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Rethinking The Fall Fly Schedule

Time For A Change? ll

The NBRC Fall Fly, also known as the James Perry Memorial Fly, has become one of the most prestigious competition flys in our nation, thanks to the dedication and perseverance of many men over several decades. We take this time to acknowledge these men for their excellent accomplishment; for their supreme effort; and for their commitment to the NBRC and to the competitive flying of performing rollers. In what has become our national championship fly, roller men from all across the nation gather at each other's lofts under the scrutiny of a judge and the watchful eyes of their peers to showcase the results of their breeding programs; their selection of performers; and their proficiency in the training and preparation of a competition kit of rollers.

The stated objectives of the NBRC are:

a) the cultivation of the true Birmingham Roller pigeon as a performing breed

b) to stimulate interest and maintain competitions in the flying of these pigeons

c) to enhance education about the Birmingham Roller and fellowship among roller fanciers

Consistent with this vision of the NBRC founding fathers and members of today, this event is successful in focusing many of the resources of the NBRC on achieving these objectives.  As a backyard flyer, a competitive flyer, an RD, and as National Fly Director, I have had the privilege of seeing kits of performing rollers from Florida to Ohio and New York, from North Carolina to Portland and from Virginia to Denver, and to discuss the subject of the competitive flying of performance rollers with spectators, prospective new flyers, up and coming freshman flyers, and with veteran flyers of many years from many states. 

However, based on the conversations with these men and personal observations, there is a dark cloud on the horizon... there is trouble brewing. Let us take a few moments to really evaluate our progress. On the brighter side, the Fall Fly has made a profit for the first time in many years thanks to the discipline, hard work and diligence of men like Alex Hamilton, our previous Fly Director. This year, we were successful for the first time, in recruiting Hawaii as a regional participant in the competition. Large, multi-state regions are now able to split into smaller more- manageable regions as the number of flyers and participants in the fly increases. 

The day when each state conducts its own state fly for a national qualifier is, perhaps, closer than it has ever been before. And even as many new flyers emerge, there appears to be an alarming trend as large numbers of flyers with years of experience are choosing not to participate in the fly. The primary reason for non-participation in the national championship comes as no surprise to any of us. No doubt, all of us are able to identify several flyers that will not compete in the fly because of the unusual timing of this event in the fall each year.

With the season's significant increase in predation that accompanies the annual migration of hawks, roller men all across the nation are increasingly less-willing to sacrifice their best birds to the voracious appetites of migrating accipiters in order to train and compete with a kit of their best rollers in the fall of the year.  In many states, rollers are locked down September 1. In many more, they are locked down by October 1, or November 1. Very few flyers have the luxury of flying their rollers past December 1.

In this year's competition, an entire region locked down and refused to participate in the Fall Fly for this very reason. Other men who were courageous enough to fly in their regionals, locked down immediately afterwards; unwilling to risk their best birds any longer to prep and fly in the finals, giving up their position as qualifier for the finals to others with either greater numbers of quality birds, or more intestinal fortitude.

The 2006 competition saw the first 20-bird kit Champion that qualified for the finals as a direct result of the #1 qualifier locking his birds down after the Regionals due to heavy predation. The reality is, the increase in the success of local club flies and the World Cup, events held during months with more hospitable skies, are having an indirect negative impact on the NBRC Fall Fly as more and more experienced flyers choose to participate in the other competitions, rather than the Fall Fly, primarily due to the timing of those flys when they are at less risk for loosing their best birds. 

As National Fly Director, I have received more personal letters, e-mails and phone calls from men with serious concerns about the timing of this event in the fall, than any other single subject that I have dealt with...........

A second major problem with the timing of the Fall Fly and the second major reason given for not participating, is the seasonal molt; the inability of competitive flyers to showcase their best birds because they have too few flight or tail feathers, or a severe body molt...I am often asked, "Why would a national organization dedicated to stimulating interest and maintaining competitions in the flying of rollers choose the season when these birds are in the poorest physical condition of any other time of the year, for its most prestigious competition?" Large numbers of quality birds are, thus, omitted from the competitions each year, as a result of the timing of the fly.

