College Bassletes Find Fishing Pays Off Without NCAA’s OversightMargaret Newkirk
Jacob Nummy had trained all year to defend his title. Now, on the breezy eve of the national championship, the 23-year-old political-science major was soaking up tips from a pro.
Use rock salt to calm your fish for the weigh-in, Mark Menendez said. Pour Coca-Cola on a bass that bleeds. Lose the facial hair. Corporations don’t like it.
“Sponsorship is about what you can do for them,” he told Nummy and other young fishermen gathered in the Yamaha tent at the Carhartt Bassmaster College National Series Championship near Lake Chatuge in Georgia. “It’s about selling. They want a clean-shaven face. They want your shirts tucked in.”
Bass fishing offers a glimpse of college sports without the supervision of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, whose insistence on amateurism is being eroded by a series of court cases. While attention has been trained on revenue-producing football and basketball programs and athletes who play without pay, companies nurtured the fastest-growing school competition most people have never heard of. Universities have even begun offering fishing scholarships and paying coaches.
Academic anglers with logo-festooned jackets -- Yamaha, Lowrance, Shimano, Moon Pie -- pursue sponsorships and receive discounts on the trade’s pricey tools in exchange for helping with backers’ marketing. They are courted by the makers of boats, fish finders, rods, reels, lures and life vests.
Nummy, who graduated from Auburn University at Montgomery, said he’d received help with engines, oil and propellers.
“I don’t mind doing a seminar for Yamaha,” he said. “They sponsored me through this entire thing. They came after me because they saw that I loved fishing and that I could appeal to the true anglers, which is a dying breed. I’m also working out a deal with a boat company.”
Competitive bass fishing began in 1967, when Alabama insurance salesman Ray Scott founded Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, or B.A.S.S., in Montgomery and organized the first tournament on an Arkansas lake. Over the next three decades, it transformed what had been a bucolic hobby into an industry that generated $31 billion in U.S. retail sales in 2012, according to a report by the American Sportsfishing Association.
ESPN bought the organization in 2001, selling it nine years later to an investor group led by Don Logan, former chairman of Time Warner Inc.’s media and communications group, and an Alabama native.
B.A.S.S. now has more than a half-million members, its own magazine and weekly television show. It owns the tournament series that leads to the Super Bowl of bass, the Bassmaster Classic, where anglers in high-powered boats race across the water in search of their quarry and are judged by the pounds of fish they catch. The prize is $300,000.
B.A.S.S. had clubs and competitions at the local level for college students but no Classic-like national tournament. In 2011, the organization created both a national title for a two-person bass team and an opportunity for one angler to win a slot in the Classic.
Concentrated in the South -- 53 of the 2014 championship’s 83 teams were from schools in the region -- the sport draws in state universities, two-year schools and Christian institutions like Tennessee’s Bethel University, a powerhouse that pays coaches and offers scholarships. At most schools, the pursuit is classified as a club sport. The college bassletes have been embraced with open arms and goodie bags.
The numbers tell why: The number of Americans fishing declined from 52 million in 2007 to 46 million in 2013, according to a report by Take Me Fishing, a project of the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, based in Alexandria, Virginia. Thirty-eight percent of those who fished last year were 45 or older. Forty-one percent didn’t attend college and even those who fished as children tend to stop when they reach college age.
Children had no organized route to emulate the bass pros they idolized, said David Ittner, tournament and professional staff manager for Iwata, Japan-based Yamaha Motor Co., which sponsored the meet-the-pros night at Young Harris College near Lake Chatuge.
“Yamaha realized it had concentrated on the pros at the expense of growing the sport,” he said.
Carhartt Inc., which sells outdoor and work clothing, is the collegiate championship’s title sponsor. Other backers included engine makers Toyota Motor Corp. and Yamaha; Mercury Marine Group, which manufactures boats, engines and other nautical parts; Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World Inc., which sells all things piscatorial; and two companies, Humminbird and Lowrance Inc., that sell electronic fish-finding equipment.
