Picture a Super Bowl with a fish scale as the goal line. Instead of quarterbacks diving for the end zone, logo-laden anglers rush across a stage lugging bags of wriggling bass. With music pulsating, contestants dump their catch and stand by nervously as totals are announced to a cheering crowd by a carnival barker named Fish Fishburne. Total prize money: $700,000.
Welcome to the Citgo Bassmasters Classic, the showcase of pro bass fishing and an offbeat effort to turn the art of hooking a lunker into a glitzy, made-for-TV event. This year's Classic, the season-ending show on the ESPN-owned BASS Tour, drops its line on Aug. 1-3 at the Superdome in New Orleans. Up to 25,000 diehard angling fans are expected to make the pilgrimage each day. "You'll see more heat, more passion than any sporting event you ever went to. It's dynamite," raves Ray Scott, a former insurance exec who founded BASS (table).
But will fishing shows lure armchair anglers? ESPN is betting they will. In 2001, it paid $40 million for BASS and began broadcasting the BASS Tour, which runs from January to August and stretches from fishing holes in Florida to California. Yet even though ratings for ESPN's fishing shows are creeping up, fewer than a half-million households tuned in the Classic last year, leaving it behind niche players like the Little League World Series.
The rival, if less exposed, Wal-Mart FLW Tour, owned by investor Irwin L. Jacobs, holds its end-of-year Jacobs Cup on Sept. 10-13 in Richmond, Va. On the FLW Tour, televised by the Outdoor Life Network, weigh-ins are held in Wal-Mart parking lots, and coverage is piped into the aisles. Despite a $500,000 winner's prize and plenty of hype, the FLW Tour is hardly a ratings dynamo either.
Still, there's no doubt the fishermen are out there. Some 44 million Americans fish, and spending on everything from boats to bait -- $37.8 billion last year -- is a powerful draw for advertisers and sponsors. In fact, both tours are awash with sponsors selling to an audience that BASS says is mostly male and college-educated. In snagging Wal-Mart, the FLW took the lead in grabbing consumer sponsors: It has since netted Land O' Lakes, 7-Up, and Skippy Peanut Butter. This year, ESPN signed Citgo as BASS title sponsor for $2.5 million annually just months before Citgo dropped its sponsorship of NASCAR after 18 years. A Citgo spokesman says BASS offers a less costly way to reach "heavy consumers of our product."
That's not to say bass fishing tours are a threat to NASCAR. But a dozen years ago, who would have predicted that millions of TV viewers would spend their Saturdays watching cars zoom round and round a track?
By Mark Hyman