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  Go back to the News List! Fishing contest a far cry from 'two bubbas in a boat' 07/27/2005 Document  
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  Fishing contest a far cry from
'Two Bubbas in a Boat'

July 26, 2005

The first Bassmaster Classic in 1971, a winner-take-all tournament with a $10,000 prize, was held at a "mystery lake" whose name and location weren't revealed to the 24 competing fishermen until their airplane had taken off from Atlanta.

Thirty-five years later in Pittsburgh, nothing is secret when it comes to the world's premier bass tournament, except maybe an out-of-the-way "honey hole" on the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers.

Its sponsors want the publicity and everything is pumped larger than life, except maybe the bass.

The 47 anglers competing for a $200,000 first prize and a $700,000 total purse in the three-day tournament to begin Friday morning wouldn't think of casting a plug without first donning a shirt covered with more attention-grabbing sponsor patches than a NASCAR driver.

The boats also are festooned with brightly painted sponsor logos and names, giving some credence to those who disparage the sport of competitive bass fishing with the nickname "BASSCAR." Even the Classic itself, like some college football bowl game, now sports a sponsor prefix: CITGO.

Those big money sponsorship tie-ins are just one measure of how much and how fast the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, or BASS, and its featured event, the Bassmaster Classic, have grown and changed since Bobby Murray won the first "mystery" Classic on Lake Mead in Nevada.

"We're not promoting two Bubbas in a boat anymore," said Ron Franklin, who will host some of the more than 15 hours of Classic coverage on ESPN, the ABC-Disney-owned sports network that purchased BASS and the Classic in 2001. "This is a different breed of cat on a different tournament trail. So much is expected of them by the sponsors."

BASS has moved beyond small local and regional fishing equipment sponsors to embrace the bigger fishing equipment manufacturers and also non-fishing sponsors. Eagle Claw's hooks, rods and reels and Dick's Sporting Goods are out. Bass Pro Shops, Toyota, CITGO and Busch Beer are in.

That's big company for BASS, an organization founded by Ray Scott in the late 1960s to promote bass tournament competitions.

By the second Classic in Percy Priest Reservoir, near Nashville, Tenn., it had already realized the power of publicity. Its winner, Don Butler of Tulsa, Okla., was introduced on the stage of the Grand Ole Opera by country star Ernest Tubbs.

BASS grew steadily and profitably, expanding beyond its roots in the Deep South. Today, BASS is the largest organization of fishermen in the world with more than 600,000 members in 46 states, the District of Columbia and six foreign countries. It stages 30 professional and amateur tournaments a year and sanctions more than 20,000 local tournaments through its BASS Federation.

Rick Clunn, the Montgomery, Texas, pro and four-time Classic winner, cites two watershed events in the growth of the event. The first occurred in 1980 when the Classic held its first weigh-in indoors in an auditorium setting.

"By 1984, when I won in Pine Bluff, Ark., all of a sudden 10,000 people were showing up at the weigh-ins, including then-Vice President George Bush and then-Gov. Bill Clinton," Clunn said. "That's the first time I got a feeling that this must be what it feels like to be on stage at a rock concert."

The second big change, Clunn said, came in 2001 when ESPN purchased the Classic and its tour events from BASS for $40 million to expand its coverage of outdoor sports and replace the hole left by the departure of NASCAR to another network. The next year, BASS doubled the first-place money for the Classic to $200,000.

In 2006, the winner's share will increase again, to $500,000, and the total tournament purse will go to $1 million.

But some say corporate television ownership and big national sponsors, while providing money and stability, have also rocked the BASS boat in ways that are not so good.

Some bass fishermen have complained about the ESPN decision to move the Classic to a February-March time slot beginning next year to take advantage of a bigger winter audience.

Al Redding, a charter member of BASS and president of the 3,300-member Alabama BASS Federation for the last 14 years, said bass fishing has benefited from becoming a "media sport," but the decision to move the Classic was a mistake.

"Under the new format, kids and wives who work in schools won't be able to go because they'll be in school," Redding said. "There are already enough things people can do individually, so don't make fishing one of them."

Mike Dunkerley, president of the Pennsylvania BASS Federation, said the growth of BASS under ESPN has also pushed out the smaller fishing tackle sponsors that supported the organization during its earlier years.

"Now that we're at the big dance it takes too much money to become a national sponsor and the little guy is pushed out," Dunkerley said. "When Ray and Helen were in charge, the word loyalty meant something. Now it's in small, faded letters."

Franklin, a Mississippian and lifetime bass fisherman himself who is working his fifth Classic, admitted that some bass fishermen and federation members are bothered by some of what television has dictated.

"But you have to look at the grand scale of things, and that's good," Franklin said. "When Busch was signed on as a sponsor, they added $100,000 to the Classic's first prize and nobody bitched about that."

He said he remembers sitting on Clunn's back porch in Montgomery, Texas, during those early years and talking about what would happen if bass fishing got as big as some of the other spectator sports.

"Now we get together and all that has come to fruition," Franklin said. "Sometimes I have to wonder if we've created a monster. The guys have to decide to fish one tour or the other and have to make sure their sponsors are happy."

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