Inside Events: STIHL TIMBERSPORTS®
20 Jun, 2019By: Mary Helen Sprecher
An Interview with Roger Phelps, Corporate Communications Manager, STIHL Inc.
Established in 1985, the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS® Series assembles the world's top lumberjack athletes to compete in what has become known as the Original Extreme Sport. The Series is seen by over 20 million viewers annually in over 62 countries around the world on networks like ABC, Eurosport, The Outdoor Channel and the ESPN networks, where it is now recognized as the second-longest-running show (behind only SportsCenter).
Athletes compete in a variety of disciplines based on traditional logging skills to determine the best all-around lumberjack. Disciplines include Hot Saw, Single Buck, Springboard Chop, Standing Block Chop, Stock Saw and Underhand Chop.
While based on tradition, the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS Series continues to build the future of lumberjack sports with the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS Collegiate Series. Seen on ESPNU, the Collegiate Series boasts more than 60 schools, each selecting their best lumberjack to go head-to-head in four professional disciplines. The winner from the five qualifier events and one wildcard pick compete in the Collegiate Championship to determine the collegiate victor, who earns an automatic place in the following year's STIHL TIMBERSPORTS Professional Series.
Sports Destination Management: Logging sports are actually rooted in American history.
Roger Phelps: Yes, they have a heritage that goes back 100 years to a time when guys would throw competitions in logging camps to see who was the best at certain skills.
SDM: Back then, it was bragging rights, but now it’s an international phenomenon.
Phelps: It didn’t start out that way. At STIHL, we had this idea of sponsoring competitions around the country to find out who the top people in the world were, and we were trying to figure out how we could prove that. We were going to different lumberjack shows and asking people if they would be interested in this. Then there was this TV network called ESPN that was just starting out and they were incredibly hungry for content…we had humble beginnings, but we grew rapidly. We like to say it’s the original extreme sport, and it really is. We have people who are climbing up a tree and chopping the top off or swinging an axe between their feet – you have to know what you’re doing.
Around the year 2000, we started talking about hosting international competitions. We started bringing Europeans over and they took it back to their countries. In 2005, we had our first world championship with maybe nine countries participating. In 2018, our world championships in Liverpool had 27 countries. That’s how much it has grown.
SDM: How did you get started doing the Collegiate Championships?
Phelps: I’d started with the series around 2001 and it got me wondering, ‘Where is the next generation of STIHL TIMBERSPORTS athletes going to come from?’ It turned out that in certain areas, there were conclaves that would get together from the various universities and have competitions. These were maybe between 100 and 200 college students who combined academics with lumberjack sports. A lot of them were students in majors like horticulture, wildlife and forestry, and they liked to combine their studying with this physical conditioning. We’d brought a STIHL TIMBERSPORTS pro athlete with us and while these students were really knowledgeable, their skill level was nothing like his. But of course, they’d all watched him on ESPN and everyone went nuts over him. He gave training courses at the conclave and it really got a lot of the students were motivated to up their game. We saw a lot of improvements after that and we started televising the college championships about two or so years later. The most gratifying thing to me is that now, 15 years later at the U.S. National Championships, six out of the 12 top pros competing had previously participated in the college championships.
SDM: This is not an NCAA sport, so it would be more of a club sport. Are you seeing students with any particular athletic background coming into it?
Phelps: The body type of the athlete is changing; everyone thinks that these guys are all big, bulky athletes but we’re seeing more of the CrossFit athlete, as well as more of those in the endurance sports. They’re often just all-around athletic.
SDM: How many schools are involved in collegiate TIMBERSPORTS?
Phelps: There are 60 to 67 schools involved that were involved in the five regional competitions leading up to the national championships. We don’t track how many schools have clubs because not all of them will enter competitions.
SDM: What do you look for when you’re doing site selection for championships?
Phelps: A lot of it is tied to one question: Is there a logging industry in this area? Then, of course, access to wood is a big deal. Many schools with majors in forestry or horticulture or wildlife, for example, will have a research forest and will be connected to logging company or paper mills.
SDM: What kind of staff do you bring in?
Phelps: When we come into a city, we’re covering the athletes’ hotel rooms but at the same time, we’re bringing in a crew of 150 and we’re paying for their lodging and meals, so it’s definitely profitable for a host city.
