Lumberjack Sports Events
30 Apr, 2009By: Evan Shoemake
Plenty of Space and Advanced Planning Required
Paul Bunyan may be the quintessential image of a lumberjack, but today's lumberjacks and "jills" are a unique blend of athlete and crafts person. Taking what has been a trade for decades and combining it with athletic competition presented in an explosive and awe-inspiring format has created a mainstream event market, Lumberjack Sports.
Lumberjack Sports evolved from competitions between lumberjacks in lumber camps trying to crown the best lumberjack. Considered by many as the first "extreme sport," lumberjacking includes a range of activities that utilize an axe, chainsaw, and sheer human strength to saw through pieces of lumber as well as race up and down trees, and run on top of floating trees. Most competitions vary in the events included, some limiting the competition to six, some expanding the list to include many more disciplines.
There are lumberjacking events across the country spanning from early Spring through the beginning of Autumn. While some have a competition element, such as the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, they are mostly exhibitions. There are also several lumberjack organizations, like the American Lumberjacks Association (ALA), but there is currently no governing body for the sport. ALA sanctions various competitions and they provide an extensive list of rules that other organizations have adopted or adapted to suit their needs.
Lumberjack Sports is primarily concentrated in the Pacific North West, Northern Midwest and Northeast regions of the country. The traditions of logging in these areas makes them ideal locations for competitions by capitalizing on the ability to draw competitors and spectators as well as the accessibility of materials. The sport, however, does have a national and global range and many colleges even have lumberjack teams or clubs that participate in their own competitions.
Today's competitors are typically working professionals including doctors, teachers, and attorneys. While they aren't year-round, full-time competitors, these men and women are athletes who perform with precision, speed and agility. Mike Forrester, competitive lumberjack and American Lumberjacks Association Board member says, "It's not as easy as it looks; the people on TV make it look easy because they're so good. It's a true sport, it takes lots of practice."
Athletes are drawn to the sport because they love it, not because they make lots of money or become superstars. Competitions are driven by the connection between athlete and spectator. Athletes thrive on the energy of the crowds and want the chance to interact with and educate spectators. According to Roger Phelps, promotional communications manager for STIHL Inc. and producer of the STIHL® TIMBERSPORTS® Series, "The interplay between competitors and audience makes or breaks the event."
Since Lumberjack Sports is a secondary outlet for competitors, it must be worth their while to travel to competitions. Forrester says, "Everybody wants to go, but is it feasible, can competitors afford to go? A lot of people won't go if it's poor wood quality because equipment costs too much to get damaged. Finally, most competitors don't like to go if there are only a few people watching because we do it to entertain people as well as compete."
Forest for the Trees
One of the premier sponsors of Lumberjack Sports competitions and contributors to its growth and popularity, STIHL created the STIHL® TIMBERSPORTS® Series in conjunction with ESPN in 1985 and is seen as the icon in the industry. The Series elevated the sport due to the ESPN broadcasts which draws approximately 12 million viewers worldwide. STIHL sponsors events across the country and internationally, including Chippewa Valley, Wisconsin and Columbus, Georgia, which draw between 10,000 and 15,000 people, as well as Kilkenny, Ireland, host of the 2009 STIHL® TIMBERSPORTS® World Championships. "We want a certain level of energy and media attention for the events so we don't often go into the big cities where you're competing with major activities, but we don't go too small where we can't draw."
Lumberjack Sports competitions are often the main attraction for new or existing events. The AFLAC Outdoor Games in Columbus, Georgia were created by Warner Neal, president of Outdoor Events, and executed with support from the Columbus, GA Sports Council to feature the STIHL® TIMBERSPORTS® Series U.S. championship. The three-day event includes a professional barbecue challenge, archery challenge and several dog competitions. The event has had, according to Neal, "a positive impact economically and socially. It provides a great venue for family entertainment and the response we've gotten from business and community leaders has been overwhelmingly positive."
The STIHL® TIMBERSPORTS® Series events are essentially split between STIHL® and the host venue. Pam Haller of the Chippewa Valley CVB says, "STIHL runs the events, we run promotions. They operate their event and we give them the facility and logistics and put people in the stands." Merri Sherman of the Columbus Sports Council adds, "We coordinate each individual group and cater to their needs. We have city electricians on site for the barbecue and production equipment and water hook-ups have to be on site for water to fill the pools."
