With professional NFL, MLB and NFL teams, Oakland, California, is a notable sports town. But it’s never really been known as a destination for professional rowing—until now.
Situated along the San Francisco Bay, about 80 miles south of the state capital, Oakland recently hosted the U.S. Rowing Master National Championships, a prestigious four-day event (Aug. 16-19) that attracted many of the country’s top rowers.
While Oakland has several local rowing clubs and has hosted regional events, it had been 18 years since the city hosted the Masters National Championships. Moreover, this was the first time the championships had been held on the west coast since 2008.
“This is a big event for us,” says Rhanee Palma, vice president of sales and services with Visit Oakland.
Officials with the tourism organization landed the championships after they connected with U.S. Rowing at Connect Sports in 2016.
Palma said that U.S. Rowing traditionally prefers to hold events in rural areas of the Midwest, East Coast and Southern United States, where there’s plenty of wide open spaces for boaters to navigate.
Oakland had the heart-shaped Lake Merritt, situated just east of downtown in a bustling urban setting. In addition, even if Oakland landed the event, it would be competing with the high-profile Worlds Rowing Regatta in Sarasota, Florida, held the same weekend. Despite the fact that the odds were stacked against them, Palma said the timing was right for Visit Oakland to makes its pitch.
“When we made our bid, U.S. Rowing was going through a reorganization, with a new board and new CEO. We really took advantage of that,” she says.
Visit Oakland’s staff stressed that it could help U.S. Rowing achieve the organization’s goals, including maximizing registrations and tapping into a diverse new pool of people—and potential new rowers.
Moreover, with Oakland’s central location and thriving business community—the city is home to companies like Kaiser Permanente and Clorox—there were opportunities for more robust and varied corporate sponsorships. To sweeten the deal, Visit Oakland also brought in portable docks to make it easier for boats to come in and out of the lake. The group also worked with local company Oaklandish to help design a cool and edgy logo for the championships.
The strategic bid was a success.
Palma said they were originally expecting 900 rowers but more than 1,300 competed. The CVB was also able to secure a multi-year deal—the event will return in 2020.
In addition to the main championships on Lake Merritt, there were additional rowing events at other locations throughout the city. Producers with the city’s longstanding Art & Soul Festival managed the event’s logistics. Palma also believes that many competitors extended their stay in Oakland and made a vacation out of the trip, helping further boost hotel room stays.
“The event really unified our team and city and helped us showcase all that Oakland has to offer,” said Palma. “And I believe the second year will only get better.”