OCEAN CITY — In the weeks leading up to the White Marlin Open, the landline at event founder and lead organizer Jim Motsko’s house never stops ringing. See, the largest and richest billfish tournament in the world is still run out of a humble house in downtown Ocean City by the man who drummed up the idea over four decades ago.
Yet, in that time, the White Marlin Open has grown from a singular dream based around Motsko’s love of fishing, to quite literally, one of the world’s most prestigious fishing tournaments and one of the resort’s most important special events. Yet, despite the grandiose scale of what it has become, the White Marlin Open is still very much a “family affair” and Motsko sat down with The Dispatch to talk about the growth of the iconic tournament, its impact on the community and its future.
Q: The first White Marlin Open was 1974. There were 54 boats, and I think the top prize was $20,000. Now as we enter the White Marlin Open’s 43rd year, there are 300 to 400 boats competing and the prize money is over $4 million. For you, leading up to each tournament, are you able to stop and think about how far this tournament has come and how much it has grown over four decades?
A: It seems every year it becomes more detailed and there are more things to do. A lot of it centers around the technology. You know, this new technology that we never had 30 years ago, now, you have to have it. I often tell my daughters, “I just want to have a fishing tournament.” I don’t care about the social media, although I do know it’s important, as [the tournament] has grown, the peripheral things have grown so much. It used to be we had the tournament at Harbour Island, it was Ship’s Cafe then, a few people would show up, the participants, a few spectators, but now that’s all changed.
We have thousands of people coming each day to Harbour Island and it has absolutely nothing to do with me promoting the tournament but I still have to deal with all the stuff that’s going around. My job is to get boats to fish. If we don’t have the boats, we don’t have a tournament, so that’s what I do for a living, amongst other things, is to get as many boats as we can get.
Q: Is there a difference now than at the beginning, when you tried to get boats to fish, but you also tried to get folks to come and experience something that has become, over the past 40 plus years, something that people have embraced as one of the can’t miss moments of the summer. Do you worry more now about just getting boats in the tournament because you know the crowds are going to be there?
A: I don’t worry about the crowds or attracting the crowds. They are coming whether I do anything or not. If we have a tournament, they are coming. I feel my most important thing is to run a legit and good, great tournament and have a lot of boats. The other stuff just happens, and we just have to deal with it, and that takes a lot of our time, also. But, getting the boats is still my major priority.
Q: Now that the tournament has grown and is considered the largest and the richest billfish tournament in the world, I would imagine that in the angler community, there is a lot of prestige attached to being a part of this particular tournament. So, how does one get more anglers to come? How do you seek out that very small niche group of amateur or professional anglers looking for that chance at glory?
A: I’m a promoter. I’m on the road a lot when I fish tournaments in this country or other countries, I bring my White Marlin Open brochures, my decals, my shirts. When I’m fishing on a boat with somebody else, it comes up more than once. We start working on it, literally, in October after the tournament is over. We start working on our sponsors. We do our big mail out in January, and I go on the road in South Florida in March and hit every marina and tackle shop from Stuart, Fla. to Key West. I also go on the road in June from, literally, Morehead City, N.C. to Staten Island. I go to every marina and tackle shop and everything that looks “fishy” along the coast. Anywhere where there’s boats, I use Google Earth, finding out where marinas are with boats with outriggers, we go to those places and put out brochures and posters and try to talk to the various captains and boat owners. It’s a promotion.
Q: So, it’s still a heavy ground game for you?
A: Yes it is, most definitely. I never want to go back and say, ‘I should have done this, I did it last year, and I didn’t do it this year.’ If it worked last year, I gotta do that and then some. Excuse me. [phone rings]
Q: You mentioned the focus on the anglers rather than the spectators, but this year, it’s very notable, because there is a new thing that is focused primarily on the spectators, and that’s these two large LED screens. As more people flood to Harbour Island to cram in and get a glimpse of what is happening, talk about the decision to bring in these big screens and explain how you hope they will enhance the experience?
A: Originally, before the Internet is what it is now, about 15 or 20 years ago, we tried because at Harbour Island a lot of spectators like to come and see the fish. Unfortunately, it’s not like stadium seating with tiers, so unless you are in the front rows, you can’t really see anything, especially if you are a short person, and I am one of them.
I met with Paul Williams from Williams TV in Berlin years ago and he brought us some TV’s to hook up in the Reel Inn and outside, but back then, the technology wasn’t good enough that you could see anything during the daylight hours. But, I wanted people to see what was going on, and not just the people in the front rows. We tried that approach a couple of years, but it just didn’t seem to cut it. So, I thought, maybe the next step is a big Jumbotron. But, the big ones they have in ballparks, they are almost too big and high-tech and it takes up a lot of space and we don’t have that at Harbour Island. We are crammed in as it is right now. In fact, it almost feels as though we’ve outgrown it.
Q: Well, that’s something that we’ve heard a lot of in the past five to 10 years, as people wonder, “will the White Marlin Open always be at Harbour Island?” There are bigger spaces in close proximity to where we are that could potentially bring more spectators and boats and potentially grow the tournament. So, is that a viable possibility for you?
A: I look at it from a couple of different perspectives: Number one, if it isn’t broke, don’t try to fix it. Number two, it is Ocean City, Md, and I live here and I’m proud of that. Although, we have thought about it lots of times, but unless the powers that be there make it miserable for me, I’m okay. But, if it gets to a point where it’s more hassle than anything else, I’d be stupid to say, “no, I’m here forever.”