Areas with a rich lumberjacking heritage often make the lumberjacking competition the major activity as is the case with another giant in Lumberjack Sports events, the Lumberjack World Championships®. Created in 1960 in Hayward, Wisconsin, the event is one of the oldest in the country and brought recognition to Lumberjack Sports when it was shown on Wide World of Sports. According to Executive Director Diane McNamer, "The competition is like the Olympics of the sport."
Hayward, population 2,000, swells to 30,000 over the summer and McNamer capitalizes on this growth to attract approximately 12,000 people to the event. The Lumberjack World Championships® features more than 21 events where competitors vie for world records and over $50,000 in prize money, one of the largest purses in the industry. The logging heritage in the region allows this to be a stand-alone event. "We have vendors and interactive aspects on the grounds, but we really focus on the athletes and their events," says McNamer, who begins planning a year in advance. She adds, "You need a good volunteer base with people thinking about security and EMTs. You also have to feed the athletes, look at publicity and the inter-connected aspects."
One of these aspects is judging. McNamer notes, "You have to have highly skilled judges, people that understand the timber industry." In a sport where, as Phelps says "something as simple as the way the axe is ground and sharpened can mean the difference between first and last," quality judges are imperative.
Forrester agrees that good judges and timers are important as well as good field judges and people keeping track of competitor placement.
Lumberjack Sports events require space and plenty of advanced planning. For the STIHL® TIMBERSPORTS® Series, "You need open flat space, access for heavy vehicles, large cranes, 30-foot extension forklifts, flat bed trucks, access to the venue, and a good amount of electricity," says Phelps. Haller adds, "You need extra space and don't want people to feel cramped." This applies specifically to competitions in the STIHL® TIMBERSPORTS® Series because these events must accommodate everything associated with the television production of the Series as well as an interactive area for sponsors.
Competitions other than the STIHL® TIMBERSPORTS® Series may have a different set of needs. According to Forrester, "The space depends on how many events you're running. Most are set up maybe 50 yards wide to 30 to 40 yards deep but there have been some as small as 100 feet by 100 feet. You want it confined so people can see." McNamer adds that the location for the Lumberjack World Championships® "gives everyone a chance to see the events without having to move."
Competition locations typically provide the trees used for the various disciplines. These trees, if not felled from a nearby location, mean the organizers must arrange to have them brought in. McNamer says, "You can't just walk down to a local hardware store and get the trees you need. The 60 and 90 foot climbing poles came from British Columbia and the trees were 150 feet tall. They were picked by helicopter, dropped into the ocean, trimmed, de-limbed, de-barked, and it took three railroad cars to haul them across the U.S. Basically, think about getting a small forest together for a three-day event." She adds, "They have to be perfect poles; they have to have certain specifications. Everything has to be equal because competitors must have an equal playing field. Somebody better know their wood."
Though some people may believe that trees are cut down at random in any nearby forest and tossed aside to rot, this is actually not true. According to Phelps, "The white pine comes from a tree farm in Ohio because there are no beetles, it grows straight and it's going to be harvested anyway." Phelps also says, "If you're going to organize an event, you have to take into account what to do with the wood after the event. Can it be mulched, can it be put on a hiking trail or a city compost pile or can you use it for a fund raising or awareness event? We don't want to see it just being dumped in the landfill."
Veteran event organizers recommend working with a professional to plan a successful Lumberjack Sports event, at least in the first years. Neal says, "If anybody ever hesitated about hiring a firm, it's best to do it in a first-year event. It's so critical to make sure you have enough time because I've seen too many times when people say they want to do an event and try to throw it together for the first year but [do] not succeed." Haller adds, "They look easy when you see them so you think you can do it on your own, but unless you have someone with the knowledge of how it's done it's easy to underestimate the sheer logistics." Phelps adds, "No detail is too small. Organizers want to handle the big things but forget things like when the water is being delivered and, the classics, not enough trash cans or [forgetting] the portable bathrooms."
This attention to detail is what makes the STIHL® TIMBERSPORTS® Series an excellent resource. STIHL has sponsored the Series for many years and offers interested organizations a platform on which to begin. Groups interested in bringing the STIHL® TIMBERSPORTS® Series to their area, though, should be prepared. "When choosing a site we ask where are they drawing people and what's the gross base they can draw. Then we look at the media market, what can support PR, how will this show end up on camera and does it have a special story behind it," says Phelps.
Diane McNamer and the Lumberjack World Championships® also offer a great model for potential event organizers. With a 40-plus year history and an increasingly popular event, the competition provides a great model for how to produce a quality event. Elite competitors, huge crowds, professional judges, quality wood and an idyllic physical setting are all of the elements present at this competition and should also be present for any Lumberjack Sports event to be successful.