LESS than a fortnight out from the Newcastle Cup, the World Surf League's Asia-Pacific general manager Andrew Stark spoke to Newcastle Herald reporter Max McKinney about how the city secured its first world tour contest in decades, what the event will look like, the loss of Kelly Slater, how to secure a ticket and more.
MM: The Newcastle Cup was announced six weeks ago, what has it been like organising this event in such a short space of time?
AS: It's a different world we live in at the moment, so there's a lot of complexities to running events with COVID and having to get surfers into the country. But we've got a really good team of event management staff here at APAC [WSL's Asia-Pacific office] and head office, and we're working closely with Warren Smith and his Surfest team in Newcastle and we've got really strong relationships with council and the state government. So it is challenging but we're looking forward to kicking off.
MM: How long had you been considering Newcastle as a potential tour stop?
AS: It was in early January that we had to actually cancel the Sunset Beach event in Hawaii and it was at that point in time that we also made a decision, internally, that we needed to add an additional event into Australia.
We also looked at the need to land our charter flight. So from then on we looked at holding a fourth event in Australia and in NSW.
Newcastle was always very high on the list in terms of looking at locations up and down the coast.
Every single surfer on the world tour that is competing in this event, both men and women, has competed in Surfest. Many of them have won it.
That played a big role and also Surfest wasn't running this year as a qualifying series event, so that allowed us to upgrade it into a world tour event. All the infrastructure is there and Merewether is a great wave. Newcastle has a very rich surfing history.
MM: What transpired to bring it to reality?
AS: We were trying to go to Lennox Head as our first priority and the Ballina Shire Council decided not to permit it. But we were already in talks with Newcastle council prior to that about would it be possible because we knew we were potentially looking at two [CT events] in NSW.
But when the Lennox decision was made ... we did move extremely quickly with Newcastle council and it was within a couple of days we went from initial discussions and said let's make this happen and make it the opening event of the tour in Australia. It was in two or three days there that it came together before the announcement.
MM: You've got a team on the ground here led by Warren Smith, would the event be possible without them?
AS: Warren's wealth of knowledge and experience from Surfest is fantastic as a resource and he has been incredibly supportive. Warren's involvement has been critical and we're appreciative of the role he is playing.
MM:Surfest was held at Newcastle beach for many years, why did you opt for Merewether?
AS: Purely wave quality. Merewether is just a better wave for a world tour event, which is the same reason Warren moved [Surfest] from town - wave quality.
MM: How will ticketing work for the event?
AS: We have to follow the NSW government COVID-19 regulations, so we actually have to limit crowd size to 3000 people.
The tickets are free. That's the most important information that I think people have to know. We really care about the local fans and Newcastle community and want to make sure they have a chance to get a slice of these tickets.
The fairest way that we've come up with is the allocation of tickets through a ballot process. We've partnered with Ticketek and they will be randomly distributed.
The fans can enter the ballot to reserve tickets from 10am on Monday, March 22nd. Then the ballot closes on the 29th. We're limiting four tickets per person per day.
We would love nothing more than to have twenty or thirty thousand people on the beach but unfortunately due to COVID we just can't.
MM: Both the Bells Beach and Snapper Rocks events were cancelled, would the Championship Tour have continued if the NSW government didn't step in?
AS: If we couldn't come into Australia, we would have looked at other countries to continue. The tour still would have happened this year.
The NSW government agreed to land the charter flight with all the athletes. They are in quarantine at the moment and come out on Monday. That decision of the NSW government actually enabled all the events to happen in Australia. The Queensland, Victorian and Western Australian governments weren't in a position to land the charter.
MM: What did the council and government pay to bring the CT to Newcastle? It was reported the state had contributed $5 million.
AS: That figure is off the mark. It is commercial-in-confidence between the WSL and government.
MM: Will Newcastle be a one-off CT event?
AS: Yes. This is a COVID-year and we're having to really rejig the tour this year and go to different places. Newcastle will be a one-off but we certainly look forward to Surfest returning next year.
MM: What size audience will this event reach?
AS: It will be in the millions but it is hard to pinpoint exactly what it will be because COVID does, again, impact different audiences, although in some ways in a positive sense. It will be broadcast across worldsurfleague.com, but also 7+, Kayo, Fox Sports and hopefully on 7Mate. WSL's social media following is almost 10 million, so we will certainly be pushing to that audience.
MM: Losing Kelly Slater to injury must be huge?
AS: Kelly Slater is Kelly Slater, right, so it is very disappointing that he can't be here. But we've got every single other athlete here.
To lose one athlete from 54 (36 men, 18 women), that is pretty good going. We've got every single world champion from the last eight years. The field is star-studded and that is what is important.
MM: How have the international surfers handled quarantine? What have they been up to in there?
AS: Quite well, we've been in daily communication with all the surfers and they have been doing a lot of funny things - dancing challenges, push-up challenges.
They've got exercise equipment in their rooms, whether it be rowing or cycling machines, weights or medicine balls. Everything that we could think of to help them keep their training regimes up.
They're nearly out and they are in a good frame of mind and really excited to be free of quarantine and enjoy Australia. They're very excited about the notion of being able to walk around in the community and go surfing and live a free life, because for many of them coming from other parts of the world life has been quite restricted.
MM: How are they feeling competing here?
AS: In general, the surfers are just ecstatic to get back into a competition jersey and compete. There is certainly a lot of excitement about Merewether in particular. A couple of weeks ago there was an incredible swell that hit Merewether and there were some great images and video that came out, which we were sending around. Merewether on its day is an extremely good wave and is a high-performance venue.
MM: The WSL offers equal prize money for male and female competitors. How far has women's surfing progressed in recent years?
AS: We were one of the first sports in the world to do that. The progression of women's sport, and in particular women's surfing, has been amazing in the last several years. Equal prize money is something we are very proud of.
MM: Five locals will be surfing, what do you make of their chances?
AS: All of those surfers will have a shot, you'd have to think Ryan and Julian - both of those guys were in the final of Surfest last year and they surf there pretty much every day. Likewise Morgan.
What an opportunity for Philippa and Jackson. We rarely give out wildcards to the boardriders club, we usually run trials but in this case given how rushed we were, we wanted to acknowledge to local club which nominated Philippa and Jackson.
MM: Does the success of this event hinge on getting the right conditions?
AS: It's a bit far out to forecast at this point... but any surfing event can be affected by the wave quality. That's why at the CT level we have these windows. In an 11-day window, in April which is probably the perfect time for Merewether - April, May - to get the best conditions, we're extremely confident we will get good quality waves.
MM:What will vantage points be like for fans?
AS: It will be a combination of beach and promenade. There will be a requirement to be seated. We will have a lot of COVID marshals who will be encouraging people to be seated. So people should bring a beach chair or sit on the sand.
MM: Will there be any event activations outside the precinct given the restricted crowd capacity?
AS: Council are looking into a possible live site in town.
MM: What can we expect from the Newcastle Cup?
AS: The world's best surfers competing for legitimate world title points and they'll be hungrier than they ever have been before.
They've been out of action and haven't competed since December. Last year they didn't compete at all and they've just come out of quarantine so you would expect the desire to win will be incredible.
They're all desperate to compete so I think the performance levels will be very high. It's going to be a great show and hopefully we get 3000 people on the beach.
If you can't get there, enjoy the broadcast.