Typically, the regionals of Fall Fly are scheduled from September 15 to November 14, and the finals from October 15th to November 30th.  The condensed scheduling of the competitive fly is positive in that it focuses the attention of the NBRC members on the event and the interest and excitement build as the judging progresses from region to region until the winner is announced.

However, the compressed schedule creates a number of inherent problems. The extended six-week period of judging the finals eliminates many quality judges from participation, and practically limits the pool of judges to men who have retired from active employment. The prolonged absence from family and work is simply too much for the average working man in the roller hobby to absorb. As a result, it is increasingly more difficult for the National Fly Director to find a judge for the finals. Interestingly, it is also becoming increasingly more difficult for regions to locate judges who are available to score the kits in their regions during the preliminaries.

In a closely related issue, the scheduling of the fly events in this compact schedule also requires that men fly on weekdays. How many times have we heard, after inviting someone to judge,  "I'd love to judge for you, but I can't afford to take the time off work." Spectators, prospective new hobbyists, and fanciers who would like to travel to the lofts of colleagues in the hobby to support them and see their birds, are all-too-often eliminated from participation when they can't get off work during weekdays.

At a time when we hear concerns expressed by veteran NBRC members, that fewer young men appear to be taking an interest in the hobby, we have practically barred the younger working roller man from participation, by structuring the most valuable marketing tool in our sport, the Fall Fly, in such a way that one has to be retired in order to participate; as a judge, through the entering of a kit of rollers, or even as a spectator.

In reality, we have plenty of younger men in the roller hobby. They just happen to be more limited in their ability to participate because of the way we have structured our keynote event of the year! So, naturally, we see less of them than we do of the retired men who have more flexibility with their time. It's not easy for most men with jobs and families to take time off during the week to participate in fly events.

Though it may not always be apparent to the average flyer, the successive back-to-back judging of regions in the finals is a scheduling nightmare for the judges, the National Fly Director, Regional Directors and flyers alike. In an era where the friendly skies are not so friendly and flights are overbooked and cancelled on a regular basis, the odds are good that flyers and RDs will be stranded at airports with no judge arriving, that men will have their kits ready for a scheduled day, only to be forced to endure the frustration of being advised that they will have to fly on a different day due to unavoidable problems with the airlines.

The resulting domino effect on the successive flights and regions scheduled to fly can be expensive as well as an exercise in frustration in attempting to keep things on schedule and minimize the angst. In most years, regional flys and final flys are being conducted at the same time in the month of October. Trying to get accurate fly reports filed and posted on the NBRC website for the general membership, from a judge who is scoring kits every day and traveling hundreds of miles a day can be an exercise in frustration and a source of chaos and confusion for the Regional Directors, as well as the member who is trying to keep track and determine who is flying, who has scored, and in which fly! 

The expenses involved with the Fall Fly, especially at the regional level, are also becoming a major deterrent to participation in the event in some cases. Most regions are subsidized, to some extent, by the personal resources of the Regional Directors. This, in turn, acts as a deterrent to others becoming an RD to begin with. The high price of gasoline and the competition for the few judges that are available, sometimes involving airline tickets, has raised the cost of the entry fees as high as $85 in some regions.

Entry fees at this level are high enough to prevent many men from entering the competition. As a result, this year one large multi-state region in particular, with these high entry fees, was not even able to muster 10 kits and was in danger of not competing and not having a qualifier in the finals. Only quick action to reduce fees and recruit judges and competitors salvaged the event for the region. 

On a final note regarding the problems with the Fall Fly that threaten individual participation, we have the frustration experienced by flyers who, often, receive short notice before their regionals, and before the finals.  It has become standard fare in the competition to see well-prepped kits come out smoking in the regionals, only to see them come up flat a couple weeks later in the finals.

Two weeks, the average span of time between the regionals and the finals, is simply not enough time to feed a kit of rollers back up to full strength and then put them on edge to perform with a good work rate, with excellent quality, and speed, in the finals. Add to this the changing weather patterns and the significant increase in winds in most regions during this time of year, and the result of a fall competition is a level of frustration among members that causes them to begin to question whether participation is really worth it.

