A national shooting competition will host its championships at the Talladega Civilian Marksmanship Program range for three more years, bringing an estimated 700 competitors to the Talladega and Calhoun county area each April through 2023.
The Steel Challenge Shooting Association has hosted its national finals at the CMP range every April for the last three years, during which time the fast shooting contest — a test of speed and accuracy under pressure — has drawn in more and more people.
Even COVID-19 didn’t slow the momentum, according to Mike Foley, head of Steel Challenge and president of the United States Practical Shooting Association. The contest drew 641 competitors in its first year, and 645 last year.
“We had space for 704 this year, and within two hours of opening we had 750 registrations,” Foley recalled in a phone call late last week.
The competition turned out to have 690 participants, more than prior years in spite of the pandemic. People who called to cancel their registration explained that the decision had been tied to COVID, Foley said. He plans to have a bigger, better turnout next year, pandemic or not.
“I’m not going to rest until we hit 700,” Foley said. “That’s super important to me.”
The competition will return April 14-18, tasking marksmen with hitting groups of targets at varying ranges with their pistols. Each target group is fired on for five rounds, and the top four times are kept. Shooters can keep track of their scores in an app, Foley said, to compare scores against not only their age group but the very best competitors at Steel Challenge. The youngest competitor Foley has seen was 10, and the oldest was “north of 80,” he said.
“In our sport you can not only shoot the same course as the best in the nation, but you can be measured with them,” Foley said.
The influx of competitors and their families can affect the local economy, as out-of-town money floods into businesses. People staying at hotels in Talladega and Oxford will also want to get food from nearby restaurants and fill up their gas tanks near the highway.
Foley said the shooting community is tight-knit and tournament participants are likely to hang out after hours.
“You can’t find a restaurant in Anniston, Oxford or Pell City that isn’t full of competitors and their parents, siblings, spouses, coaches, sponsors and vendors,” Foley said. “They really do flood the area, and actually it’s quite hard to get a reservation at some places without a wait because all of the people that you know are already there.”
The pandemic has caused a drop in traveling tournament activity over the last several months, in turn leading to a drop in revenue that cities the size of Oxford or Talladega can feel more easily than bigger markets, like Atlanta or Birmingham, said Brent Cunningham, head of the marketing and management school at Jacksonville State University.
Sporting events such as professional football or baseball games can still maintain the bottom line of their operating organizations without fans packing arena seats, thanks to sponsorships and advertising time sold during broadcasts, Cunningham said. But smaller events, like traveling tournaments or even high school sports, rely on ticket and concessions sales to stay profitable.
Tournament organizers are likely to change how their events operate to cater to fans’ needs during the pandemic, Cunningham said, whether in terms of the facilities organizers can provide or the way the friends and families of competitors can watch the events play out.
“They’re going to do everything they can to keep their fans and keep that event alive,” Cunningham said.
‘A breath of fresh air’
This year has been the strongest the Talladega CMP range has had since it opened in 2016, said Greg Raines, head of business development there.
More than 3,000 people visit the 500-acre marksmanship park each month, Raines said, and the majority of them are from farther than 60 miles outside Talladega County.
“We’re known throughout the shooting community nationally, and we’re trying to get the park more known in central Alabama,” Raines said. “A lot of local people didn’t know we were here, but over the past six months of surveys we’re starting to see more of a turn.”
Last week the range hosted 95 members of A Girl and a Gun, a women’s shooting club from Texas, who didn’t seem to mind the castoff rain from remnants of Hurricane Delta, Raines said. Some businesses host corporate conferences there; a national realty group with ties to the area had more than 100 people gather to talk business and squeeze off rounds recently. A state assembly of general contractors has brought in about 40 people, Raines said, and at least one dental group talked teeth before taking to the range.
A bachelor party spent part of the groom’s day at the range before heading off to eat and drink elsewhere — part of the CMP’s mission is teaching responsible firearm use, Raines said, including an array of safety and ownership courses for all, from beginners to experts.
“In the last year, gun sales have gone through the roof, and attendance in training courses has gone through the roof,” Raines said. “There are so many gun owners out there who have to come out and learn to use their gun safely.”
Raines agreed with Foley’s assessment that the Steel Challenge would encourage local tourism and give the economy a boost. Local businesses can sponsor programs at the CMP for anywhere from $100 to $1,500, which also puts their name on CMP materials for a year, Raines said. Those businesses are often at the forefront when visitors ask where to eat, drink or sleep.
The Steel Challenge is one of many shooting competitions at the range; next month, the CMP hosts its own “Talladega 600” from Nov. 16 to 22, a week of events for pistol, rifle and shotgun enthusiasts. Raines said he intends to see the monthly visitor count top 4,000 as more locals realize that the range is right nearby.
Meanwhile, he said, the events should give people from all over the country a chance to do something positive with their time, and even get outside for a while.
“We need a breath of fresh air in this ‘2020, COVID pandemic’-world,” Raines said.