SBJ/August 16 - 22, 2004/SBJ In Depth

Pro bass fishing snags a major fan following

Thousands jammed the Charlotte Coliseum this summer to watch a parade of pro anglers proudly hold up their catches during weigh-ins for the Bassmaster Classic.

Dean Kessel smiles when he gives his sales pitch, knowing full well that, to the uninitiated, it sounds more than a little bit crazy. “Why don’t you come out,” he says, “and watch us weigh some fish?”

While there’s more than that to the Bassmaster Classic, the season-ending championship of the ESPN-owned BASS, it is the final weigh-in that determines who wins the $200,000 grand prize. And so, on the afternoon of Aug. 1, more than 13,000 people filed into the Charlotte Coliseum to take Kessel up on his invitation to watch men put fish on a scale.

These people have a passion for bass fishing,” said Kessel, vice president and general manager of BASS. “This is a lifestyle for them.”

It is that passion, and the possibility of tapping into it, that prompted ESPN to pay an estimated $35 million to $40 million in 2001 to buy the family-run operation, which was founded in 1967 and today has more than 525,000 dues-paying members. BASS says its average member spends about 60 days a year on the water.

More than that, though, Kessel said BASS believes there are about 75 million Americans in the hunting, fishing and camping marketplace.

“More people hunt and fish than play golf and tennis combined,” he said. “I think there are some opportunities.”

In other words, the audience is there — it’s just a matter of reeling it in.

Reels and racing

The lifestyle aspect of bass fishing leads people both inside and outside of BASS to draw comparisons with NASCAR.

NASCAR was founded on people who love cars — buying them, driving them, working on them.

It’s people who love to fish — from putting the boat in the water to reeling in the big one and, occasionally, eating it — that ESPN Outdoors, the network’s fishing, hunting and camping arm, is relying on to help build BASS into a marketing powerhouse.

ESPN/ABC Sports President George Bodenheimer, who made the decision to buy BASS shortly after becoming the network’s president, said the comparison works on several levels.

“[BASS] has its roots in rural America,” he said. “It’s very family oriented, like NASCAR. And I think there’s extreme sponsor loyalty, not only among the competitors, but among the fans.”

Go much further than that, though, and the comparison starts to break down.

NASCAR fans who want to get close to the action can buy a ticket, go to a track and watch cars go by in a blur of speed and sound. And they do, by the hundreds of thousands.

For BASS fans, seeing their favorite pro in action is a bit more problematic.

“We’re not confined to an arena or a track,” Kessel said. “Our field of play can be hundreds of miles long and wide.”

At a bass tournament, the competitors are rarely within sight of one another, making it impossible to keep up, moment by moment, with who is winning and who is losing. Some people do get in boats and chase the anglers around the lake, but the only way to come close to staying on top of the competition is to sit in front of a computer or television screen and check for updates. Even that is of limited use, though. A competitor’s official observer can relay how many fish have been caught, but can only guess at the weight, leaving a lot of doubt as to how accurate the leaderboard is at any given moment.

But there’s one big advantage that BASS has over NASCAR: BASS can help its fans fish just like the professionals. Any bass fisherman can buy the same boat that the pros use, fish with the same tackle, drive the same truck, and even drop a line into the same spot on the lake that coughed up the biggest fish of the tournament.

Fishermen attend BASS events to get tips from hotshot anglers such as Mike Iaconelli.
“The NASCAR fan loves to see Jimmie Johnson race at Daytona at 200 miles an hour, but he’ll never have the experience of doing that,” Kessel said. “A fan of [angler] Mike Iaconelli or Gerald Swindle can not only participate on the same body of water, but can take the knowledge that those anglers have and apply it to their own style of fishing.”

At the Bassmaster Family Fun Fest, held at a Charlotte park the day before the Classic began, all the kids there were given a rod and reel of their very own, and some bait to go with it. Just a few steps away, those kids could toss a line into a seven-acre lake freshly stocked with 1,600 channel catfish.

Even if the NBA was inclined to give a basketball to every kid who attended a festival, it couldn’t build enough hoops for them all to shoot on. NASCAR certainly couldn’t give away cars.

But with fishing, the barrier to entry, to getting into the lifestyle, is practically nonexistent. All you need is a line, a hook and a little bit of water. Voila! You’re an angler.

Chasing the pros

Many of BASS’ members make an annual pilgrimage to wherever the Classic is being held, even though, by Kessel’s own admission, the event isn’t very spectator-driven until you get to the arena.

Still, the number of fans who try to make fishing a spectator sport is impressive. More than a thousand people were on hand to watch the 6:30 a.m. Friday launch that opened the Bassmaster Classic on July 30 on Charlotte’s Lake Wylie, and that number was doubled the next morning.

In fact, most fans were on the site well ahead of time to watch the long procession of boats arrive at the Billy Boyd access area, where three ramps were used with clockwork precision to get the anglers in the water and ready for competition.

A hundred yards from the boat ramps, temporary seating was set up overlooking a cove behind T-Bones, a restaurant with a big back deck and plenty of berths for customers to park their boats for dinner. During the tournament, T-Bones was taken over by BASS, and during each morning’s launch, anglers were interviewed over the public address system.

