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SC lake communities use pro bass fishing tournaments to draw tourists, investment

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Lake Murray Forrest Wood Cup

More than 68,000 anglers and spectators in 2017 gathered at the Columbia Convention Center for the weighing of fish caught on nearby Lake Murray during the Fishing League Worldwide Forrest Wood Cup.

COLUMBIA — The first time the World Bass Fishing Championship comes to the United States, it will be on Lake Murray outside South Carolina's capital city.

The USA Bass Team, made up of pro anglers from various tournament circuits, will host the November 2020 event, bringing 25 international teams for eight days of Palmetto State fishing.

In recent years, major fishing tournaments have drawn visitors to developing lakeside communities around South Carolina, and their marketing value has grown them into an opportunity regional tourism organizations chase.

“I think they bring us the most national exposure,” said Miriam Atria, president of the Capital City/Lake Murray Country regional tourism organization.

After hosting the championship event for the Fishing League Worldwide pro fishing circuit in 2017, business owners around the self-proclaimed "Jewel of South Carolina" were immediately contacting her asking that they bid to bring the event back, she said.

Total economic impact for the 2017 event was reported to be about $30 million. When the event came in 2014, the total economic impact was reported around $24 million.

USA Bass Team Manager John Knight said they think their event will have an impact similar to other large tournament events.

“It gets our name out, it gets the region's name out," Knight said. "It gives us a chance to talk about Lake Murray as a vacation destination, and it allows us to extend our message.”

When it comes to deciding which fishing tournaments to pursue, Lake Murray is less focused on the qualifying events. Instead, the goal is the end of a tournament series finale or championship event. These showcases come with more regional and national publicity and more television exposure where Lake Murray Country can insert its own ads, Atria said.

“We want the biggest audience we can get,” she added.

Lake Murray works with five different tournament circuits. The first finale-type event Lake Murray lured was a Bassmasters Elite tournament in 2008. Since then, they’ve had several with Fishing League Worldwide, including that organization's 2017 Forrest Wood Cup that drew more than 68,000 spectators to the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.

“Lake Murray is where I started fishing as a teenager,” said Davy Hite, a former professional fisherman of 23 years and South Carolina native who's now a commentator for Bassmaster events.

“So, obviously it’s near and dear to my heart because it was my training ground,” he added.

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A Bassmaster Elite tournament hasn’t been to Lake Murray since 2011, an event where Hite finished second. B.A.S.S., the longest-standing fishing organization and arguably the largest with 500,000 members, hosts the tournament series and other programming, airing it on ESPN2 each weekend.

“With that exposure and the audience you have, it brings a lot of attention to the community,” Hite said.

The Bassmaster Classic is what many equate to the Super Bowl of pro fishing. Most recently 153,800 people were counted among event attendees in Knoxville, Tenn., breaking the 143,000-attendee record set the previous year on South Carolina's Lake Hartwell.

Santee Cooper lakes Marion and Moultrie will host a Bassmaster Elite and is known as a better fishery, Hite said, but haven’t had the opportunity to host a Classic, as they’re surrounded by mostly small towns. Greenville has managed to land three Classics in a decade.

“We look at this tournament as one of our premier events,” said Robin Wright, senior sales manager for Visit Greenville. The tournament occupies the convention center for an entire week and fills 5,000 hotel rooms.

With no lake of its own, Greenville partners with Anderson County, providing the necessary conference facilities, said Neil Paul, executive director of Visit Anderson. He said the partners have already submitted bids to host another Classic on Lake Hartwell within the next few years.

“To me, the lake is the most tremendous asset in Anderson County,” said Paul, and one that was underutilized five years ago.

After the Classic came, more businesses moved in around the lake to take advantage of its growing popularity. A Palmetto Boat Center dealership moved to Anderson from another county and Big Water Marina was bought by an Anderson County family and renovated, Paul said.

Paul said Anderson County developed Green Pond Landing and Event Center on the lake with the vision of marketing Lake Hartwell heavily for fishing tournaments. From those tournaments, they've picked up residual tourism from people traveling to fish where the pros fish.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 10.5 million people used Lake Hartwell in 2018. By comparison, Great Smoky Mountains National Park sees 12 million visitors annually.

“So, obviously, what we’ve done has worked to this point,” Paul said.

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