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  Go back to the News List! Two tours lure reel interest 07/22/2005 Document  
 
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Two tours lure reel interest,
hook new cast with cash

Friday, July 22, 2005
D'Arcy Egan
Plain Dealer Outdoors Writer

Bass once were considered a meal, not a meal ticket for tournament fishermen.

When George Perry caught the 22-pound, 4-ounce world-record largemouth bass on June 2, 1932, in Georgia, it was destined for the dinner table rather than the taxidermist.

Today, skyrocketing tournament jackpots are luring a new breed of bass fisherman.

Last week, FLW Outdoors put $1.5 million on the line in its championship on Arkansas' Lake Hamilton, and hometown favorite George Cochran won the tournament and $500,000.

Next week, the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS) will have $700,000 up for grabs in the Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburgh with a $200,000 top prize.

The rival FLW and BASS tours both have announced they will increase those jackpots in 2006 and increase their television exposure. ESPN, which owns BASS, will allocate 15 hours on ESPN2 to next week's Classic.

Dean Kessel worked at ESPN in the 1980s and helped to build NASCAR into the darling of cable TV. He believes BASS is growing the same way with the help of sponsors outside the sport

He points to CITGO, Toyota, Cialis and Purolator providing the money for the growth of BASS, just as Winston once did for NASCAR.

"Increasing the prize money in the tournaments will take time, but our payouts are much larger than when we took over [BASS] in 2001," said Kessel, now the general manager of BASS. "The winner of this year's CITGO Bassmasters Classic in Pittsburgh next week gets $200,000, a jackpot that will increase to $500,000 in 2006."

Can tournament bass fishing become as popular as NASCAR?

"I get that question a lot," Kessel said. "Our sponsorship model is similar with the same advertising and marketing. A major difference is the fans of bass fishing are participants. Not many folks can go 200 miles per hour at Daytona behind Jimmie Johnson." It took two savvy salesmen to launch bass tournaments in America.

Montgomery, Ala., insurance salesman Ray Scott had a vision in 1976 that bass fishing, tournaments and television would be the ideal combination for success. Scott founded the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society and with the zeal of a salesman rounded up the country's best bass anglers for the first national bass tournament, the All-American Invitational Bass Tournament on Beaver Lake in northwest Arkansas.

It was Scott's salesmanship that lured 106 anglers from 15 states. Scott's bass tournaments were a whopping success, and so was his BASS Federation, a conglomeration of bass fishing clubs that has blossomed into 650,000 members.

Scott could not have succeeded without Flippin, Ark., boat builder Forrest L. Wood, who began building fishing boats under the banner of Ranger Boats in 1968. Minneapolis industrialist Irwin Jacob bought Ranger Boats in 1992 to add to his Genmar Holdings collection of boat lines and honored Wood by naming his premier pro bass tournament events the FLW Tour.

Joined by his wife, Nina, and brother, Mickey, the Wood family created the perfect bass fishing boat. Scott knew the sight of anglers hauling stringers of dead bass to the scales would soon upset local fishermen, so Wood created the onboard, aerated live well. Bass now could be caught, weighed and released.

Wood added a large gasoline outboard and a bow-mounted electric motor. Fishermen could speed from hot spot to hot spot and hover over a weed bed, reef or drop-off. Fishermen loved fast boats. It was the built-in electric motor, however, that allowed them to ignore winds, waves or current and pitch jigs or cast the new-fangled Creme plastic worm at a solitary piece of structure until the lunker finally gobbled a lure.

The seeds of their work have sprouted into today's ever-growing bass fishing circuits.

Cleveland Heights bass tournament pro Frank Scalish says BASS is on the right track.

"The flashy wraps on the boats and the tow vehicles are much like you see today on the NASCAR circuit," said Scalish, whose boat, truck and shirts are emblazoned with sponsor logos. "BASS is giving the sport a big push, and the hours of ESPN television coverage helps the anglers to boost sponsorship. The television coverage gives our sponsors, and the boat wraps they put on our boats a great deal of exposure."

Next week's Bassmaster Classic is promised more than 15 hours of air time on ESPN2.

Vic Vatalaro of Kent finished 41st in last week's $1.5 million Forrest L. Wood Championship on Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, Ark., a $15,000 payday he says is indicative of the rich FLW Outdoors tournaments.

"I believe FLW is trying to make tournament bass fishing as popular as NASCAR," said Vatalaro, who owns Vic's Sports Center in Kent. "They think bass fishing can be a spectator sport, and anglers will want to 'watch the race' as tournament fishermen compete in boats wrapped with sponsor logos."

That FLW Outdoors policy has been a problem for fishermen wanting to reward their individual sponsors. If they make the finals, anglers must switch to a boat sporting the theme of a tournament sponsor, not the fisherman's sponsor. Fishermen also are not allowed to wear patches or the names of competing sponsors.

"Heck, I have a Champion boat," Vatalaro said. "But for the finals, I'll climb into a Ranger boat with Kellogg's all over it. The FLW pro tour makes it worth it."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: degan@plaind.com, 216-999-6136


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