The World's Richest Surf Competition
Newcastle always had a strong competitive surf scene. The Annual Mattara Surf Competition had been held since 1961 and has a claim to be the longest-running surf competition in the world. Michael Peterson, Tom Carroll, Mark Richards, and Nat Young all have their names on the trophy.
However, when the town was host to its first WSL event in 1985, they decided to jump in with both feet. Backed by two of the city's major institutions, BHP and NBN Television, the BHP Steel International burst onto the scene as the world's richest surfing event at the time with a purse of over $100,000.
The event was broadcast on live TV and attracted some of the biggest crowds seen for a surfing competition. A few years later it lost its World's Richest Surf comp tag, but with the imaginative approach to getting on the map the die was set; pro surfing and Newcastle were intertwined.
Layne vs Andy
It started as a simple, all be it impressive, PR stunt. In 2004 the organizers offered Layne Beachley the Wildcard into the then Newcastle Pro, in a new surfing riff on the old Battle Of The Sexes. It was always going to generate column inches but went ballistic when Layne, the lowest seed, was drawn against the highest, Andy Irons.
Andy then poured some misogynistic, high-grade rocket fuel on the issue by telling the press that he believed women couldn't surf as well as men and that they should be earning vastly less in prize money. He added, for good measure, that he might enter some Women's events. The Newcastle event was suddenly mainstream front-page news throughout Australia. A crowd of more than 30,000 turned up for their Round of 64, four-person heat. In a classic boilover, both World Champs were defeated by Bede Durbidge and Bernardo Pigmeau and so failed to progress.
"I think just feeling back on this event it's still the event that Layne surfed in first time on a world circuit against the men," said Kelly Slater, who went on to win the event. "So, you know, I still think that's the benchmark set by this event, and I don't think anything is going to take away from that."
World Champion Expression Session
In what doubled as another incredible PR feat, and a world first, the organizers gathered all the living World Champions for an expression session in 1999. The idea had started the year before when Mark Richards had invited three of his favorite surfers for an expression session.
Kelly Slater, Tom Carroll, and Tom Curren turned up and MR would say that, "I was more nervous leading up to the day and before paddling out than any time during my pro-surfing career".
The next year they went bigger and added Mark Occhilupo, Damien Hardman, Shaun Tomson, Wayne Bartholomew, Barton Lynch, Derek Ho, Martin Potter, and Peter Townend to those four. The event raised money for SIDS [sudden infant death syndrome], MR's charity, but again showed how Newcastle could mix innovation with surfing's rich history.
World's First Crowd Funded Surfing Event
Warren Smith, who has been at the helm of the Newcastle events since 1985, has often had to fight tooth and nail to keep the show rolling. He once even mortgaged his own home to ensure the event had the funding to continue. In 2016 with a title sponsor missing for the Women's event, his team again had to think outside the box.
In a world-first they opted to crowd fund. When 73 local businesses offered $A1650 each, the event was saved and Newcastle could attract many of the best female surfers on the planet. That model, where one organization is drawn from the barrel to take out the major sponsor title, continued up until last year. "We've crowd-surfed during the past three decades, but never quite like this," Smith said at the time.
A Gathering of the Tribe
Few contests in the world have enjoyed the longevity that Newcastle has had. That is primarily because the event enjoys a special place in the social and sporting fabric of both Newcastle and New South Wales. The organizers have always made this event more than just an elite gathering of the world's best surfers, but a week-long festival for the entire community. While the Rip Curl Newcastle Cup presented by Corona will be the obvious top billing, there is a slew of charity, indigenous, junior, adaptive, and corporate competitions. Out-of-the-water fundraisers, art exhibitions, and gigs all add to the sense of community togetherness.