1. Archive

Swimming up mainstream

A bunch of guys get in boats. They fish. They come back and weigh their catches of the day.

Can you sense the energy? Can you feel the excitement?

Believe it or not, many do, which has helped build competitive fishing - in particular, competitive bass fishing - into a big league spectator sport.

"Bass fishing could be considered what NASCAR was 25 years ago, as far as the potential," said Rob Yowell, vice president of sponsorship sales for the Bonham Group, a Greenwood Village, Colo., sports and entertainment marketing firm. "It's a sport that's always been very popular within its element. But now they're starting to become mainstream."

No other event encapsulates the sport's burgeoning popularity better than the 35th annual Bassmaster Classic, the pre-eminent bass fishing competition that ends Sunday on Lake Tohopekaliga in Kissimmee.

An estimated 80,000 people attended last year's three-day competition and other related events in Pittsburgh, and hundreds of thousands watched on TV. By the time the 2006 Classic ends with a final weigh-in Sunday evening, ESPN and its sister channel ESPN2 will have broadcast 14 hours of coverage, much of it live.

ESPN, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co., has been so bullish on the future of bass fishing that in 2001 it bought BASS, the for-profit membership and tournament organization that produces the Bassmaster Classic, the Bassmaster Tournament trail and several related magazines.

BASS doesn't shy away from the comparison to NASCAR. To the layman, Bassmaster competitors look much like the fishing equivalent of NASCAR drivers, with suits that are decked out in the logos of their respective sponsors.

In another similarity with top auto racing events, Bassmaster competitions package themselves as multiday entertainment spectacles with other events built around the main contest.

For the Bassmaster Classic, those events include a "Family Fest" with activities for kids, a sprawling "Outdoor Expo" where the makers of fishing, hunting and camping products display their wares and a final weigh-in ceremony with light displays and pyrotechnics that resemble those seen at rock concerts.

David Hagood, vice president of tournament organizer American Bass Anglers of Athens, Ga., credits BASS founder Ray Scott with making bass fishing a viable spectator sport. Subsequent refinements, such as ESPN's comprehensive, slickly edited TV coverage, have helped capture the drama of a sport that isn't always full of such moments, he said.

"Weighing (fish) is about the most boring thing on the planet," Hagood said. "It takes a real showman to make that a real success."

ESPN's ownership of BASS and the Bassmaster Classic is the latest move by a TV network to acquire or launch televised athletic events, rather than simply vie for the broadcast rights.

Most such arrangements have been limited to the action sports arena, which encompass motocross, snowboarding and skateboarding. ESPN founded the X Games in 1994, NBC cofounded the Dew Action Sports Tour in 2004 and OLN (formerly the Outdoor Life Network) acquired the Gravity Games in 2004.

TV networks with broadcast rights to an athletic event are often responsible for the success that a sport enjoys in broadening its audience, Bonham Group's Yowell said. Acquiring an athletic event ensures that a network can capture the lion's share of the financial gains when that happens, he said.

"Instead of being a rights holder, this is a way they can be an equity partner," Yowell said.

The growing audience for the Bassmaster Classic has begun to attract the attention of corporate sponsors beyond the event's traditional base of boat makers and fishing gear companies.

CITGO Petroleum Corp. has been the title sponsor of the Classic since 2001. Theragenics Corp., a Buford, Ga., maker of a radiation therapy for prostate cancer, signed a marketing deal in January with four-time Bassmaster Classic champion Rick Clunn. Clunn will appear in TV ads and make appearances on behalf of Theragenics.

Japanese automaker Toyota, through its Toyota Motor Sales USA subsidiary, has been a BASS marketing partner and sponsor since 2004, attracted by the opportunity to market its Tundra full-size pickup, said David Vincent, vice president of full-size trucks for Southeast Toyota Distributors of Deerfield Beach.

"Just as in racing, the people who follow this sport connect with the sponsor of the fishermen they support," Vincent said.

FLW Outdoors, BASS' main rival in the fishing tournament circuit, has been even more successful in drawing a broad range of corporate backers from outside the fishing and boating industries. Among FLW's sponsors are Wal-Mart, Chevrolet, Kellogg's, Land O'Lakes and Sirius Satellite Radio.

BASS won't release specific sponsorship revenue data, but a sharp increase in prize purses suggests that business is good. The 2006 Bassmaster Classic features a purse of $1.2-million, including a championship prize of $500,000, up from last year's purse of $700,000, with a top prize of $200,000.

In a bid to further develop its brand identity, BASS is implementing new rules next month to standardize the appearance of Bassmaster competitors, said BASS vice president and general manager Don Rucks.

Bassmaster boats will be required to display their primary sponsor's logo in a more dramatic-looking "wrapped" design. BASS will require participants to wear suits that match the boat designs, with their last names emblazoned across the back.

BASS also recently started its BASS Career Learning Angler Success Series, or BASS CLASS for short. BASS CLASS is a projected series of courses for Bassmaster participants to teach them useful skills, such as how to present themselves on TV, how to work with the media and how to best meet the needs and demands of sponsors.

One of the goals of BASS CLASS is to increase the number of compelling fishing personalities that will earn fan loyalties in much the same way that NASCAR drivers do, Rucks said. He cited tattooed, hip-hop-loving 2003 Bassmaster Classic champion Mike Iaconelli as an example of what BASS wants.

"We're teaching them that we don't want cookie-cutter athletes," Rucks said, adding that, "We accept responsibility for getting these athletes ready for the market. It's part of the master plan to raise the level of the sport."

Louis Hau can be reached at (813) 226-3404 or