One week after she was hired as the executive director of the 2017 World Rowing Championships, Meredith Scerba traveled to Lac d’Aiguebelette, France.
The trip wasn’t a vacation.
Though she wasn’t yet on the payroll, the 2015 World Rowing Championships were taking place in Aiguebelette, and Scerba and her soon-to-be-staff at Nathan Benderson Park needed to begin scouting, planning and preparation.
For Scerba, her first taste of international rowing was educational.
Lac d’Aiguebelette is different than Benderson Park. The lake is tucked inside the Chaine de l’Epine mountain range unlike Sarasota’s wide-open course. The fans are more excited about the racing in Europe. Everything, Scerba said, felt slightly less structured and regulated.
“They’re a little bit more lax,” Scerba said. “It’s just a different mentality, European vs. the U.S. We’re a little bit more by-the-book, structured.”
A month later, Scerba officially joined the staff at Benderson. In her 11 months at the helm of the 2017 world championships, Scerba has the facility and organization on track to host its biggest event yet, and the one-year countdown begins for the 2017 World Rowing Championships this week. The infrastructure is almost entirely in place — a finish tower is the only permanent structure still to be finished before the championships begin — and visits to venues such as Lac d’Aiguebelette have given Benderson Park officials a sense of how its event will be different.
Cultural differences are what have stood out most to Scerba and Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA) event director Sarah Kupiec, who joined Scerba on that first trip, when they go abroad for scouting and research. In Europe, rowing is almost a major sport compared to its niche standing in the United States.
That explains, in part, why the U.S. hasn’t played host to the World Rowing Championships since 1994 at Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis. And why there’s a lesser level of anticipation for a championship domestically. Scerba, who comes from a marketing background and helped organize the 2007 Women’s Final Four in Cleveland, has spent much of her time organizing a three-pronged strategy to bolster attendance.
“We want to ensure we get the 40,000 visitors,” Scerba said.
Drawing the international audience is simple — most spectators coming from overseas will be friends, family or the most die-hard fans. It’s hard to reach beyond that group, so the bulk of the crowd will be domestic and local.
To attract the typical American rowing enthusiast, Scerba and her nine-person staff are organizing auxiliary regattas. The championship competition is slated to begin on a Sunday, so Benderson has a youth regatta scheduled for the prior Friday and Saturday. The hope is youth rowers will be incentivised by a noteworthy competition to stay for a portion of the world championships.
“If they know their kid is getting on that course and being able to watch elite athletes who they aspire to be, or be able to be on that course in front of college coaches or different international teams, darn straight, mom and dad are packing up the whole family and coming down,” Scerba said.
That leaves the local audience from Bradenton and Sarasota, where rowing is growing in popularity, but still far from mainstream. Rowing works well as a casual spectator sport, though, and Benderson is aiming for a festival-type atmosphere to accompany the athletic competition with an emphasis toward catering to local culture. A fan fest will be set up throughout the competition and be accompanied by daily exhibitions. One day could be a boat show or vintage car show. Another day could be centered around fishing or a farmer’s market.
“You draw in your local community through things that they are interested in, and then world-class rowing just happens to be going on over there,” Scerba said.
Organizers expect a long-term benefit, as well. Rowing is growing among a younger demographic in Manatee and Sarasota counties with the rising prominence of clubs such as Sarasota Crew and Sarasota Scullers. But the level of exposure for the even more casual rower hasn’t taken off yet. SANCA officials hope the World Rowing Championships could create a similar bump to the sport locally that the Olympics have on an international level. When the sport spends a week in the front of the area’s collective attention next year, organizers hopes interest will spike.
“A lot of people don’t realize you can come out and rent a boat,” Kupiec said. “It’s your park. Come out and use it.”
The rest of the event’s planning is about providing short-term facilities while the event is in Sarasota. The facility will bring in a temporary covered grandstand for the championships, in accordance with International Rowing Federation guidelines, and will provide tents for all of the 60 expected nations in an athlete’s village. An outside security staff will be hired to oversee the event and smaller duties, such as ushering and ticket-taking, will be handled by a staff of 2,000 volunteers.
The tent setup is one of the most noticeable differences between Sarasota’s world championship and one abroad. In France, each nation provided their own tent, complete with whatever amenities they brought. That approach wasn’t going to work in Sarasota, where Scerba wants everything to be more regulated. Tents will range in size depending on how many athletes each country brings, and the facility will rent out other amenities, such as refrigerators, to teams who want a more extravagant setup. The power supply will also be provided by Benderson.
And the tents tie in to one of the biggest issues with playing host to the World Rowing Championships in Florida in September: The weather is unpredictable. Organizers want to provide tents able to withstand the sort of storms that can tear through Florida during the end of summer and beginning of fall. Much of the next year will be spent developing contingency plans for something as predictable as a pop-up storm to the unlikely event of a chemical spill on Interstate 75, which overlooks the park.
“Even though it has nothing to do with us, it affects our competition,” Scerba said. “There’s a lot of factors at play that we have to start thinking proactive about.”