SDM: Do championships move around or are they stationary?
Phelps: We definitely move around. Having said that, though, it’s something that is best received in those areas that have an understanding of the sport. Wisconsin, New York, New England – you need a crowd that understands the sport, appreciates it and understands that we are the pinnacle of the sport. That’s for the professional championships. The locations for college events are basically dictated by where the conclaves are and where there is strong support of those sports.
SDM: What years are you looking for, when it comes to hosting? And what kind of facilities do you need?
Phelps: Right now, we’re looking for sites for 2021, 2022 and 2023 and we have an RFP out now. Originally, events were just held in open fields but now we’re looking for arenas and covered amphitheaters.
SDM: Do you have any figures on estimated economic impact?
Phelps: We have not done an economic impact study. We’ve estimated the impact as anywhere from $250,000 to $300,000 in direct spending. The harder thing to measure, though, is the value of the television exposure. For example, when we’ve held events in conjunction with the German Festival in Milwaukee – where we had a crowd of about 17,000 attending our events – we felt like it was our responsibility to give back to the host city, so we made sure there was coverage of the city. It equals the cost of a really valuable ad spot.
Editor’s note: Those interested in hosting events for STIHL TIMBERSPORTS should contact Roger Phelps at Roger.Phelps@stihl.us.
SDM: Logging and lumberjack pursuits were, of course, traditionally male. Are you seeing more women these days?
Phelps: We’re really excited about how much that division of the sport has grown. In 2017, we had our first women’s championship. Right now, the women’s division has three competitive events and we’re planning to add a fourth to that.
SDM: What are some of the obstacles you see to growth of these sports at the collegiate level?
Phelps: The biggest challenge is that the equipment is not cheap. A single buck saw can cost between $1,200 to $1,800. Stock saws are about $1,100. A hot saw can run between $10,000 and $12,000. The top prize for these events might be $1,000 but we’re working on improving that. STIHL pays sponsorship fees to the schools who participate in these sports, and we’ve had some other really good sponsors who are longstanding, like Duluth Trading Company and John Deere. We’re in discussions with some others. We try to limit sponsorship; we don’t want to be like NASCAR with hundreds of sponsors. At the professional level, the top guy can walk away with $40,000 to $50,000 in prize money, but not at the college level.
SDM: Is there individual sponsorship?
Phelps: Individual sponsorships are just starting to pop up. One athlete just got picked up by Red Bull and we think it’s a great validation – both of him as an individual and of us as a sport. It’s the original extreme sports drink sponsoring an athlete in the original extreme sport. We’re also seeing athletes get sponsorship from everything from flooring companies to logging companies to casinos. These folks are absolute heroes in their hometowns. In fact, one of our champions was featured on a billboard for his college as an advertisement for that school and its program. It’s great to see.
SDM: A few years ago, there was this reality TV show…
Phelps: AxeMen…ugh. At STIHL, we were not fans of it, honestly. That was reality TV, and as they say, reality TV is neither. Today’s professional logger is just that – a professional. Professionals are using sustainable forestry practices, and they can be as low-tech or as high-tech as needed. From an image perspective, AxeMen set the industry back 20 years. It was a bunch of guys yelling at each other, using unsafe practices, trampling all over everything and clearcutting – if you’re in the industry and you’re proud of what you do, it really was not a good depiction.
SDM: What is a good example, then, of what people are really like on the professional level?
Phelps: I would say that you only have to look at the companies and individuals associated with the Forrest Resource Association, Tree Care Industry Association and International Society of Arboriculture to find individuals who truly represent professionals in the logging and tree care industries.
STIHL TIMBERSPORTS is a sport with its roots in the logging industry. It is definitely a passion sport. People find it and love it and they want to be the best at it, but at the same time, there is just so much camaraderie and good sportsmanship. One year, we were in the finals – the finals! And this gentleman’s equipment broke. The person he was competing against went backstage, grabbed some spare parts and helped him fix his equipment so he could continue to compete. Now, to be clear, that guy could have taken the forfeit and won but he said he wanted to go head to head – he didn’t want to win because of something that was not his competitor’s fault. I’ve seen some amazing things and that is just one of them.