Fishing tournaments are frequent in Alabama and provide an economic impact to the communities — typically small towns — near the bodies of water where they are held.
Three of the major fishing tournament players in Alabama are B.A.S.S., the Alabama Bass Trail (ABT) and the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo. Birmingham-based B.A.S.S. is internationally recognized for its popular Bassmaster tournaments held across the country. ABT is considered one of the country’s top state bass tournament series. And the Rodeo, put on by the Mobile Jaycees, is renowned as one of the largest fishing tournaments in the world, drawing more than 3,000 anglers to fish onshore and offshore in 33 categories.
Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo
The Rodeo, now held annually on Dauphin Island, began in 1929, the brain child of Mobile businessmen. The popular fishing event, which today draws about 75,000 spectators over three days, helped raise the Mobile area’s profile as a salt-water angler destination and now is a huge boon to the Dauphin Island economy each year, says Matt Glass, vice president of publicity for the 2023 Rodeo event held July 21-23. “Our goal each year is to sink the island,” he says.
After the Rodeo grew, the Mobile Junior Chamber of Commerce took over organizational duties in 1948. They have since provided donations including more than $475,000 for the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama, Glass says. In addition, the tournament gives the Dauphin Island Sea Lab the opportunity to collect scientific data on fish.
More than $450,000 in prizes were awarded to participating anglers in July thanks to entry ticket sales and sponsor donations, including a boat, motor and trailer. The event typically draws about 120 sponsors.
While many Rodeo participants come from Mobile, Baldwin and south Mississippi counties, the contest also draws anglers from all over the Southeast plus Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, Glass says.
Jaycees volunteer to manage the event, starting on the next year’s version days after the end of this year’s. “We do this in our quote spare time as we all have other jobs and most of us have young children,” Glass says.
The Town of Dauphin Island helps support the event in various ways. The Dauphin Island mayor and police chief, for example, served as two of the nine judges for the Liar’s Contest, which showcases the tall tale telling talents of anglers.
“The Liar’s Contest, held Thursday night, is always a popular kick off to the event,” Glass says. “Spectators are treated to a variety of bands and other attractions, including sponsor and vendor tents, live fish tanks and the touchable fish box Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”
Mayor Jeff Collier says the town appreciates the positive economic impact. “Being an annual event, local businesses and tourists look forward to it, and vacations hinge around it,” he says. “We’re excited to host it as any community would be. It’s a family friendly event.”
Alabama Bass Trail
ABT is in its tenth season, being modeled after the success of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail as a major draw for state tourism, says Kay Donaldson, program director for the Alabama Bass Trail.
“Alabama has numerous fishing tournaments during the year, but we are the largest state sponsored and the largest in the Southeast besides two Texas tournaments,” Donaldson says. “The smaller tournaments ask us for our schedule before they schedule their tournaments now.”
The trail is a cooperative effort among the Governor’s Office, Alabama Tourism Department, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association. It includes 13 of Alabama’s best bass-fishing lakes in two divisions, North and South Alabama. Fourteen events each year include 10 qualifying events (five in each region), a championship and three special ABT 100 events. “These lakes are in outlying areas, so it’s rural and bedroom communities that generally benefit,” Donaldson says.
The economic impact of the 12 ABT events held in 2019 was $7.2 million, Donaldson says. “Regular events generated between $350,000 and $500,000 in direct impact and the championship $750,000,” she says. Impact includes lodging, food and other expenditures of participants and spectators.
Trail events also are showcases for local areas as TV coverage of ABT runs 36 weeks beginning April 1. Shows are broadcast at 7 a.m. Sunday mornings April through December on Alabama Bass Trail TV on Bally Sports Southeast.
This year the ABT championship is set for October 20-21, 2023, on Weiss Lake, one of Alabama’s lesser-known lakes. Donaldson points to improvements made by Leesburg leadership and the Chestnut Bay development, which includes a campground, for making that possible. “Communities bid for events and must have the resources to hold them,” she says.
Anglers, who come from 17 states including Alabama, can participate in one or both divisions, each maxing out at 225 boats. Teams pay a registration fee, now at $1,600 per division, for the regular series of five tournaments per division. The 75 winners from each division, as well as a handful of top couples, student and college teams, progress to the championship.
“This year the regular season will award a total of $580,000 in prize money and next year that will go up to $720,000,” Donaldson says. “We pay anglers all the money they put in for registration plus some.”
For the 100 series, 100 boaters pay $1,000 for each of three tournaments to compete for $100,000 in prize money. “Both the regular and the 100 contests draw strong fishing teams, but the 100 tends to attract more serious anglers because of its cost,” Donaldson says.
Sponsorship proceeds pay for the overhead costs of running ABT tournaments, including the trail’s 18-wheeler, rescue, TV and polygraph equipment, contractors, the team’s hotel stays and more, Donaldson says.
Owned by the Anderson Media Group, B.A.S.S. is based in the Birmingham area and publishes “Bassmaster Magazine” for its half-million members. The company features multiple bass fishing tournament circuits and is best known for the Bassmaster Classic tournament, considered “the Superbowl of bass fishing” with its top 50 competitors, says Eric Lopez, director of event operations.
Alabama last hosted a Classic in March 2020 at Lake Guntersville. The tournament attracted more than 122,000 spectators and 256 members of the media. It generated $35.9 million in direct and indirect economic impact, according to the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“The economic impact (of major tournaments) will be felt for years because of the coverage,” Lopez says. “It’s the best national advertising you could have. The additional indirect impact can be significant.”
This year Alabama lakes have hosted Elite, Open, College, High School, Junior and Kayak tournaments. The biggest event was the Whataburger Bassmaster Elite at Lay Lake in Shelby County May 11-14. “Lay Lake drew a relatively small crowd of 3,000 because of significant weather problems, but typically the number of fans in Alabama for an Elite tournament is 7,000 to11,000 over four days,” Lopez says.
The Elite series and Classic championship tournament draw top professional anglers from across the world. “To be among the 104 qualifying boats for the Elite series, the entry fee is $60,000 for the series, but they can win up to $100,000 per tournament,” Lopez says. “The pros make their living fishing and have sponsors like in any major sport.”
Communities bid for the chance to host Bassmaster tournaments and must have the infrastructure, including boat ramps, parking and hotel rooms, plus support from law enforcement and paramedics, Lopez says. “Chambers of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureaus want to partner with us because of the potential economic impact to their communities,” he says. “Elite tournaments and the Classic are broadcast live on Fox Sports for eight hours.”
Some communities are able to provide more resources for tournaments than others, Lopez says. “A large community in Texas might be able to provide a concert night, fireworks and kids activities, which will draw more spectators, but smaller communities may only be able to bring in five food trucks and 10 local vendors, which is fine.”
Kathy Hagood is a Homewood-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.
This article appears in the August 2023 issue of Business Alabama.