in prize money hasn’t been distributed evenly either. While it’s undoubtedly a golden era for slalom skiers, especially women, other disciplines haven’t fared as well. Jumping, arguably the most thrilling and marketable aspect of water skiing, has witnessed a substantial decline over the past decade, with total prize money now less than half of what it was a decade ago. Additionally, trick skiing, while showing some progress, still falls significantly short of the prize money available during the discipline’s heyday in the 2000s, during the era of IWWF World Cup stops.

Professional Water Skiing Prize Money by Event

Total advertised prize money for IWWF sanctioned professional tournaments. (Source: IWSF, Waterski Pro Tour, etc.)

Certainly, we must also factor in inflation. While there have been large increases in recent years, adjusting for inflation reveals that the total prize pool for 2023 is essentially comparable to 2015 levels, and notably lower than the offerings during the peak years of the pro tour in the eighties and nineties.

Although we might still be quite distant from the bygone glory days, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the sport has embarked on an impressive upward trajectory in recent years. Broadly speaking, now is the best time in the last decade to be a professional water skier, and probably ever for fans of the sport. This progress is something to be celebrated, and to all the diligent individuals toiling behind the scenes, we say thank you!

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