Hook, Line & Sinker

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Building riverfront venues is the key to attracting lucrative fishing tournaments
By Lisa White, Hook, Line & Sinker
Published on November 2006

When looking to support a large audience, several fishing associations have found convention centers to be a great catch.

And the convention center managers — well, they’re taking the bait hook, line and sinker. Several convention centers are now playing host to large-scale fishing tournaments and drawing in a large number of attendees.

Fishing has always been a big sport in the U.S. The National Sporting Goods Association reports that more people fish in this country than play golf and tennis combined and pro fishing tournaments are becoming a big business. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Commerce, anglers spend in excess of $35 billion annually.

One of the largest and best-known among the tournaments is the Bassmaster Classic, which is put on by the Bass Angler’s Sportsman Society (BASS). In 2001, BASS was acquired by ESPN, which then formed ESPN Outdoors, an umbrella division for all its outdoor programming. ESPN and ESPN2 devote, on average, 12 hours of coverage to the Bassmaster Classic, which attracted 9.4 million viewers in 2005.

The three-day event features a boat launch with the anglers at the host city’s river or lake, in addition to a sports product expo and a dramatic fish weigh-in presentation.

According to Jim Down, senior director of events for BASS/ESPN Outdoors, a number of cities bid for this event each year.

“Our basic criteria is to first look at the fisheries and consider the time of year the tournament will be held. We also take a look at the convention center space and consider the logistics [to the water],” he said. “Moving 55 boats to and from the water, returning fish to the water in good shape and getting the large amount of vehicles around town is challenging, to say the least. We are looking for venues that are close together so one does not take away from the other.”

When the necessary venues are not available, modifications have been made. For example, at this year’s Classic in Orlando, there was no acceptable arena for the weigh ins.

“Instead, the Orange County Convention Center was utilized to put on the arena show,” said Eric Lopez, director of event operations for BASS/ESPN Outdoors. ESPN brought in bleachers from a company in California, constructed rigging for lighting and sound and built the stadium atmosphere inside the convention center.

“We literally built it from the ground up, and it was a success for us. Because we are able to do this, it allows us to look at different types of facilities to stage for the weigh ins in the future, not just arenas,” he said.

Unlike Orlando, Pittsburgh, host of the Bassmasters Classic in 2005, had the ideal venues and setup for the tournament. “The venues were within walking distance of one another and the three rivers were about 10 minutes away,” Down said.

About 80,000 people participated in the 2005 Classic’s launch, expo and weigh-in, one of the tournament’s best-ever attendance records. “This was the ideal setup. When people are forced to drive long distances from the boat launch to the weigh-in, we lose spectators,” said Lopez.

While weigh-in took place at the Carnegie Mellon Arena, the city’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center was tapped to host the tournament’s expo. This free trade show, open to the public, was 180,000 square feet and featured more than 100 exhibits from some of the largest outdoor sports providers and retailers in the country, including Dick’s Sporting Goods and Bass Pro Shops.

According to Jamie Huckleberry, director of event services for the convention center, the expo met its goal of attracting 17,000 attendees daily. “The exhibits were open for three full days, and Bassmasters provided the staffing,” she said.

Although he could not provide exact figures, Michael Sperekas, spokesperson for Levy Restaurants, the venue’s concessionaire, said sales were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Our menu was extensive, and there was a lot of pre-sell to this show. We were talking about the menu six months prior to the expo,” he said.

Bob Imperata, executive vice president of Visit Pittsburgh, formerly the Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, said the event’s economic impact on the city was about $29.1 million in direct spending. “This event provides good exposure with the time we get live on ESPN, and it has a good economic impact for the community,” he said.

Little Rock, Ark.’s Statehouse Convention Center hosted the 2006 CITCO Bassmasters Legends tournament this past August. Although on a smaller scale than the Classic, this tournament attracted 2,500 attendees on each of the last two days of the four-day event.

According to David Russell, director of sports sales, the event was staffed with 40 people from Bassmasters and 20 of his staffers. “The biggest obstacle for us was access to the convention center stage. The weigh-in consisted of 55 fisherman, each with their own big SUVs pulling bass boats on trailers up to the convention center’s stage,” he said.

To make it work, the anglers came in shifts, 20 at a time. “We had to shut down a lane outside the convention center in order to line up the trucks and boats,” Russell said.

Because the fish are only counted if they are alive, Bassmasters set up a large holding tank mounted on a pontoon boat outside the convention center to hold the fish after each weigh-in. “The obstacles were really more about what was going on outside the convention center than inside,” Russell said.

He estimates the economic impact from this event was $600,000 in direct expenditures for Little Rock. “But you can’t put a dollar figure on the exposure from being televised on ESPN and publicity from the fishing magazines,” Russell said.

In February of 2007, Alabama’s Birmingham Convention Center will play host to the Bassmasters CITCO Classic. The city and venue has past experience with these events, after just hosting another big bass fishing tournament, the FLW Tour Championship, this past year and in 2004.

According to David Galbaugh, national sports marketing sales manager for the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, the two events are comparable in terms of size and prestige. “The economic impact is more than $10 million to our city with each of these events,” he said.

As for running the tournaments, the host organizations take care of the costs, staffing and logistics. “We offer registration assistance and information booths, but both organizations essentially run the events,” Galbaugh said.

The FLW Tour Championship, put on by FLW Outdoors, is a four-day tournament that draws between 40,000 and 50,000 attendees, according to Dave Washburn, FLW Outdoors’ vice president of communication.

Like the Bassmasters event, the show consists of daily weigh-ins and an expo. The tournament is sponsored by more than 50 companies, including Wal-Mart, BP, Kellogg’s and Fuji Film. In 2007, the tour will award $9.5 million to top bass anglers over the course of seven tournaments.

The organization also will host nine smaller tournaments in 2007.

Washburn said the criteria for hosting the FLW Tour includes a quality fishery, a community that supports fishing and a facility that is at least 100,000 square-feet to accommodate the indoor events. These include both the product expo and a Family Fun Zone featuring a carnival, boat simulator, inflatable slide and other family-friendly activities.

In 2005, Craig Mergins, director of sporting events and park management for Hartford, Conn.-based Riverfront Recapture, contacted FLW asking to host the 2006 Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League All-American presented by Chevy. That year, the city had just renovated its riverfront, which included a new $271 million, 540,000-square-foot Connecticut Convention Center.

After a site visit by FLW personnel, the deal was signed. “With a lot of these tournaments, people are traveling 20 to 50 minutes away for the boat launches. Here, it takes just three minutes to the water, and people can walk to the riverfront from the convention center,” Mergins said.

According to H. Scott Phelps, president of the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, the event attracted 15,000 attendees, and the economic impact on the city was $1.7 million. “We also received very strong publicity, because this event was televised on the FOX Sports Network for two days,” he said.

Curt Jensen, sports marketing manager for the CVB, said the tournament is on par with NASCAR in terms of the level of sponsors and sponsor involvement. “We continue to get interest from regional and national fishing competitions. We are filling our slots up for the next couple of years,” he said.

“As far as fishing tournaments go, no one will look at you unless you offer access to fishing waters,” said Jeanne O’Grady, director of sales and marketing for the Connecticut Convention Center. “Our location was the right fit for this event.”