At 6:30, a loudspeaker on the T-Bones deck started

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pumping out the same music used for years during the introduction of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls teams (“Sirius,” by the Alan Parsons Project), and the anglers one-by-one cruised by the grandstand as they were introduced to the cheers of the fans, some of whom were already well into the day’s first six-pack.

Well over a hundred spectator boats were already in the water surrounding the cove, waiting to follow the anglers to their fishing holes. When the 53 anglers got the signal to start, they fired up their engines and headed out at 70 miles an hour in 53 directions. They were all driving new boats provided by BASS sponsor Triton boats and outfitted with identical depth finders, trolling motors, global positioning systems and the new Mercury Verado four-stroke engine. Total cost: roughly $70,000.

Not far from shore, many of the anglers found themselves alone, except for their official observer. But Mike Iaconelli, winner of the 2003 Classic and one of BASS’ young hotshots, was shadowed by 30 boats, and local boy Jason Quinn, whose home is on a cove about a mile from the launch site, was followed closely by 50, give or take a few. He gave them a run for their money.

Some anglers like to pick a spot and stick with it. Aaron Martens, for example, spent the entire tournament fishing under the bridge just a few hundred yards from the launch site.

Quinn, though, was running and gunning. If one spot didn’t give up anything after about 10 minutes, he would suddenly stand up, secure his rod and pull in his electric trolling motor. The drivers of the 50 boats surrounding him did the same. Then Quinn started his engine, picked a lane through the throng and roared to his next spot.

Being among 50 boats mounting a chase at 60 to 70 miles an hour is not for the fainthearted, particularly if you don’t happen to be near the front of the chase. The closer you are to the lead boat, the smoother the water. Get more than a few boats away from the front, though, and you’re in for a bone-crunching ride as your boat tries to cut through, or more likely jump over, the clashing wakes generated by all the boats in front of you.

Just as quickly as he started, Quinn shut it down, grabbed a rod and flicked his line into the water. When the drivers of the boats immediately behind him saw that he was stopping, they simultaneously shut down their own motors and waved their caps in the air to signal the drivers behind them that the caravan was halting. Thus was the word passed down the line, and, amazingly, no one was killed.

The fans who followed the boats were well-behaved and quiet, said veteran angler Peter Thliveros.

“People are good about giving you some distance,” he said. “They’re cognizant of what we’re doing out there.”

ESPN had a reporter in a boat doing live reports every 20 minutes, as well as 10 camera boats following some of the more prominent anglers. Every two hours, volunteers would take a tape from each camera and zoom back to T-Bones to hand it off to a member of the ESPN production crew, who quickly edited the footage for the next break-in on ESPN2.

Combined with the leaderboard updates on the Web site, it was all a part of ESPN’s effort to make the 2004 Classic a watershed event for the sport.

Making progress

The 2004 Bassmaster Classic was notable for progress on several fronts.

Just to get the Classic into Charlotte, several civic and municipal units pooled their resources to pay BASS $500,000, the largest guarantee the organization has ever had.

Most of that money came back to the city in one form or another, said Mike Crum, interim CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, which runs the coliseum and convention center where BASS held its events.

Among other expenditures, BASS itself spent money to rent facilities and have events catered. There was also a benefit to the city’s restaurants and shops, Crum said, and the value of being featured on 11 hours of programming on a network that is seen around the world.

“If there’s a place we’re unsure whether the event approached our expectations,” he said, “it’s in the number of hotel room nights that were sold. Most of the people attending the events made day trips.”

There is interest in Charlotte in bidding on a future BASS event, Crum said, but just how much interest will depend on the city’s final evaluation of the 2004 Classic, as well as on how high and fast the expected bids rise. Kessel won’t say how much Pittsburgh paid to get next year’s Bassmaster Classic, but said it was more than Charlotte paid, and that he expects the number to keep going up.

The accompanying Classic ESPN Outdoors Expo, held in the Charlotte Convention Center, drew almost 43,000 people over 3½ days, a 15 percent jump over last year.

The Classic ESPN Outdoors Expo, held during the Bassmaster Classic, provides another way for BASS sponsors to reach consumers.
While most of the 160 exhibitors at the event were heavily focused on fishing, BASS made a big effort this year to widen the appeal by drawing more hunting and camping exhibitors, in addition to Toyota, BASS’ new premier sponsor.

One reason the trade show has such growing appeal is the willingness of the professional anglers to sit in their sponsors’ booths for hour after hour, talking fishing with whoever comes along. Many anglers who didn’t qualify for the Classic staffed expo booths for three days, and most of the 28 anglers who didn’t make the cut after Saturday’s weigh-in willingly worked the expo on Sunday.

“That’s a real advantage our sport has,” Thliveros said. “Our fans can come out and have a conversation with us without being pushed out of the way by a media frenzy. They can fish the same lakes that we do, and use the same equipment. I don’t think that will change.”