“This is very, very, very important to our business,” said Tom Branch, Lowrance’s college recruiter, who said he had never heard of collegiate bass fishing when he took the job a year ago. “We have to run a business that is going to grow youth fishing.”
B.A.S.S. has seen participation increase since 2011, said Hank Weldon, who manages and emcees the Carhartt tournament. This year, teams from 58 schools qualified for the national championship. Three years ago, only 49 competed in the whole series that leads to it. Revenue growth since 2013 was 39 percent “and we were a little disappointed,” he said.
A fishing program attracts a wider range of students, said Jennifer Glass, a spokeswoman for Bethel University in McKenzie, Tennessee, one of a handful of schools that offer scholarships. The assistance has drawn students that might otherwise never think of attending a private college, she said. Bethel also offers bowling and inline skating.
Weldon said B.A.S.S. tries to preserve a spirit of amateurism by awarding prize money to schools, not athletes. NCAA oversight would change the sport beyond the sponsorship question, he said. Fishing doesn’t have divisions by school size, for instance. B.A.S.S. sets the rules now and allows sponsors because the sport is expensive.
Even motor oil “runs $55 a gallon,” Ittner said. “That would be difficult for any college kid.”
NCAA rules have been under attack as athletes challenge a system that rewards the organization, broadcasters, schools and coaches, but not players.
On Aug. 9, a federal judge ruled in favor of former University of California Los Angeles basketball star Ed O’Bannon and against the NCAA, saying that players have the right to some of the money earned off of them. Another suit, filed in New Jersey, challenges the NCAA’s right to restrict earnings at all.
Bass-fishing dollars are minuscule compared with what swirls around football and basketball. It’s not a reflection of the skills required, said Shaw Grigsby, a veteran professional brought to the Young Harris campus by his sponsor, Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Lowrance.
“There’s no sport that compares to it for the agility you have to have, the knowledge you have to have and the thinking on the ground you have to do,” he said.
The skill involves finding bass and deciding what combination of lure, depth, location and retrieval is going to attract them. An approach that lands pounds of fish on a sunny day will fail on a cloudy one. Wind and air pressure matter. So do seasons and the time of day. The winner figures out the puzzle the fastest.
The prize is based on weight. Dead fish bring penalties: At weigh-ins, a runner rushes weighed fish to tanks in a pontoon boat, which will release them back into the water.
Nummy and partner Tom Frink were the runaway stars of last year’s championship, because of the way that they won it. They threw a six-inch chunk of wood roughly carved to look like a rat. Bass, predatory and credulous, flocked to it.
The Rat was the talk of the competition. This year, Spro Corp. of Kennesaw, Georgia, released the BBZ-1 Rat, a more realistic plastic rendition that goes for about $35.
This year’s three-day championship began at 6:30 a.m. Aug. 1 in front of a light-decorated resort dock. Rock and rap music roared as the contestants lined up in the lake, boat lights sparkling in the dark. Then they were off, with Weldon announcing each team, as 83 boats swept by the dock and out into Lake Chatuge.
Cloudy weather made the fishing tough.
Nummy, down in the standings after the first day, prayed that night for a break in the weather.
“I said, dear Lord, all I need you to do is part them clouds. I’ll take care of the rest.”
The sun shone the next day, but on the last day of his college career, Nummy caught no fish.
Jake Whitaker and Andrew Helms of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte are the new national champions. Brett Preuett of the University of Louisiana at Monroe triumphed in a subsequent one-on-one fish-off, winning the coveted slot in the professional Bassmaster Classic.
The regional qualifying rounds begin again in January, even as B.A.S.S. and the industry are tapping a new demographic.
Yamaha signed a 15-year-old Texas boy onto its professional team in May and B.A.S.S. started a new high-school championship in January.
Participation in the new tournament is already at college levels, Weldon said.
“When you think about it, there are a lot more high schools than colleges,” he said.
“It’s a much larger pool.”