We work on a lease period with Harbour Island, and to be very honest, we are working on a renewal lease for 2017. This is my last year under this lease agreement, and we are working on it, let’s just put it that way. We hope to make it work, unless I get forced to move. Let’s just leave it at that.
Q: We were talking about going out and getting the boats. Tell me about how many boats are registered for this year’s tournament.
A: Right now [Tuesday morning], we’ve got 101 registered boats, and that’s a little bit ahead of schedule because, usually, people wait until the last day or two days before the tournament to register. Primarily, it’s the Sunday before the tournament that we get crushed. People wait all day in line to enter.
Q: Talk about that day for you and your family.
A: I hate it. It’s the worst day of my life. [Laughs jokingly] I don’t mean it that way, but it’s a grind. Once the tournament hits, it all goes along smoothly. But, if you don’t have all your I’s dotted and your T’s crossed before that date, you are going to have issues. That last day is the hard part. The five weeks that lead up to this are like a pimple: It just comes to a head, and then pow, and then it goes away after a while. It grinds us down, all of us, my two daughters and myself. There’s no rest until two weeks after the tournament.
It’s a lot of work and a lot of pressure when you are talking $4 million and thousands of people every day, there’s a whole lot of things that you have to address. I almost can’t wait until it’s over, but it’s very exciting and very rewarding when we hit our quotas or what we like to hit.
Q: You mention that stress. Last year, I believe on the first day of the tournament, that stress level rose even further as the WMO website was hacked. There were reports, and I believe the WMO statement said that it was a former employee who hacked the website and shut everything down.
A: What was put on the website, I didn’t approve of what was put on there. I can’t say for sure, and I don’t want to say for sure, but it’s a coincidence that it happened, and it’s a coincidence that person called my daughter the next day, and called me the night before it was hacked to say something at midnight. So, I didn’t okay what was put out there originally.
Q: But, it was put out there…
A: Yes, it was put out there, and there’s a very good chance that it happened.
Q: I bring that up because there are always uncertainties in big scale events. There is always Murphy’s Law sort of thing, what can go wrong will go wrong, and I’m sure that you’ve been dealing with that Murphy’s Law for 43 years. But, that was a big one, and in this digital age, not only does that pose a lot of questions about what can be done to protect that website, but also about how important that online presence is for the operations of the tournament. Talk about how you have addressed that this year.
A: Well, we have switched providers. We have switched everything locally to a company that I think has a great reputation [D3Corp]. Other than that, I’m very happy with what we have right now, and I think we are in good hands. I don’t think that hacking is capable as it was before. We aren’t working with the other group right now, and I think it would be very difficult for them to do it again this year.
Q: The other thing that I find fascinating, as you look at all the other complexities of this tournament, is the fact that every person who wins has to take a lie detector test. I know you have your hand in literally every portion, every nuance, every idiosyncratic detail of this tournament. So, what’s your role in the lie detector testing?
A: I just hire the guys and we take the results back from them. Other than that, that’s it. But, they are very important. I call them our “velvet hammer.” It really does keep people honest and cuts down temptation from stretching the truth or whatever you want to call it. I am not a judge. If there’s an issue, it goes to our judges. When we do have an issue, I moderate it, but I don’t give any input. I just provide the rules, and I attend the hearing. It’s up to the three judges to decide, and whatever they decide, it’s their decision, it’s not mine.
Q: The first couple of years you lost money on the tournament. Honestly, and I know this was a passion of yours as it was your dream to create a fishing tournament, but did you ever, in those first few years, think, “I shouldn’t be doing this?”
A: No, not at all. The Ocean City Marlin Club used to have their annual tournament in the third week in September and that was set up to extend the charter season for the boats. That was basically one of the only tournaments around. In their prime, I think they had 80 boats. Our first year, we were in the mid-50’s. I thought that, from out of nowhere to that in one year, although it wasn’t what we wanted, I really wasn’t trying to make money.
I wanted to fish in it and win money and take what I won and go fishing. Because, it’s not cheap, and it’s not like playing checkers; it takes thousands of dollars to feed your habit, let’s just put it that way. I never thought we shouldn’t be doing this. It slowly grew year after year after year, until we hit our peak at 449 boats. Then we went down [during the Great Recession] and now we are working our way back up [last year there were 308 boats].
Q: I know you are a humble gentleman that doesn’t like to draw attention to himself or even think the words, so this question may make you feel a little uncomfortable. But, this tournament, over the past four decades, many would say this is one of the most successful special events held in this town and has helped it grow and bring more spotlight to it. As you look at the impact of the WMO in the past 43 years, how do you quantify the impact the White Marlin Open has had on the town of Ocean City?
A: It’s definitely been a good economic boost for Ocean City. Financially, it’s the busiest week of the year for a lot of businesses in town. It does nothing but promote Ocean City, not only during that week, but down the road. But, as far as a lot of attention, I just grew up with this, and my kids were born into this, so they don’t know any different.
My job is to just do the tournament the best way I can do it. It’s one of those things where it’s just like symbiosis where everyone kind of benefits from it. I had a gentleman last night, a bartender, told me that he wanted to thank me and it’s really nice to hear that, because they take it for granted and think that I’m just going to do it anyhow. It is work to pull off and it generates millions of dollars in revenue and it’s nice to hear people say, ‘hey, thanks.’ It makes me feel good to hear, but it doesn’t necessarily feed my ego because I don’t really have one, I just want to do the job and be successful, and keep it going.
(To listen to this entire conversation via The Dispatch’s Download, click over to www.mdcoastdispatch.com/podcasts.)