Bill Sharp And The New Big Wave Challenge

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)
Swellnet Dispatch

After 25 years of putting together big wave events for the likes of K2, Billabong, and the WSL, Bill Sharp recently found himself at a loose end. With corporate sponsorship drying up, no-one wanted to support the XXL awards, which celebrates the most exciting aspect of surfing - big waves, really big waves.

“If you go back a decade, the Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards were an integral part of the US surf industry,” recalled Sharp. “But the surf industry that backed what we were doing has pretty much collapsed at this point and just getting all the surfers in one place now is almost impossible.”

The consequence, explains Sharp, is that “big wave surfing has found itself without a town square where all the athletes, shooters, and fans can focus their attention and know what is happening in the sport.”

“A lot of the top big wave surfers came to me this last year and asked me to try to bring back the excitement of the old XXL event days – so I developed what I’ve been calling the New Big Wave Challenge.”

When it comes to categories, Sharp has had to fight his instincts and streamline the event. “I have to keep pushing myself to simplify,” explains Sharp. “It's like I immediately want to add, Slab of the Year, Tube of the Year, Manoeuvre of the Year, Up and Comer….fuck, it could keep going. So I’ve had to remind myself, ‘Hey, let's just build the little habitable hut first before we start building a giant skyscraper’."

So the ‘habitable hut’ includes the most fundamental categories: Ride of the Year, Surfer of the Year, Biggest Wave Paddled, Biggest Wave Open, and Best Wipeout.

A difference, this year at least, is the lack of prize money. “Well I’m starting the New Big Wave Challenge to re-establish the foundation,” says Sharp. “We need to get the framework back up and running first.”

“Out of the hundreds of people I've talked to,” says Sharp, “only a couple even mentioned the prize money. Most of them are trying to establish their relevance as a sponsorable commodity.”

Sharp goes further: “For a lot of them, the difference between whether they have $5 or $5,000 or $50,000 isn't really going to make a career for them. First they need the platform whereby everyone can be acknowledged and that system has to be put in place.”

The New Big Wave Challenge will have its awards night next month at Nazaré, a shift from the old Southern California ceremony, and a decision that makes a lot of sense.

“Regardless of the wave itself, just the community of Nazaré reminds me of the North Shore in the seventies,” explains Sharp. “It was that place where everyone gathered with a sense of common purpose. Get your equipment ready, get together mentally, and you can go out there and paddle into thirty foot waves every couple of days. It's really a thriving scene and the only place in the world really where I can count on sort of a bit of governmental support for something like this.”

Once the ceremony is over, the awards bestowed, the window will open for a second Big Wave Challenge season, though of course it won't be so ‘new’ by then.

“By then, I hope to drop ‘new’ and replace that with a title sponsor name that's incredibly wealthy and prestigious.” Sharp adds with a laugh.

And it’ll be an El Nino season too, which isn’t so good down here in Australia but historically has been kind to Hawaii and California.

“I feel it in my bones.” Sharps says almost conspiratorially. “We've been through some soft cycles the last few years - lots of 60ft foot waves, but we need 80ft, even 90ft. It's time for the coastlines to get throttled by swell.”

The New Big Wave Challenge online:


Wandi's picture
Wandi's picture
Wandi Wednesday, 27 Sep 2023 at 9:54am

The big wave surfing has always been the pinnacle
It’s been a shame that it’s never been sustainable enough to run a proper tour.
The skill, ocean knowledge and down right guts it takes to ride some of these waves is next level
I know the WSL tried it but at the same time i remember it putting the Jaws event on hold because it was too big
So probably a good idea to keep that organisation well away from it.
What’s the opposite of the clichéd saying “everything they touch turns to gold”
The big wave exploits is probably the key to get non surfers interested
The amount of times I have non surfing friends show me some big wave stuff they found on social media is crazy.
I haven’t watched a single of the surf a day to be world champ Trestles day but I’d be keen to watch the big wave surfing not endorsed by the WSL
Just my 2 cents worth as a potential viewer

Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean Wednesday, 27 Sep 2023 at 10:37am

Buoys were reading 17 ft @ 16 seconds yesterday.
12 ft @ 18 the week before.
El nino is real.

mpeachy's picture
mpeachy's picture
mpeachy Wednesday, 27 Sep 2023 at 10:55am

That paddle-in Kaiwi Berry wave in the photo was so sick, think he might've gotten clipped right at the end

adam12's picture
adam12's picture
adam12 Wednesday, 27 Sep 2023 at 1:33pm

The back seating of big wave surfing by the WSL is part of the reason it struggles in it's aim to broaden the interest both in the core and the mainstream I reckon.
Big wave riding will always put bums on seats.
It's the only surfing the non surfing world is interested in.
It's the surfing that surfers will always watch and get pumped on, unlike the tour surfing.
If they want to get more eyeballs then it's big waves that will do it every time.
The WSL dropped the ball, too many fucking idiots like Elo with no idea how to really promote surfing.
What would you rather watch, Billy Kemper pulling in at Jaws or Phil Toledo doing air reverses at Trestles?
It's a no brainer.
A proper Big Wave Tour would get the world's attention and pull the sponsors and non core audience the shortboard tour can't IMO.

Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean Wednesday, 27 Sep 2023 at 2:25pm

I think it is what it is....
With youtube big wave surfers have a better platform then they have ever had before.
Think they need to look outside the box
Re different funding/ sponsors.
Contest time frame surfing in big waves ?
Coverage of big wave sessions.
You decide, the view decides.
Almost seems redundant that they are trying the old model. Re sponsor ship.
Who knows
Dangerous activity with little extrinsic reward......

mugofsunshine's picture
mugofsunshine's picture
mugofsunshine Wednesday, 27 Sep 2023 at 3:36pm

Bill Sharp has tried more re-brands than Scott Morrison.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Wednesday, 27 Sep 2023 at 3:48pm

Ha ha...not sure that is an accurate reflection of his personal brand; far as I can recall he's always been the spiky-haired, bottle-blonde kneelo - he's remained true to that.

But his professional career has had many ministries: Surfing mag editor, clothing company CEO, GM for the Big Wave Tour, producer of a HBO tele-series. Really, the last 25 years he's been an impresario for big wave events and tours. It hasn't always worked out for him but he's got that typically American attitude of getting in the ring and making things happen.

Even if this one falls over I'm sure we'll see him give life to another project down the track. Gotta respect that level of tenacity.

mugofsunshine's picture
mugofsunshine's picture
mugofsunshine Thursday, 28 Sep 2023 at 7:29am

Tenacity is a great word when diplomacy is required. Also rhymes with audacity :)

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Thursday, 28 Sep 2023 at 7:47am

Fuck, he's got that in spades too.

I mean, just to pull off that hair style...

simba's picture
simba's picture
simba Wednesday, 27 Sep 2023 at 5:52pm

got to respect that first fukin photo too......what a wave....wonder if he towed or paddled....beautiful shot....

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Wednesday, 27 Sep 2023 at 6:56pm

Paddle. Got swatted too.

udo's picture
udo's picture
udo Wednesday, 27 Sep 2023 at 7:04pm

Dosen't Faze him...Faaark

Rubble's picture
Rubble's picture
Rubble Thursday, 28 Sep 2023 at 6:12am

Separate men’s and women’s divisions?

fishnsurf's picture
fishnsurf's picture
fishnsurf Saturday, 30 Sep 2023 at 9:21am

its just not something people can relate too. While having respect for them, its just unattainable by people .4 foot trestlesis something we can all imagine doing.Buld a wave pool capable of making 50 foot barrels and you will get your audience .

Trentslatterphoto's picture
Trentslatterphoto's picture
Trentslatterphoto Monday, 2 Oct 2023 at 6:31pm

100 disagree,

huggie11's picture
huggie11's picture
huggie11 Sunday, 1 Oct 2023 at 1:20pm

Good idea Bill Sharp, you're the only guy who can do this well.

Mango Carafino's picture
Mango Carafino's picture
Mango Carafino Thursday, 5 Oct 2023 at 7:23am

Bill Sharp is like the pimp of surfers and big wave title projects that make Sharp the pocket money and leave everyone else feeling like the prostitute when the show is over.

In the early 2000's Sharp failed to realize the opportunity to take Big Wave Tow in Surfing to the level of real money and public interests as a spectator attraction. The fact that Garret Mac rode just 1 so called 100 foot wave which was featured worldwide on television, gaining so much attention, is a testament to the marketable interests.

The fact that Big Wave Tow in Surfing involves oil and gas, the two largest profitable markets in sport sponsorship was a no-brainer to advancing Big Wave Tow In Surfers to earning huge cash wins, utilizing a sponsor industry that has the money to burn.

But the small minded contest promoters, controlled by politically playing into the hands of the "at that time and now gone", big names in the surf industry, lost the opportunity of pay per view, oil and gas sponsored Big Wave Tow In event capitalism. So as far as I am concerned, Sharp is the last guy we want at the helm with old ideas trying to relive memories of yesteryear in his long gone glory days.

Another thing to note: Sharp has prevented so much raw and local talent from events at the famous surf breaks which his carefully tailored events took place, that it should be criminal, Billabong and XXL accessed prime spots that brought in guys who had never surfed the breaks and where suppose to be recognized as the best. Nonsense, the best were the local guys who were lawfully pushed out of their surf spots on some of the best days of the season. Forced to watch some imported guys be promoted as the best. Sharp regulated that the then "big name surfers" in the industry were the only ones to have access to the events, pleasing the surf industry corporations and ensuring better talent would not out perform the invitees. Sharps formula crashed and burned, which is why he now is on a re branding fishing expedition for large deep pocket sponsorship to replay out what had no longevity to begin with.

The fact of the matter is that surfing never needed nor does it need guys like Sharp and Rodney Kilborn who ruined tow in surfing events at Jaws Maui back in the 2000's. These guys need surfing. But they have done so much reputation damage that large industries that can afford to sponsor such events understand their is no return on investment for their efforts.

I am sure Sharp is a likeable guy, but he has done more damage to the sport than benefit. Validating that all the events Sharp has been involved in back in the day were nothing more than members only exhibitions for money. They were never real aquatic athlete surf competitive events because the events blocked out so much local and well deserving talent from the opportunity to take part in a competitive sport.

So I would appreciate that Sharp go back and crawl under the rock his nonsense concept slid out from.

The last thing we need to do is relive everything Sharp let slip through his hands. Sharp was responsible and played a role in the complete collapse of an industry. The good thing for surfers is that Sharp and his cohorts cannot manipulate the waves of mother nature like Zuckerberg can manipulate his tech. Then we would all be really fuked.