The data are clear: Fishing and boating are entwined in a way few other recreational activities are. With 70 percent of boats purchased being used to fish, and with half of all fishing being done from a boat, the relationship is indisputable.
But never in history have the industries operated as they have begun to do in the past few years, bringing a solid and united message not just to legislators, but also to consumers and entities that administer the programs boaters and anglers use. Now, in a move that will bring the two sports even closer from a consumer perspective, the National Marine Manufacturers Association has acquired the American Sportfishing Association’s fishing tackle shows, which the NMMA hopes will get it closer to the fishing and tackle industry and its consumers.
The idea is to create a more seamless process to introduce people to the boating and fishing lifestyle, for boaters and anglers to spend more time doing what they like instead of grappling with difficult procedures or access to resources, and to create a strong message focused on conservation, as well as access to lawmakers.
“I’ve been doing this for nine years,” says Frank Peterson, president of the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation. “Nine years ago it seemed everybody was kind of doing their own thing. We’re all in this together, and what I’ve learned over time is what affects one group affects the whole ecosystem. If the state closes a boat ramp, it has an effect on everyone. If fishing licensing fees increase in one state, it affects the industry.”
“Fifteen years ago, there were so many recreational fishing organizations, and they all had their own agenda,” says NMMA president Thom Dammrich. “There was very little cooperation and communication, and today we’ve got every significant fishing and boating organization working together. We’re clearly more effective in delivering a single, unified message to parks services or Congress or whoever we’re trying to reach from as broad a group as possible.”
The relationships have been growing during the past decade, and the fruits “are just becoming visible now,” says Dammrich, who has served on the ASA’s board for 15 years. “We have been aligning ourselves with the recreational fishing industry for well over a decade, recognizing that recreational fishing and access to fishing are critical to the success of boating.
“We have an extraordinarily close relationship with ASA, the Recreational Fishing Alliance and other fishing organizations through the Center for Coastal Conservation,” Dammrich says. “We are actively engaged with the Sport Fish and Boating Partnership Council, a federal advisory council to the secretary of the interior and the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. In fact, I chaired the SFBPC for four years.”
A changing world
The focused messaging has in part been attributable to the amount of data collected on anglers and boaters during the past several years. About seven years ago the RBFF was leaning on messages about catching big fish and drinking beer with buddies, Peterson says. But that has changed.
“We’ve been pushing the whole idea of families fishing together for the last six years,” Peterson says. “Our board got together and said they wanted us to focus on growth. When we segmented the population into buckets, we saw, OK, half doesn’t like the outdoors, but the other half — 142 million people — enjoy outdoor activities. We made the shift, and the proof is in the pudding. Last year, 2.4 million new people fished for the first time. Half of them were women, and another 30 percent were under 12.”
The RBFF launched a First Catch campaign on social media that has been very successful, he says. “Every time we have an image of a child showcasing that first catch, our engagement goes through the roof. It’s all user-generated content, and it hits an emotional note when people see a kid’s face after catching his or her very first fish. That is how we will engage people. Having the space to do that while the industry concentrates on keeping the folks already participating, that’s going to make us successful in the future.”
ASA president Mike Nussman recently attended a sport fishing conference in St. Petersburg Beach, Fla., that included a variety of speakers. “Most of them, if you could boil their message down, said the world is changing, and if you don’t change with it, you’re not going to make it. We’re looking at the way consumers are changing and trying to identify what we can do for fishing and boating to make it easier.”
At age 61, Nussman does not consider himself tech-savvy. However, all consumers — “even someone as ancient as me” — have gotten to the point that if we want to buy something, we want to buy it now, he says. “Amazon Prime has spoiled the living hell out of us. You can watch your football team and order Christmas presents. And not only can you order them, you can go in and do the research, based on reviews.”
Before people can go fishing or boating, they have to register a boat or get a fishing license from their state, Nussman says. “Years ago, when recreational options weren’t as plentiful, people didn’t have much of a choice,” Nussman says. “Now, if it’s too difficult to go fishing or boating, there’s a ton of other activities that make themselves far more available. The rest of the world is making it easy for the customer; if our sports don’t, we’re going to lose out.”
“We have to modernize fishing,” Peterson says. “It’s not Andy Griffith anymore.”
Fishing and boating have enough real barriers and don’t need people putting up more, Peterson says. “The industry and its stakeholders realize there needs to be a focus on people to make it easier, and they see the need for less restrictions,” he says.
