Fishing for dollars

Any serious angler is familiar with the Bassmaster Series, and for about a week in June, the fishing tournament again increased the Orange population by thousands. Professional anglers came in early for their practice runs on the Sabine River, along with their teams, families and friends before the event kicked off on Thursday, June 7.

That first day is when the population really swells with fans, bloggers, and news crews all covering the popular event. Free to the public, there is a carnival, concerts, food and drink vendors – like a miniature fair kicking up around the sport itself, lasting for four days.

Bassmaster first came to Orange in 2013, and the city saw its biggest numbers that inaugural year, with well over 33,000 in attendance. 2018 was the third year the Elite Series had come to Orange.

“This is the top, if not the biggest, single most impactful event for the city,” said Jessica Hill, executive director for the Orange County Economic Development Corporation.

“We set a record in 2013 for Bassmaster by double,” confirmed David Jones, owner of Gopher Industrial in Orange and part of the team that brought the event to the city of Orange. His company also sponsors a fish tank for kids at each event.

It started back in 2011 with a Chamber of Commerce fishing tournament, and Jones had an old high school friend come down to participate. That professional fisherman, seeing the turnout of the event, asked why Orange didn’t have something of that nature at the professional level.

“On his way back home, my friend pulled off on the side of the road and called Jerry McKinnis, the owner of B.A.S.S., (told) him about our water, and that we’d like to have them down,” Jones said. B.A.S.S. is a multimedia organization touting 500,000 members, and the creators of Bassmaster, which regularly airs shows on ESPN.

The next day, Jones got a team together that included County Commissioner John Gothia for a conference call with officials at Bassmaster.

“We pull up Google Earth, and show them the Sabine, Neches and Trinity, and they said, ‘You've got a ton a water,’” Jones recalled. And not only did the area have the waterways, but the rivers would make for challenging fishing, as anglers dealt with tide changes and struggled through brackish and saltwater just to get to where the freshwater – and the bass – were located.

“Here in Southeast Texas … it’s tough, and the crowds want to see what (the anglers) can do,” said Jones.

Bassmaster agreed to have a tournament on the Sabine, and with the success that first year, not only did they return but other groups also began to take notice.

“We have these other chambers and economic development groups from other states that fly down here because of the great turnout. To see what we do. Greenville (South Carolina) came down to see how we do it; they are hosting the (Bassmaster) Classic – the super bowl of tournaments – with attendance upwards of 135,000. Then New York came down to see what we did and duplicated it and beat our record by 500.”

“We’ve been able to influence other places by the format we put up around it. The tournaments are all the same, but then you put the carnival, music, and you time stuff right, and it keeps people happy. People and vendors like it, and it just dominos and for us, it creates a good show,” he said of the Orange County River Festival, which accompanies each tournament.

Although Bassmaster had chosen another location for their series in 2014, they returned with the Elites in 2015, the Bass Pro Shops Central Open in 2017, and another Elite tournament just this past June. And it wasn’t just the Bassmaster Elite series – other series such as Bass Champs and other non-Bassmaster tournaments soon followed.

“Now people are coming here having tournaments because this is where the pros fish,” Jones said. “You get 300-500 teams with trucks and boats, and they buy fuel, eat and stay in hotels. Those teams have family that come in, too.”

Attendance for the Bassmaster series continued to hover around 30,000 for each year it was held over the four-day period of the tournament, although the record of that first year has not yet been broken. But that doesn’t begin to cover the actual number of spectators.

Within the past five years and because of improvements in technology, not only is there live and replay coverage on ESPN and the Outdoor Channel, but the implementation of drone technology has allowed the audience to grow, as there are more and more live streams on sites such as ESPN.com and Bassmaster.com. Jones read some stats from Google Analytics that he’d received from the Bassmaster group reflecting just under 10 million page views and over 400,000 video views generated over the duration of the tournament. The event also garnered several million more viewers on television during live broadcasts and reruns.

The improvements in technology have provided significantly more exposure not only to these events, but also to the town of Orange and surrounding areas.

“These drones, they fly over industry and the Intracoastal,” Jones said. “The whole thing is a marketing tool. If we can get people here and they see the Intracoastal, interstate, and industry – (they’ll) see it’s a good place to work and good place to live. A place to establish a business,” he said, adding that because this area of Southeast Texas is right on the state line, and between Interstate 10 and the waterways, he would like to see Orange capitalize on those logistics that would appeal to new businesses like his that have to ship product.

