In mid-March, the 2020 Fishers of Men Stren Team Series National Championship was underway at Venetian Gardens on the Harris Chain of Lakes in Lake County, Florida. There were doubts and questions from outsiders, but organizers elected to move forward, becoming one of the final national sports events to do so.
In light of its open-door policy, Florida quickly became a safe landing spot for sports events that needed to host – and wanted favorable conditions and excellent facilities. Event owners and participants also wanted the sense of normalcy that Florida was providing.
Today, fishing tournaments, wakeboarding championships, standup paddle board competitions, boat racing and other water sports events are benefitting from a degree of natural, built-in safety and health that many other sports can’t yet offer; as a result, they have been among the first to rebook or reschedule events. And the destinations open to hosting them are reaping the benefits of being a key player in the movement to help the sports tourism economy rebound.
“We’re trying to slowly get back to business,” says Peter Cranis, executive director of Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism in Cocoa, located about 80 miles east of Lake County on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and renowned for its fishing and surfing opportunities. “With a little more experience under everyone’s belt, and a little more time to plan, I think most of the events that were canceled or postponed can still occur — with guidelines in place to make sure everybody is safe.”
The National Kidney Foundation Rich Salick Surf Festival, a weeklong event in Cocoa Beach featuring entertainment, surfing competitions, food and music originally slated for Labor Day weekend, was pushed back to October 10-12.
Florida’s Space Coast also hosted the 2020 Central Florida Shootout in early July, an inshore and offshore fishing tournament with two weigh-in locations, one at Sunrise Marina in Port Canaveral and the other at Capt Hirams Resort in Sebastian. The awards ceremony was held outdoors, and facemasks were encouraged.
Water sports events in other states returned over the summer, too, providing a much-needed boost for the communities hosting them. It has also encouraged creative strategies that result in smart tourism.
“We’re not the only destination feeling this pinch,” says Steve Clenney, manager of sports development for Visit Lake in Lake County, Florida. “But this has given us an opportunity to continue connecting with our local partners and our local venues, helping them as best we can and working with them to see how we can better serve them now and in the next phase, whatever that may be.”
For those seeking to encourage participants to get back out on the water, eight destinations are not just ready to help, they’re welcoming in the participants and explaining all the benefits their venues can provide.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
The Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Gulf Shores, offers prime water for activities such as saltwater fishing and speedboat races, while the brackish back bays make for ideal inshore fishing competitions as well as paddle boarding and kayaking opportunities, according to Michelle Russ, director of sales for the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission.
The annual Flora-Bama’s Gulf Coast Paddle Championship is one of the most popular activities.
“The waterways are among our greatest assets,” Russ says. “Fortunately, water-based activities have sustained minimal impact in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach from COVID-19, due to their nature of providing fresh-air fun. We expect water-related tourism to continue to grow through 2020 and beyond, as many travelers are more comfortable with outdoor fun than indoor activities and attractions during this time of uncertainty and heightened health and wellness concerns.”
Gulf Shores has also become known for its white sand beaches, having hosted coastal events, such as the NCAA Women’s Beach Volleyball Championship. And, it is noted, the Gulf Shores/Orange Beach area also has multitudinous diversions off the water, including restaurants, shopping, amusements and recreation, for adult and youth athletes.
Lake County, Florida
Home to the City of Clermont, known as the “Choice of Champions” for the variety of water sports and endurance events it hosts, Lake County offers locations for everything from the USA Canoe/Kayak Sprint National Championships (Clermont Waterfront Park) to the Fishing League Worldwide College Fishing National Championship (Venetian Gardens).
The four-event 2020 Hydro-Turf US HydroDrag Nationals/Hydro-Turf HydroDrag World Championships series (essentially drag racing on personal watercraft) was postponed from spring and early summer at Wooten Park in Tavares to late summer and early fall. The event organizer received the go-ahead in July from City of Tavares officials to allow spectators to attend, and the destination is ready to welcome back its visitors.
“The organizer is following all CDC guidelines and encouraging all visitors, athletes and spectators to, as well,” says Steve Clenney. “The event is spread out along the waterfront of Tavares, so there is plenty of room for visitors to distance from others and see the action.”
Clenney adds that Lake County also would like to attract more rowing, waterskiing and motorized surfing events.
Florida’s Space Coast
Occupying 72 miles of coastline in Brevard County, the region known as Florida’s Space Coast offers not only the Atlantic Ocean but the intracoastal waterways of the Indian River Lagoon, the Banana River and the St. Johns River, all ideal for fishing, standup paddle boarding and kayaking.
In what Peter Cranis calls a big win for the region “at a time when we really needed it,” the Space Coast was able to secure the 2020 Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympic Games on short notice. Originally scheduled for Hampton Roads, Virginia, the Games were relocated to the Brevard County and took place in late July and early August.