After carefully considering all of these issues, one quickly realizes that it is time for us to begin to think out of the box for ways to deal with these problems to continue the evolution of the Fall Fly. We must consider a new concept; a major restructuring of the event. Somehow we need to structure the event in such a way that members and flyers are not forced into the polarizing dilemma that results in them being torn between their love for their birds and their commitment to competition and to the NBRC.

In a country as geographically and climatologically diverse as the US, how can we possibly establish a national championship event during any single season, that will be fair to all concerned, with regard to weather, hawk migration and the sensitivity of the birds to the molt?

Well, we can't! Pick a time of the year that works for Minnesota, and I promise you that Arizona and Texas birds will be sweltering in 100 degree temps. Conversely, pick a time when the heat and humidity are low enough so the Texas birds can finally get up in the air and New England is still likely to be under snow pack. Pick a time when the hawks have moved through Portland and I can assure you that LA will be locked down. There simply is no singular time for the scheduling of a national event that will work for all the regions.

Ask anyone who flies rollers when the best time to fly is. "Anytime but fall!" is likely to be the response you will get.  Or, "We can't fly in the spring because of the World Cup." I would like to put an end to this disillusionment right here and now. These are two separate and distinct organizations. If the NBRC determines that it is best for its members to fly in the spring, then fly in the spring it shall.  The two events can easily be piggybacked and flyers can use one to prep for the others. The kits are being conditioned during that period of time anyway. But we digress. Let's get back to the subject at hand.

Rather than all of the regions being forced to deal with their particular issues in order to participate in a competition held in the fall, why not let each region decide on the best weekend of the year to fly their regionals? The current NBRC By-laws, as they exist, already provide for the possibility of flying regionals at any time from January to Nov 15 (it's just not being promoted), so no change would be necessary. And then, within thirty days, each region would fly their finals.

The resulting potential for weekend fly events opens this sport up significantly and offers several significant advantages.

First of all, more weekend flying times will enable more roller men to participate, since there is no need to take off work in order enter and fly a kit.

Secondly, men who want to participate, as spectators will be able to travel to the lofts of friends and colleagues in the sport to support them and see their kits perform.

Thirdly, more weekend scheduling will enable greater numbers of quality judges to volunteer for scoring kits because they will not be required to take time off work. In fact, more working men will be able to participate in the event at all levels, across the board. As a result of all this increase in activity, especially on weekends, the fly will now serve as a tremendous marketing and recruiting tool to increase the membership of the NBRC.

Currently the NBRC collects $20 per kit to cover the cost of the expenses of the Fall Fly, including the airfare to send the finals judge to each region to score its qualifiers. One might argue that the expense could be much greater because the judges might have to be flown greater distances.

Possibly, but the nature of the Fall Fly, as it exists today, provides few opportunities to purchase 30-day advance tickets, which offer the greatest savings. The best the fly director can usually do is a more-expensive, two-week advanced ticket and sometimes even less. So the actual expenses for tickets should actually go up very little. Each region would still be responsible for housing and feeding the judge for the weekend of the fly, be it a regional or final, at its own expense. Of course there will also be situations where regions would need a long weekend, including a Friday, to complete their preliminary flys, but it is typically much easier for men to get a Friday off.

Restructured this way, our national championship preliminary and final judging would occur for each region, throughout the year from January to November 30. Scores posted on the NBRC website and fly reports published in each bulletin throughout the year would give judges and RDs more time for accurate and timely reporting of the events. Members can track regions and individual flyers, better, throughout the year. Predictable patterns and traditions will evolve as regions learn through trial-and-error, which month of the year best suits their needs, and roller men will come to anticipate the "Oregon fly in July" or "Texas in November", etc.

As the excitement builds all year, there will be greater attendance by spectators, at the lofts of men who are flying top kits where good scores are predicted, especially from neighboring regions. And the occasional freshman flyer will amaze everyone by taking the lead for a time, as happens within the current structure of the fly. The World Cup competition will no longer be an issue.