For the average person making an online purchase, there are five steps from browsing to buying, Peterson says. In Florida it takes 11 steps to obtain a fishing license. “The first thing they ask is for your Social Security number,” he says. “Imagine you’re a relatively new customer going to a website, and the first thing they want is your Social Security number? I don’t know about you, but if anybody’s asking me to enter my Social Security number, I’m clicking off.”
Despite that, people are still fishing. “Fishing is still the No. 2 outdoor activity [more than 33 million annual participants ages 16-plus], and 87 million [adults] participated in boating out there,” Peterson says. “Fishing was only beaten by jogging, and they only beat us by about 800,000 people. I think the community working together is in part from the realization that each of these entities cannot exist in a vacuum anymore.”
Each facet of the industries has to focus on the three Rs: recruitment, retention and reactivation, he says. To do that, boating and fishing need to continue to be more customer-focused and easier. Boat and accessories manufacturers have to rethink things such as joystick docking, gyro stabilizers and other technology to make boating easier and more fun, Peterson says. But all parts of the industry must reimagine fishing and boating for the public.
“We are at the recruitment end,” he says. “We’re trying to build the mindset that fishing and boating are good for you and your family. We want them to think of the Take Me Fishing campaign or Discover Boating to get their information. Retention and reactivation, that’s more of a role for the states, retailers and the industry. Those entities actually capture the data.”
From digital to outdoors
Nussman and Peterson cite a study from Common Sense Media that says teens are spending nine hours a day engaged with media. That includes TV, videos and movies, playing video games, reading, listening to music and checking social media. (Common Sense Media is a nonprofit group that many parents consult to determine whether a new movie or video game is appropriate for their children.)
“We want them to participate because it’s good for families,” Peterson says. “The amount of time teens spend on electronic devices exceeds the time they sleep. I think we are on the cusp, at least I hope, of parents starting to realize that there’s also more to life than looking at screens.
“The research out there says there’s a change in the way parents are viewing family time, and I want fishing and boating to be positioned top of mind with younger parents when the trend starts to change,” Peterson says.
The White House, in partnership with federal land management agencies, launched the Every Kid in a Park initiative, Nussman points out. The immediate goal is to provide an opportunity for every fourth-grade student to experience federal public lands and waters in person during the 2015-16 school year.
To that end, the National Parks Service is giving each fourth-grader a free pass to experience the outdoors, with Disney as a premier partner.
“People are getting focused on this issue,” Nussman says. “[Outdoor equipment store] REI is shutting its retail locations on Black Friday. Think about that — a major company like REI closing because they want people to go outside. It’s an interesting marketing ploy, and it’s getting a lot of attention. But people are really starting to think — teens are spending nine hours a day on media. That’s more than you sleep or work.”
Southwick Associates has been doing studies on behalf of ASA about why anglers stop fishing in a series about fishing habits and loyalty to the sport. The latest installment, “The New Anglers — Who Are They? Why Did They Try? Will They Continue?”, produced in partnership with Responsive Management, focuses on those new to the sport or trying it again after a long hiatus. The report showed that the tranquil relaxation, in addition to the adrenaline surges, kept people hooked.
“We are learning that we’ve got tons of challenges as an industry, and we’ve got to figure out how to come to grips with those,” Nussman says. “That said, we’ve still got a great sport, and if we get people out there, we’re going to keep some there. The real challenge is getting folks outside.”
The Outdoor Foundation has found that fishing is an entry activity into several outdoor sports, Nussman says. “That’s probably because fishing can be simple and inexpensive. It can also be complicated, but you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get started with it.”
Team sport participation has declined 4 percent in the past decade because of increasing time commitments required for youth sports, an increase in the travel and intensity involved in sports, and the increasing competitive pressure in sports, which Dammrich and Peterson say could be good news for fishing and boating if the industries take advantage of it.
“Parents are spending more to stave off boredom in the summer,” Peterson says, adding that, on average, they spend $948 per child on day trips a year, and a family will drop $300 on an overnight adventure. “They are willing to shell out money if the right opportunity is presented, and increasingly they want to divert their kids from video games.”
It’s vital to keep the family part of boating and fishing on people’s minds, Peterson says, lest the industry go in the direction of golf, for example. “Our budget is about $12 million a year, and we got 46 million people [ages 6 and over] fishing and 87 million [adults] boating,” he says. “Golf spends about $41 million. It has 25 million participants, and that number’s dropping like a rock.”
Diversity is another part of the messaging, Dammrich says. “We are promoting to a younger demographic now, and anytime you talk about a younger generation, it’s automatically more diverse,” he says.
Discover Boating has become more diverse in its messages and content, profiling real families and people about time spent on the water. The RBFF targets families with children ages 6 to 12, regardless of race and culture — but does spend more time trying to reach women because they typically are the ones making the plans and decisions about how families spend free time.