Safety measures included limiting spectators, offering hand-sanitizing stations, requiring masks, and implementing temperature checks and testing protocols. The Games’ standup paddle boarding competition took place at Paddling Paradise in Palm Bay.
Florida’s Space Coast also hosts the Ron Jon Beach ’N Boards Fest in spring with men’s and women’s surfing competitions and other activities that celebrate the beach lifestyle. That event will return in March 2021. Other events returning next year include the Eastern Surfing Association’s Southeast Regional Championships, the Easter Surf Contest and the East Coast Dog Surfing Championships (all rescheduled for April 2021), plus the Thunder on Cocoa Beach Superboat races (now set for May 2021).
“In the era of social distancing, we’d like to attract some more solo water sports to the area, like kiteboarding and standup paddleboard races,” Cranis adds.
Wilmington and Beaches, North Carolina
Wilmington, another Atlantic Coast city, is nestled between the renowned Cape Fear River, the Intercoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. Known collectively as Wilmington and Beaches, the region offers a natural setting for a variety of water sports and features three island beaches (Carolina, Kure and Wrightsville).
Wrightsville Beach is expected to host the ICarolina Cup Paddle Race in November. Men’s Journal called the beach “North Carolina’s most naturally gifted watersport hub,” thanks to its crystalline water and spacious coastline.
“We believe smaller markets like Wilmington are going to be well positioned to fill the demand moving forward, as many groups will be looking for less crowded destinations,” says John Sneed, vice president of sales and services for the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The Wilmington area also has a variety of outdoor sports venues and activities, which we think will fulfill people’s desire to spend time in natural, open spaces.”
Lake Erie and the five square miles of Presque Isle Bay are Erie’s two premier water sports venues. Being protected from Lake Erie makes the bay well suited for fishing and water sports because it offers consistently calm waters, according to Mark Jeanneret, executive director of the Erie Sports Commission.
Erie regularly hosts regional, state and national fishing tournaments and has weclomed B.A.S.S. Nation, Fishers of Men, American Bass Anglers and Kayak Bass Fishing events. Additionally, powerboating, sailing and personal watercraft events are popular draws, and hydroflight competitions have seen participants use the power of water to send themselves through the air at extreme speeds and soaring heights to perform intricate stunts and maneuvers.
“Because the bay is protected, we’re also regularly pursuing water sports like paddle boarding, kayaking and kayak fishing, and water polo,” Jeanneret says. “As [COVID-19] regulations continue to change, we believe the opportunity to enjoy our natural waterfront will remain a popular option.”
South Padre Island, Texas
Next summer will be a busy one for South Padre Island, a mecca for year-round water sports that include windsurfing, kiteboarding, kayaking, spearfishing, diving, standup paddle boarding and many other activities for participants of all experience levels.
The USLA National Lifeguard Championships, the Pro Watercross National Championship Tour and the Texas International Fishing Tournament (the state’s largest saltwater fishing competition), all originally scheduled for 2020, are on the island’s calendar for 2021. And according to Ed Caum, executive director of the City of South Padre Island Convention & Visitors Bureau, that’s only the beginning.
“We’re currently working on open-water swimming competitions during the fall months,” he says. “With a beach break that has quite reliable surf and offshore winds from the west and southwest, South Padre Island is also interested in hosting surfing competitions. During the fall and winter months, the winds are exceptional for wind sport competition.”
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Further up the Atlantic Coast sits Virginia Beach, which is surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay and countless waterways that make the destination one of the best beach locales in the country, according to Nancy Helman, director of sports marketing for the City of Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“The Virginia Beach Oceanfront is the ideal place for sand soccer, beach volleyball, surfing, ocean swimming and USA Ultimate Beach Division,” she says, adding that the area has hosted such high-profile events as the United States Lifesaving Association’s National Lifeguard Championships and the East Coast Surfing Championships. “The ECSC has been taking in place in Virginia Beach since 1963, making it the second-longest continuously run surfing contest in the world.”
Helman also notes that the CVB’s sports marketing team would like to bring even more water sports competitions to the area, including standup paddle boarding, surfing, open-water swimming and triathlons.
Snohomish County, Washington
Water sports options are plentiful in Snohomish County, tucked into the northwest corner of Washington near the Canada border.
Lake Stevens, the largest and deepest natural lake in the county, is perfect for rowing, according to Tammy Dunn, executive director of the Snohomish County Sports Commission, while Lake Tye hosted the World Wake Association’s Wakeboard National Championships in 2018 and 2019. Silver Lake in Everett, meanwhile, hosts annual hydroplane and runabout races sponsored by the Seattle Outboard Association. And while many events did not run in the spring of 2020, Dunn is optimistic.
“There’s so much uncertainty right now, but I remain positive and hopeful that events like those will return,” Dunn says. “I think the best thing to do right now is to continue talking with event organizers — water sports and others — just to see how everybody is doing. We all need to be flexible because it’s a fluid situation. And I think we’ll all come out stronger and better for it.” SDM