Marty and his field-trial cohorts – Bruce Mercer of Fayetteville, Georgia, Daryl Thomas, Jr. of Colquitt, Georgia and Brian Kasey from Beloit, Illinois – saw their solution through the formation of an organization that would become the Southern Bird Hunters Association. By using the SBHA as a platform, they could align with individuals and clubs throughout the U.S. to build a critical mass of like-minded field trialers inclined to consider new, exciting possibilities to attract more participants.
“As a group we weren’t satisfied with the idea that this sport has to continue declining in popularity,” Marty said about that fateful text meeting. “If we can encourage people to get into the sport and be a positive influence to anyone who brushes up against the sport, that would allow it to continue the legacy it’s enjoyed for the past 145 years into the next 145 years.”
One assumption that Marty and his friends worked under was that wingshooting is a feeder sport for field trials, and with the steady decline in bird hunters, fresh techniques and ideas were needed to grow the number of people interested in field trials.
The SBHA founding members saw that the statistics didn’t look good. Clearly, new field-trial entrants would be declining commensurate with decades of deteriorating hunting-license sales. The drop was part of a trend tracked by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which reported that the sales have been decreasing since the early 1980s from about 15 million to approximately 11.5 million in 2016.
Since the SBHA couldn’t stop the decline, that fateful text session gave rise to the idea that proactive innovation in marketing, enlistment and sponsorships could give field trials the crucial boost.
Marty looks to his own introduction to wingshooting as a springboard into field trials.
“The highlights of my life are related to wild quail hunting,” he recalled about his boyhood in Waco, Georgia. “I grew up at a time when I’d come home from school, put down my books, grab a shotgun and a dog and find eight to ten coveys every afternoon.”
It was through his early love of wingshooting that he developed an affinity for field trials at age 12, and to this day exclusively runs English pointers.
The simple notion of wingshooting as a pipeline into field trials was something that resonated with Eukanuba in becoming an SBHA sponsor.
Brett Volmert, the Pro Development Manager at Eukanuba, said the company wanted to support the SBHA because “They have growth in mind. They want to take out any uncomfortableness of getting involved in the sport. Getting involved can be a tough barrier to crack. The Southern Bird Hunters Association fit with us, because we want to help grow the sport. We want to feed the best dog athletes, and be part of the entire process, to see what we can do to be a part of that. They married up well with what we want to do.”
With Marty as the organization’s National President, SBHA leadership would find encouragement through his professional duties as President of the national construction company, W. H. Bass, Inc. in Duluth, Georgia.
While you may not be familiar with W.H. Bass, you interact with their clients every day: Chick-fil-A, Hardee’s, Love’s Travel Stops, Eckerd Drugs, AutoZone, Longhorn Steakhouse, BP/Amoco, Cracker Barrel, Bob Evans and many other national brands that have become integral to our lives.
For a company the scale of W.H. Bass, key value propositions are exceptional client service and devotion to innovation. These tenets underpin growth, client satisfaction and profitability. But based on Marty’s observations through the lens of a corporate executive, he recognized that most field-trial organizers don’t view their members and participants as customers. Although courtesy abounds at the events, great customer service is not seen as a prerequisite to the clubs’ short and long-term goals.
And when it comes to innovation, for the most part scores are still distributed via social media using cell-phone photos of hand-written and typed tallies. It’s an indicator that field-trial marketing is mired in the age of a Brownie camera snapshot. Although lean budgets are certainly a factor, the question looms: Is there a better way?
“The whole premise is that we want to reach through the cobwebs of the sport and analyze everything about it from advertising to conducting field trials to how can we make field trials the best they can possibly be, and bring more people into the sport,” he asserted.
For example, the SBHA believes field-trial organizers should extend concierge-like hospitality where it made financial and logistical sense as part of a forward-thinking marketing thrust.
To illustrate how the registration should be handled, Marty advocated that “At every touch point, like phone calls, we’ll be taking as much time as necessary to help out folks and their families. We’re spending more time to help personalize the experience of a field trial – ambassadors in the organization who can help with lodging opportunities. It’s not anything huge, but it is when somebody will actually take the time to help you think things through the process. It’s an innate desire to make it the best it can possibly be with people we come in contact with. We’re looking to get a lot of new people involved.”
That differentiated approach to field trials presented a win-win opportunity for Eukanuba. “I spoke with Marty and discussed what to do in the field trial segment, their mission and purpose, how they see it taking shape, and it really seemed to match up with what we wanted to do for the sport,” Brett said.
The SBHA vision and message has resonated with other sponsors. In addition to Eukanuba, the group’s nine sponsors include SportDOG Brand, Gundog Central and Gundog Supply. Marty talked about how companies that have traditionally supported field trials are ready to put their sponsorship dollars behind something new.
Thanks to sponsor uptake and in-kind donations, the SBHA can offer free memberships to clubs and individuals without sacrificing the quality of their events. He expects to recruit “only the highest caliber judges” who will oversee walking and riding trials awarding above-average prizes and purses.
Likewise, the SBHA will employ more computer power and drone footage than ever before to spread the sport’s appeal.
“Our mission is rejuvenating the sport, of resetting the focus on all that’s good about the field trials,” Marty said. “We’re still competitive about events, but we’re tweaking the focus off the greedy side of competition. This sport is more than the trophy. It’s an incredible experience. Just the community, and the people you meet, how to enjoy a common interest together. It hasn’t been hard to sell sponsors on that vision.”
Today, the SBHA has nearly 30 club members in its six regions that span from Texas to North Dakota to Pennsylvania and Florida. Looking at the map on their web site, you’ll see the future of field trials in America.