The big announcement of the week for BASS was the addition of Toyota to the ranks of the organization’s premier sponsors, joining Citgo, the title sponsor of the Classic, Busch beer, the presenting sponsor, and Purolator as the biggest non-endemic backers of BASS.

Citgo appreciates the fact that bass boats hold 60 gallons of gas and are pulled by trucks that are generally pretty hungry for fuel. Toyota wants to make sure it gets a look from BASS loyalists who are in the market for one of those heavy vehicles.

Sponsor Toyota sees BASS as a way to reach recreational fishermen and other outdoorsmen who are looking for the right machine to pull their boat to the lake.
That means more than just providing the trucks that pull the competitors to the water and back again, said Mark Amstock, Toyota’s national market planning manager.

“We want to get our dealers involved at the grassroots level, both with the organization and with the individual professionals,” he said. “We’re still in the discussion phases to figure out exactly what that means, but there are proposals that would provide outreach opportunities in youth and environmental areas, where we can sponsor and support and generate traffic at a level where our dealers can directly reach their customers.”

BASS’ premier sponsors don’t get involved with the sport without making a multiyear, high-seven-figure deal that touches most of the organization’s platforms, Kessel said, including print, television, event sponsorship and Internet presence.

“It’s looking at all that we have to offer,” he said, “and being a part of just about everything we have.”

Weighing the options

If BASS is to ever reach the point where it is compared with NASCAR beyond that sport’s early days, it has several areas in which it will have to find solid answers, beyond the fact that it is dealing with a strong, well-funded competitor in FLW Outdoors (see story).

One is television ratings. While the numbers for the 18-34 male demographic were up 112 percent on ESPN and 140 percent on ESPN2, the overall ratings for the Bassmaster Classic were down slightly (see chart), despite ESPN devoting 11 hours of coverage this year compared to three last year.

Among the particulars BASS is examining, Kessel said, are the lengths of the weigh-in shows, which this year were 90 minutes instead of 60, and how to provide better information on where each competitor stands throughout the tournament to provide more of a sense of competition and urgency. To help build interest in the sport throughout the year, ESPN on Jan. 1 will launch “BassCenter,” a “SportsCenter” for the bass world that will anchor a Saturday-morning block of bass-related programming.

Another challenge is continuing to broaden the roster of advertisers, particularly of the non-endemic kind. Kessel sees a wide-open list of categories available, including fast food, soft drink, home improvement and financial services.

He imagines that some of the questions BASS gets now are the same that NASCAR got 15 or 20 years ago when it was trying to convince corporate America of the value of a sport in which cars go in a circle all day long.

“What we hear is along the lines of, ‘Now you want me to be involved with you weighing fish in a coliseum?’” he said. “Well, there’s more to it than that.”

While that is certainly the case, the fact remains that after the trade show, and the boat launch, and the fancy Triton boats flying across the water, the Bassmaster Classic really does come down to … weighing fish.

And where that’s concerned, BASS is dealing with the creative tension of trying to balance what’s good for the in-arena spectator and what makes the best TV.

On the one hand, BASS needs people to show up for the weigh-in. All of the anglers are greeted warmly by the crowd, and some are treated like rock stars, either because they are crowd favorites or because their catch just vaulted them to the top of the leaderboard. Screaming and yelling helps make good TV, and it is TV viewers, much more than spectators on site, who will determine the success or failure of ESPN’s BASS venture.

“What we do hopefully will generate growth in the sport as a television product,” Bodenheimer said. “The television audience for an event obviously dwarfs the on-site.”

What is condensed into a 90-minute television show lasts for hours and hours in the coliseum, and the program can become a little tedious. When you’ve been sitting for two hours and seen 25 guys weigh their fish, and you realize there are 28 more to come, the prospect can seem a little daunting, despite the fact that there is beer being sold in the concession stands.

Still, the weigh-in crowd in Charlotte grew day by day, from roughly 5,000 the first day, a Friday, to more than 13,000 on Sunday. And the people there were genuinely interested in hearing the anglers describe their day and how they fished. Shallow or deep? Crank bait or spinner? Near docks? Under bridges?

Sure, it could get a little silly at times. A few anglers attributed their bad day to a loss of confidence, without explaining exactly how a fish knows or cares whether the fisherman is feeling good that day.

But the general reaction of the assembled thousands backed up Kessel’s assertions about the passion anglers have about their sport. “They care about the hows and the whys of it,” he said. “They crave that knowledge.”

If ESPN finds the combination that gets ratings skyrocketing, might we eventually see BASS as the cornerstone for a new ESPN network?

ESPN is always thinking about new networks, Bodenheimer said, but added that it’s a little early to consider BASS on those terms.

“I’d like to remind people that ESPN televised NASCAR for nearly two decades before it achieved a level of growth and stature in the U.S. that it’s deservedly achieving now,” he said. “We’ve only been involved in BASS for 36 months, so I think it’s going to take some time to play out.”

At this point, though, Bodenheimer said he’s happy with how BASS is developing.

“Everything takes longer than you want,” he said, “but I really felt like this year’s Classic was a turning point. I could feel a buzz among the sponsors and the anglers and fans. It just felt like there’s wind in the sails.”

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