Nussman thinks that because extended families don’t always live nearby anymore, there have to be new ways to reach children who might not have a grandparent or other relative to take them fishing or boating.
“I think we’ve got technology to help us. We just need to be smarter about the way we introduce people,” he says. “Now we’re starting to have enough research to do these things effectively.”
On the flip side, the RBFF is tapping grandparents to hit an emotional note about taking their grandchildren out. The mentorship that boating and fishing require — traditionally provided by parents — might not be available because more families have two parents working, Peterson says.
“Grandparents have the time, the money, and they can take some stress off two-parent working families,” he says. “And it relieves guilt they might have about not spending time with their kids when they were young. So we’re going to run some pilot programs that focus on grandparents of kids ages 6 to 12.”
Nussman is intrigued by the wildlife programs as examples of mentorship that come from outside the family, but not just as “one-shot wonders,” he says. “We as industries need to start identifying places families can go to have fun.”
The Keep Florida Fishing initiative has been conducting camps at 40 or 50 sites to get children fishing, he says. “If we think about state and federally managed areas — national wildlife areas, refuges, parks — what if we were to organize as an industry so we could introduce kids to fishing and boating activities? Events that could last all summer … with canoes, kayaks, qualified adults, put together with some fishing tackle and at the right place. Parents need to find something for kids to do in the summer. This lets them learn skills. I don’t think that’s too far-fetched for us to put together. But it’s going to take some time and some energy.”
Peterson says almost half of those who buy a fishing license for the first time will not renew the license the next year. “We’re selling an idea, a concept,” he says. “When people buy a license it becomes the state’s responsibility to engage with that customer, in my mind. So we’re pushing states to engage with people — to thank them, ask them questions, send them useful information and remind them to renew.”
A pilot program in Georgia is aimed at first-time license buyers, the most vulnerable to dropping out, Peterson says. They are targeted in groups. The first group gets a thank you from the state when they buy a license. Another group gets reminders to renew. A third group gets an incentive to renew. The fourth gets newsletters, surveys, fish stock information and access to all sorts of fishing activities going on in the state, Peterson says.
Starting in January the RBFF will compare renewal rates and track which messaging is most effective. “That will give us a really good clue as to how these various approaches are affecting renewal,” Peterson says.
In all, 2.4 million new anglers registered for licenses, and 2.5 million current anglers returned. That amounted to a 100,000-person gain across 50 states — “which is terrible, but at least it’s positive,” Peterson says. His goal is to double the 2.4 million in five years. For those who lapse, Peterson wants to implement reactivation programs.
“This is not rocket science,” he says. “The idea is the same. Engage the customer in the activity, provide information to be successful, thank them and follow up with them.”
The NMMA recently partnered with the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida, a conservation organization that has an “I do” campaign that aims to persuade anglers to get fishing licenses instead of fishing without them, Dammrich says. “That puts more money into conservation, fishery restoration and those sorts of things.
“The other thing they do is operate some kids’ fishing and conservation camps, which educate young anglers on responsible fishing practices and the importance of conservation,” Dammrich says.
The RBFF is continuing its partnership with Walt Disney World for a second year, and it reaches a new audience that way, Peterson says. “We’re resonating with them,” he says. “People respect our brand more because of that alliance. Families that have viewed our marketing and advertising who are engaged through Disney parks and media have a really high level of respect for the brand. They feel we’re generally concerned about families and healthy lifestyles. They get our message: The boat and fishing rods are just tools to bring people together.”
The NMMA says its acquisition of the rights to the ASA’s four consumer shows is a strategic move that will boost the trade group’s ability to expand the fishing component at some of its existing shows. “These are really strong shows,” says NMMA vice president Ben Wold. “I’m amazed by the amount of stuff that is sold.”
The four shows are the Chicagoland Fishing Travel and Outdoor Expo, which hosts its fourth annual event Jan. 28-31 at the Schaumburg Convention Center in Illinois; the Greater Philadelphia Outdoor Sportshow, which runs Feb. 25-28 at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center for the seventh year; the World Fishing and Outdoor Exposition, which will hold its 39th installation March 10-13 in Suffern, N.Y., at Rockland Community College; and the Saltwater Fishing Expo, which opens its 11th year at the Garden State Exhibit Center March 18-20 in Somerset, N.J.
In addition to buying the shows, the NMMA is partnering with the ASA Consumer Show Committee to help expand the fishing component at NMMA shows.
The NMMA and ASA announced a partnership in November in which the NMMA will produce a marine accessories pavilion at ICAST, the International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades, next July.
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue.