May/June 2015 Issue
Professional fishing tournaments like the Walmart FLW Tour, which makes two stops in Arkansas this year, can drive millions of dollars into the economy of host cities.
Photograph by Garrick Dixon and courtesy of FLW
Top photo: 2014 Walmart FLW Tour, Sam Rayburn Reservoir Bass-fishing pro Mark Rose celebrates after landing a keeper.
The Forrest Wood Cup is professional bass fishing’s biggest rodeo, the championship event that caps the annual season of the Walmart FLW Tour. This August, some 90 anglers — half professional bass-catchers, half amateur “co-fishermen” — will hit Lake Ouachita, with half a million dollars going to the winning pro and $50,000 to the top amateur.
Hot Springs and the surrounding region, however, are likely to see the biggest haul: up to $1.5 million of direct economic impact from the three-day extravaganza.
That may fall well short of a NASCAR weekend, which some studies have shown generate $100 million or more. But then, Arkansas doesn’t have a high-banked oval speedway. What it does have is a lot of lakes with a lot of bass, and that’s why it’s attractive to outfits like FLW, the world’s largest professional bass fishing tour.
And according to FLW’s founder, he was simply giving people something they wanted. The economic development that accompanies it is an added bonus.
“I always tell our people, I don’t want to try and create a need, I want to fulfill a need,” said Irwin Jacobs, chairman and CEO of FLW Fishing.
Jacobs, who created FLW in 1996 after buying a small bass tournament in Kentucky, noted that 60 million fishing licenses are purchased in the United States each year, and those people buy bass boats, trucks, fuel, clothing, food, and electricity.
“I can’t put a dollar figure on it myself,” said Jacobs, “but it’s millions and tens of millions of dollars.”
Actually, FLW does put a dollar figure on it when approaching cities to host stops for its tours; they provide an economic prospectus of sorts, estimating the financial impact the tournament is likely to have in both direct dollars (the aforementioned fuel, food, hotel rooms, etc.) and indirect dollars (the advertising exposure that comes from being mentioned in worldwide broadcasts that draw millions of viewers). Jacobs said they haven’t done a study to see how well they do on these projections, but anecdotal evidence indicates they are usually on the conservative side.
“It’s major. Every restaurant, every hotel, the stores are all packed,” he said.
Joseph Opager, director of public relations for FLW, said the organization hosts 240 tournaments in five classifications — from high school students to pros — around the country each year, with the Walmart FLW Tour being the premier: six events plus the Forrest Wood Cup.
And it’s a growth industry. FLW is sanctioning tournaments in other countries now, and Jacobs sees the day they might put together a true world championship of fishing.
“It’s got a life far beyond what it is today,” he said. “You’ll see the economic impact burgeoning.”
As for some non-anecdotal evidence of what the biggest FLW tournament can bring in, Opager estimated in an email to Visit Hot Springs (the city’s tourism bureau) that Columbia, S.C., which hosted last year’s Forrest Wood Cup, saw $6 million in direct economic benefit.
Mariam Atria, president and CEO of Columbia’s Capital City/Lake Murray Country Regional Tourism Board, said in a separate email that the four-day tournament held on Lake Murray brought in 65,000 visitors and had a “direct tourism impact” of more than $16 million.
Of course, that’s in a city with about 100,000 more people than Hot Springs, and in a metropolitan statistical area numbering some 800,000 folks. But even if the economic impact is scaled to size, Hot Springs could do pretty well in hosting its fourth Forrest Wood Cup in the last 10 years. Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, said that while the estimates of the overall economic impact “can go up and down,” there’s no question it will be significant.
“It’s got a great local impact, and even greater than that, it has an impact as far as publicizing your lakes and your community, not only in the United States but internationally.”
That’s because the tournament will be aired live on cable networks not just in North America but also in Europe, Africa, and Asia, he said; and what’s more they will be replayed again and again.
Meanwhile, in Hot Springs itself there’s the 90 competitors and their support staffs and families who will need food, lodging, fuel, and other necessities. Then there are the production crews for the live television coverage, and other media. Plus, FLW will use the Hot Springs Convention Center for its expo, which brings vendors from around the country and is open to the public. The daily weigh-ins, which draw huge crowds, will be held there, too.
“We’ve never hosted it and had less than 55,000 people over the three- to four-day period,” said Arrison. “In 2007, Scott Suggs from Benton won it, the first time in fishing anyone won $1 million. We had over 60,000 people come through the doors. And we’re a little community of 37,000 people.”
To add to the frenzy, there will be Bass Federation Junior World Championships at the same time on Lake Hamilton, with weigh-ins before the FLW competitors take the stage; and a Kansas City Barbeque Society competition with about 60 teams will take place outside the convention center on Saturday.
“It’s a show,” Arrison said. “I’ve never fished in my life, but it’s great fun to watch. It’s exciting. Everyone comes away with a smile on their faces.”
So, will there be room for all these people?
“Oh, boy, we hope so, but we’re building new hotels,” said Arrison. “We had two open in the last three months. We hope to have plenty of rooms.”
Rosy revenue forecasts aside, putting on a big bass fishing tournament isn’t free. First of all, Hot Springs has to buy into it; FLW required Hot Springs to purchase $150,000 in advertising in FLW’s various publications and provide its facilities at no cost, which Arrison called “a good deal when you look at the direct economic impact and the longer term publicity values that are involved. A strong return on our investment.”
Also, as with any other large event, city services will be provided, from public safety to sewage treatment. And at least one state agency gets involved: the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission (AGFC).
“As in the past, we will provide a fish-hauling truck each day of the weigh-in to help recover the fish and transport and stock the fish back into the lake after each day’s weigh-in,” explained D. Colton Dennis, the black bass program supervisor for AGFC.
That live-haul truck is key, because big fishing tournaments require the fish caught to be kept alive through weigh-in and then returned to the lake, so as not to deplete stocks. For tournaments in early spring, Dennis added, AGFC actually “borrows” those fish and puts them in one of their fish nurseries as breeding stock, returning them and all the fingerlings — sometimes tens of thousands — to the original lake a few months later.
So in a way, the fish become a bit like champion racehorses: put out to stud after the big event.
The Forrest Wood Cup will actually be Arkansas’ second Walmart FLW Tour stop this year; Beaver Lake at Rogers hosted a tournament in late April, just as AMP went to press. J.R. Shaw, the new executive director of Visit Rogers, acknowledged a few weeks ahead of the event that it would be a “baptism by fire.”
“It is, but there’s nothing better than that,” said Shaw, a 15-year veteran of the tourism promotion industry who came here from Pennsylvania.
The FLW tour, he said, has come to Beaver Lake every year but once since 1998. He’s been putting together numbers from 2011 on and can see a clear economic benefit.
“Since then, the tournament has generated over 2,500 hotel rooms sold with a room revenue impact of close to $390,000,” said Shaw. “That impact then muscles over a few other things, and has been over $500,000 for the local economy.”
FLW’s own estimate pegged the direct economic benefit to Rogers and the surrounding area at $540,000 for the April tournament. But, just as Arrison did in Hot Springs, Shaw noted there are indirect benefits to take into account.
“If you want to get into the marketing aspect of it and figure out the impact of guaranteed national media and international media,” he said, “that basically triples some of the impacts there.”