Regions who want to fly at the same time as the World Cup, so they can prepare their kits at the same time, will have that option. Those regions that prefer to avoid it may also do so. Then, at a pre-determined date in December, scoring will be closed and the winner announced. The determination of the National Champion in the 11-bird and 20-bird venues will become a process each year, not a single event.

Flight cancellations will no longer have a domino affect on other regions, and are most likely to affect only one region. Roller men will have plenty of notice and be able to prep their kits adequately, with much less risk to their best birds and with less of an impact from the molt. It will be conducted at a far less hectic pace, with greater enjoyment for all concerned; less stress on the flyers and the birds, and the organizing officials of the NBRC. It will become a showcase for the best kits the flyers in the NBRC can muster.

I recognize that changing tradition is not easy. We get used to routines and sometimes it easier to accept a routine, even one that doesn't work very well, than it is to accept the change in inertia required to effect a change in our routines and patterns. Such a system will, however, finally lay to rest the sour grapes and criticisms made by the roller men who step up do the best job they can in preparing their kits for our NBRC national competitions. The anxiety and frustration that currently accompanies the entering of a kit of rollers will be replaced with a greater sense of satisfaction, appreciation, and gratitude on the part of all of the participants who are involved.

There is one final improvement that is sorely needed in the manner in which we conduct our national championship fly. We need greater acknowledgement of the men who win. The typical response of men who have won in the past, when asked about their victory, is, "Well, I didn't win much, maybe a plaque." That doesn't seem to amount to much for risking one's best birds, taking off work, anteing up the entry fee, and enduring the scrutiny of the judges and colleagues.

At a minimum, I would recommend that the NBRC publishing editor publish an interview with the winners, complete with photos, on the front page of the NBRC bulletin. Secondly, the winners deserve an expense paid trip to the following year's convention, at least airfare and hotel (most of our conventions book extras). At the meeting, the winners would be awarded their plaques or trophies and acknowledged in front of their peers and colleagues in the sport from all across the nation, with an opportunity for questions and answers, at the winner's discretion. The opportunity for members to interact with the men who win the national championship flys will draw more fanciers to the conventions and motivate more participation all around.

Some may say that the concerns about hawks and the molt are merely excuses used for not participating in competition. There may have been a time when that was true, but in today's environment, these are cold hard facts of life in the frustrations involved in the sport of the competitive flying of rollers. Roller men don't shut down an entire region just to make excuses. Roller men don't work hard to prep and fly their regionals and then lock down in the finals, just to make excuses.

Other men, who have worked hard to bring the Fall Fly to its present status as the best national fly the NBRC has ever known, may be reluctant to change anything; partly out of affinity and familiarity with the fly in its present form; partly out of fear that change may bring risks; and partly out of fear of failure. To allay their fears, we might recommend changing it for some period of time, perhaps one year, then re-evaluating whether the change was for the better. The greatest risk is financial, some might also say. But the trial period should allay any fears that we have created something that cannot be undone if deemed unsuccessful.

Flyers, if anything in this proposal has merit to you, it will need your personal support. You must let your Regional Director and the officers of the NBRC know that you support such a re-structuring of the competition. You must communicate with your RDs to let them know that you support these changes in the Fall Fly; especially if this would have the potential to convert you from spectator to competitor! New flyers and backyard flyers; this needs your support if you believe that it will make it easier for you to compete, and less risky in the loss of your best birds. After all, fewer losses in preparing for the national championship means more quality birds in the hobby, and more quality birds available to new flyers!!

To the officers and the average members of the NBRC, the restructuring of the Fall Fly, as recommended here, means the potential for less negativity and complaining to be endured by all of us; and more positive feedback about the awesome kits flown. It means less frustration about good birds lost to hawks preparing for the event. It means potentially greater acknowledgement by a man's peers; by his friends and colleagues; for his decisions, for his abilities, for the rollers he has bred, conditioned, and trained; and that, my friend, is the "stuff of life" in the roller hobby!

Cliff Ball NBRC National Fly Director