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Hot springs lands biggest fish tourney: Wal-Mart FLW Tour Championship called 'Super Bowl' of fishing.

LONG KNOWN FOR ITS LAKES and water recreation, not to mention its famous hot water, Hot Springs has landed the big one.

That would be the $1.5 million Wal-Mart FLW Tour Championship to be held July 13-16 on Lake Hamilton with the weigh-in events and the boat and outdoor show to be held at the Hot Springs Convention Center.

FLW officials project an estimated $50 million statewide economic impact from the event, which has been labeled the "Super Bowl of fishing."

For a town the size of Hot Springs to host the championship tourney is quite a coup. "We're lucky to get it," said Steve Arrison, executive director of the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission. "It's growing so fast."

Last month, the 2004 tourney was held at Birmingham, Ala. The year before, it was at Richmond, Va. Increasingly, the Wal-Mart tour of national bass fishing tournaments has become a big-money event backed by the world's largest and richest retailer. The boat and outdoor show, which draws some 50,000 visitors, requires a large convention center to hold the 140 exhibitors and vendors who will set up shop during the event.

Arrison thinks the tournament will turn the national spotlight on fishing in Arkansas. "It will bring us tons of publicity," he said.

When the decision was announced that Hot Springs would host the national championship, Arrison said, "The city will be the focus of worldwide attention from everyone who loves fishing. It's the perfect event to showcase the entire Hot Springs region."

Arrison and Hot Springs got a taste of what it will be like to put on the major championship earlier this year when the city hosted the Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League All-American at Lake Hamilton.

But the big tourney next year takes it to another level.

"The boat and outdoor show will take up the entire convention center," Arrison said. "We could not have held it here before we opened the Summit Arena last year."

The Summit Arena added more than 124,000 SF to the bring the total Convention Center space to 363,000 SF, making it the largest convention site in the state.

Arrison gives credit to the cooperative efforts of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, which anted up $50,000 each, in helping the city land the 2005 championship events.

"This will be one of the largest outdoor events ever to be held in Arkansas," Arrison said. "It's a much bigger event than we realized."

But Arrison thinks the Natural State is a natural site for the tourney. "We're an outdoor state and many of the great fishermen in the country come from this area," Arrison said.

FLW--Forrest L. Wood

Also, Arrison added, Forrest and Nina Wood are native Arkansans and the state is home to three of the sport's biggest sponsors in Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods Inc. and Ranger Boats.

The FLW Tour is named for one of the living legends of sport fishing. Forrest L. Wood is the father of the modern bass boat and founder of Ranger Boats at Flippin in north Arkansas. He was a pioneer of pro fishing, first with Ray Scott and B.A.S.S., and later with Minneapolis entrepreneur Irwin Jacobs, chairman of Genmar Holdings Inc., the world's largest builder of recreational boats including Ranger, Champion, Stratos and 13 other brands.

Wood and his wife now run a museum at Flippin. The state's nature center at Jonesboro is named for Wood, who also is chairman of the state Game & Fish Commission.

It was Jacobs' idea to start a totally new and unique tournament series that would lend itself to high-profile television coverage. First called Operation Bass, it's now named FLW Outdoors in honor of Wood.

Wood sold Ranger Boats to the Thompson family in the 1980s and Jacobs bought it from them in the early '90s. Genmar controls close to 50 percent of the market for the bass-type fishing boat.

Ranger Boats have always sold themselves, Jacobs said. They became legendary through the association with B.A.S.S. and its tournaments. But FLW, based in Benton, Ky. and also owned by Jacobs, has the marketing know-how to take it to another level.

Jacobs said his relationship with Wood goes back 11 or 12 years and readily admits that having Wood's seal of approval with his name or initials on the tour was a great move on his part.

Jacobs has built FLW Outdoors into the powerhouse of pro fishing circuits. The tour's 10th anniversary championship at Hot Springs will pay out $1.5 million, with the winner earning $500,000. Over the seven events set for 2005, the world's top anglers will be awarded a record $7.6 million.

That kind of money far surpasses anything the venerable B.A.S.S. organization has ever paid out. Jacobs says there's competition, to be sure, but also noted some fishermen compete in both the B.A.S.S. tourneys and the FLW events. And, he adds, he sells boats to anglers who fish both tourneys.

The FLW Tour features a four-day, elimination-style format reminiscent of the PGA Tour. Each finalist is paired with a camera crew that covers the fishing action. This real-time interaction between announcers, spectators and competitors via cell phones has brought a new level of excitement to the sport and helped make the FLW Tour an instant success, according to an FLW spokesman.

FLW is the first organization to make $100,000 and $200,000 victories standard, and that kind of money brings in the best fishermen. The top 48 pros in the standings after the six qualifying events will advance to the championship at Hot Springs. Even the 50th place finisher in all tourneys is guaranteed a minimum $ 10,000, Jacobs said.

In addition to the Wal-Mart FLW Tour, the organization also runs the EverStart Series, the Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League and the Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Tour, all of which are broadcast on the Outdoor Life Network as part of FLW Outdoors. The Dempsey Film Group of Little Rock produces the FLW television series.

In all, the FLW fishing circuits offered more that, $20 million in 175 events.

Wal-Mart has been the title sponsor of FLW Outdoors since 1997. It was the retailer's first national sponsorship. Jacobs readily acknowledges that the tours could not exist without the support of their sponsors.

Jacobs said he expects to see pro fishing continue to grow. He said there are 1,000 anglers on a waiting list to join the tours.

Fishing is the most nondiscriminatory sport there is, Jacob said. Men and women age 18 to 80 can fish, he said.

"And if you can fish for both fun and money, that's not a bad way to go," Jacobs said.

The Projected Economic Impact

HERE'S SOME OF THE FINANCIAL impact that FLW Outdoors projects for the Hot Springs championship event:

* $175,000 in paid advertising on network and cable TV, newspapers, radio, billboards and direct mail.

* A $40,000 Ranger limited-edition Nascar Boat package giveaway that will bring in thousands of entries.

* 140 exhibits in which vendors will have special show pricing. The four-day show, with an average projected expenditure of $300 per person. is expected to reach close to $15 million. FLW tour pros will conduct fishing seminars each day at the show and there will be daily giveaways for children 12 and under.

* 30,000 spectators, although Steve Arrison, executive director of the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission. thinks Hot Springs will draw about 40,000--the same as Birmingham, Ala., did this year.

* 581 staff, sponsor, anglers and special guests.

* 5,800 room nights valued at $406,000, food expenditures valued at $203,000, gas and oil expenditures valued at $232,000, miscellaneous spending put at $581,000, and entertainment spending valued at $261,000

* Media coverage valued at $1.4 million by Burrelle's/Luce Media Analysis.

-- JOHN HENRY

2005 Wal-Mart FLW Tour

Jan. 19-22

Lake Ockeechobee, Clewiston, Fla.

Feb 9-12

Lake Toho, Kissimmee-St. Cloud, Fla.

March 9-12

Ouachita River, Monroe, La.

April 13-16

Beaver Lake Rogers (Wal-Mart Open)

May 11-14

Wheeler Lake, Decatur, Ala.

June 22-25

Potomac River, Charles County, Md. (Forrest

Wood Open)

July 13-16

Lake Hamilton, HotSprings (Tour Championship)
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Title Annotation:Executive Sportsmen
Author:Henry, John
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Sep 13, 2004
Words:1377
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