“We want large industries to get here, but you still need things for people to do here,” he continued. “There’s 135 acres right there that’s been donated to the city that has to be for recreation, and these tournaments tie right into that.”

Jones is speaking about the old Navy shipyard by the Sabine boat ramp in Orange. With Orange’s rich history in lumber and shipbuilding, and talk of improvements at the Orange boat ramp, he sees how the area could once again be primed for new industry.

Other sporting events besides Bassmaster tournaments may also be the answer to bringing in more money to Orange’s economy.

According to Orange Mayor Larry Spears, the city is considering building a sports complex near the boardwalk in Orange, similar to the $4 million Youngtown, Louisiana, model that features football, soccer, baseball and softball fields, tennis courts and other recreation. The existing bond money was approved by voters years ago and is already there to build a complex like Youngtown’s, but Spears said the city is not going to rush into anything. He said the city plans to hold several “town hall” meetings to get voters’ input. Spears said he knows there are other important priorities in Orange such as Hurricane Harvey recovery as well as bringing a full-service hospital back to the city, but he also stressed the importance of having a centralized location for youth to have somewhere to play and stay out of trouble and while they would have priority access to the complex, the fields could also afford Orange an opportunity to attract out-of-towners for tournaments, similar to the manner in which Ford Fields attracts tournaments and hotel stays in Beaumont, and could generate revenue for the city. The fields themselves could generate revenue by attracting sponsors to put their brand on them as well, Spears pointed out.

In the meantime, however, Orange is relying heavily on Bassmaster Elite to give its economy a booster shot.

“I think the (Bassmaster tournament) was a great success,” Spears said. “We love having those guys here.”

“These tournaments have about a $3 million impact on our economy. That doesn’t count what goes on during the year when these people come down here to practice,” Jones said.

That impact translates to about $280,000 to $300,000 in tax revenue for the city, which hires a third-party firm to obtain the final numbers, taking into account statistics from local restaurants and hotels. Those final numbers weren’t yet available, yet but both he and EDC Executive Director Hill see no reason to think that the 2018 numbers will be much different.

“Numbers are anticipated to be about the same based upon the attendance,” said Hill, as the Chamber of Commerce released attendance records that reflected 30,320 on-site spectators. “Vendors were very pleased with the turnout.”

The Bassmaster series of tournaments is not always guaranteed, but the committee in Orange keeps the lines of communications open with Bassmaster throughout the year, making sure that nothing in the waterways has changed, and always keeping the officials abreast of potential improvements that may come up that would better the event.

And it’s not just the committees and officials with Bassmaster that make such an event possible. Putting on this massive undertaking could not be done without the over 100 volunteers who spend their free time in the Southeast Texas heat to make sure the pros and all attendees have a good and safe time. And more people work tirelessly behind the scenes. Jones said there were more than 20 people on his core team, in addition to the volunteers, and everyone’s sole purpose is to give back and see Orange get better.

As is the nature of a fishing tournament, much also depends upon the weather and the water, forces that cannot be controlled. The 2018 tournament, for example, was originally slated for April. But rains up north were about to flood the Sabine, making it unsafe for any angler.

“The tournament was moved. And that (June) heat hurt us a bit in turnout,” said Jones. “But Bassmaster didn’t want to lose it. They were talking to the River Authority, we had a meeting here at Gopher; (we) had a conference call. We lost some money on some contracts we had but Bassmaster rescheduled pretty quick. Both organizations wanted it; we worked so hard.”

Jones and his committee are already in discussions with Bassmaster for 2019. During the first years of Bassmaster, they had to go out and get sponsors – the local Stark Foundation being the first. Now they’ve been able to garner more sponsorships, such as Bass Pro Shops, a household-name that does not normally sponsor events in a town lacking a store.

“I can see 10 years down the road exiting Simmons (the first Orange exit from the Louisiana side), and having ball fields, and all of that cleared off so you can see the river. Having restaurants and other tournaments that are not just fishing. Then we could have a company wanting to come in and see this and decide to relocate.”

“That’s what’s the coolest about it,” Jones smiled. “To sit back at the end of the day and thinking I got to be a part of that, and I think that’s really cool. Ten years from now, other people won’t even know what all of this came from.” n

By Ginger Broomes

Special to the Business Journal

Kevin King contributed to this article.

 Photo by Greg Dickerson

 

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