Daily Record Business Writer
July 30, 2009 6:49 PM
OCEAN CITY — Jim Motsko had no idea 36 years ago that his scheme to earn money while fishing would ever amount to anything.
But his tournament idea quickly took off, and the White Marlin Open, which begins Monday, has become the largest billfish tournament in the world, bringing thousands of people to Ocean City each August. Anglers come from up and down the East Coast to compete for their shot at hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes — and to spend money hand over fist while they’re here.
But with the cost of fuel last summer causing the biggest drop in entrants in the tournament’s history, and the recession this summer still scaring away boat owners who can’t afford the costs, the economic boost the White Marlin Open usually delivers to local retailers has been softer in recent years.
“You reach a point where there’s no boat docks left,” Motsko, 62, said. “We were at that point a couple years ago. Now I can tell you of 20 docks with space left off the top of my head.”
The city estimates more than 300,000 people come here during tournament week, comparable to a Fourth of July weekend. But those who come for the White Marlin Open are no ordinary tourists, said Memo Diricker, director of the Business Economic and Community Outreach Network at Salisbury University.
“Per day spending of these kinds of high-end events tends to be much higher-focused than when a regular tourist comes to the beach,” he said. “In some cases, spending is almost 1½ to two times the average per-day expenditure.”
The White Marlin Open reached its height in 2005, when 446 boats were entered. According to estimates, depending on the size of the boat, it can cost between $3,000 and $5,000 per day to enter the five-day tournament in which entrants choose three days (usually Monday, Tuesday and Friday) to fish. That includes the tournament fee, which can range from $1,000 for the base fee to more than $15,000 to enter all prize categories, fuel, bait, tackle and other supplies.
Rusty Reddish, 26, co-captain of The Mak-Atak, has had the same group of six bar owners from New York charter his boat for the tournament for the last eight years. They typically spend between $15,000 to $20,000 total for the week, he said.
“When you add on the hotel, food and drinks for a week, it all adds up, and these guys drop a lot of money,” he said, noting that their case is not unusual. “It spikes this whole town for a week.”
But this year, only three of them can afford to make the trip.
“I don’t think they’ll be spending as much this year,” Reddish said.
24-percent drop last year
Last year, 300 boats entered the tournament, a 24-percent drop from the previous year’s 396 boats. Motsko has upped his advertising budget by more than $4,000 and has spent about $50,000 this year to encourage more participants. He has also increased his efforts on the Internet and arranged a revenue-sharing agreement with SportFisherman.com, which is managing the tournament’s newly designed Web site. But he doesn’t know yet if the extra effort will pay off.
As most boats wait until the weekend before to register, Motsko won’t know his final numbers until Sunday evening. Last year, just 70 boats were registered the Friday before the tournament’s Monday start. With about 60 boats entered as of Wednesday, he’s hopeful of beating last year’s total.
“I’m not greedy, I’d be very happy with one more boat than last year,” he said. “I think we might get more, but I don’t want to count on that.”
While the tournament has been profitable or broken even since its second year in 1975, the amount of money Motsko, a real estate agent in his spare time, makes off it has traditionally been dependent on the number of boats entered.
“That can make or break us,” he said.
After last year’s drop in boats, Motsko enlisted his daughter Sasha to handle marketing and sponsorships full time to wean the tournament away from its reliance on enrollment. He said the tournament earns about $1,000 per boat, and one Gold Sponsor (the third-highest level) can bring in as much as about 3½ boats.
Catching Under Armour
Motsko credits his daughter for bringing in Baltimore-based sports apparel company Under Armour as a first-time sponsor this year. It’s a relationship both sides said they hope will grow into a title sponsorship within a few years.
Kip Fulks, senior vice president of outdoor and innovation at Under Armour, said the outdoor division of the company has been pushing for more than two years to gain more exposure for its fishing apparel line. While he said the outdoor category makes up about 10 percent of total revenue, it is still not widely known as an Under Armour genre.
“We’re Maryland guys through and through,” Fulks said. “When we started looking around for how to get our name out there in the fishing community and promote those performance fabrics, this immediately popped up on our radar. It’s in our backyard and in every corner, it makes sense.”
Under Armour is outfitting every boat captain and first mate this year with apparel, entering a boat in the tournament and sending a team of about 15 representatives to promote its outdoor line and get product feedback. Motsko has also ordered about 900 Under Armour shirts with the tournament’s logo in addition to the more than 7,000 cotton tournament tees he expects to sell next week.
“We’re really excited about them,” Motsko said. “That’s a relationship we definitely want to foster.”
29 sponsors at five levels
All told, the tournament has 29 sponsors at five levels this year: three diamond (including Under Armour), four platinum, seven gold, six silver and nine bronze. Fulks said the fewer entrants this year and the last wasn’t a deterrent and was simply a product of the down economy.
“That doesn’t concern me at all,” he said. “I think getting the tournament some highly visible sponsors with great marketing and branding and getting the fans a little different flavor from years past, I think that’ll help grow the tournament.”
Local retailers, meanwhile, have to wait out the proverbial economic storm. While crowds pack Harbour Island Marina in the afternoons to watch the weigh-ins, and hundreds line the shore to watch the boats depart each morning, the money spectators spend on souvenirs, food and drink doesn’t necessarily stand out during the height of Ocean City’s beach tourism season.
“The tournament’s real economic value is the tournament itself, not in the number of spectators,” Salisbury’s Diricker said. “So the participant numbers are an important factor when you’re multiplying the per-day spending by that many people. If the number of boats is down, that impacts on spending more directly.”
At the Ake Marine Inc. tackle shop in West Ocean City, owner Elena Ake said her sales during last year’s White Marlin Open were down 25 percent compared to sales during the 2007 tournament. She doesn’t expect this year to be better.
While she wouldn’t say how much business the shop did during last year’s tournament, she said the foot traffic was noticeably slower.
“It used to be we’d open at 4:30 a.m. and would stay here until the last customer left around 6 or 7 p.m.,” she said. “There wasn’t time for lunch breaks and we were double-staffed. You ran the whole three days. Now it’s more like a very busy Saturday [during] our best year.”
Busiest time of the year
Still, she said tournament week is always the busiest time of the year, noting the shop does more business in three days than it does during the entire month of April (before the fishing season starts here). Many businesses near marinas can see a 15 to 20 percent increase in sales during the week, according to Sunset Marina Manager Brian Tinkler. It’s just that recently, that piece has been from a smaller pie.
“There’s no replacing those dollars that aren’t going to come to town on each one of those boats,” Tinkler said. “Last year created its own set of challenges with the fuel prices, and I think everyone had the false sense of hope that the worst was over. But there’s still going to be close to several hundred boats out there.”
And during a recession with an industry that’s highly reliant on discretionary income, nobody wants to complain about what’s still a much-needed boost in business. The Reel Inn at Harbour Island Marina normally seats about 50 or 60 comfortably between its bar and small patio area. But with its prime location at the weigh-in, the business is transformed.
Owner Scott Lathroum would not say how much of a sales increase the Reel Inn sees during tournament week but he does, in effect, triple the restaurant’s size by setting up three satellite bars and an extra food tent around the dock.
“It’s a lot busier than any other time,” he said.
The restaurant at the Sunset Marina, where Tinkler said he estimates about 120 tournament boats will be docked, will also enjoy one of its busiest times of the year next week.
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