Armchair fishing aims to hook fans

Boyd Duckett grew up a NASCAR fan in North Carolina, played golf on some minitours in Alabama and Mississippi, and has spent the past decade as one of the country's top professional bass fishermen. So he knows something about niche sports and their rabid fans.

Duckett and others involved in Major League Fishing — a new joint venture between the Outdoor Channel and 24 of the top fishermen in the country — are trying to appeal to more than the sport's hard-core anglers.

"The competition in professional bass fishing is as great as any sport I've ever played. The problem is that we have done a horrible job as an industry in capturing that emotion and competition, and the characters involved in the sport," Duckett said.

Duckett concedes that ESPN, which still televises the Bassmaster and FLW tours but no longer owns the rights to the broadcasts, has had a tough job marketing the sport.

"The playing field are these lakes that are so big that are in the middle of nowhere — most bass tournaments you have 200 guys, so who are you going to cover?" Duckett said. "I think that's been the challenge for years with trying to televise these tournaments."

Roger Trageser, president of the Maryland B.A.S.S. Federation, remains skeptical that Major League Fishing will succeed where others have failed.

"I'm a rabid football fan, and I can live somewhat of a fantasy football career through these players," Trageser said. "I have a passion for it. I'll watch any NFL game. I just don't know what they're trying to do will ascend fishing into a life realm."

Trageser said he mentioned the Major League Fishing format to another local angler. While familiar with it, the angler was lukewarm to the concept.

"There wasn't any kind of an interest," Trageser said. "Maybe if you're talking to guys like us who are so already ingrained in it that it seems like a waste of time. ... When ESPN puts on the [Bassmaster Classic], I may watch it, but I'm not going to go out of my way to watch it."

Major League Fishing commissioner Don Rucks said his organization is "trying to be a complement" to the existing tours and "expand it to outdoor participants that maybe don't watch professional fishing. Maybe they're gun guys, competitive shooters. To do that, we have to create an entertaining show."

Rucks compares it to other reality television shows, such as"Survivor" and "The Biggest Loser."

"Our long-term goal is to expand the sport to people who never thought they'd watch it," said Rucks, who has also worked on marketing of NASCAR events as well as college sports.

The first show, part of the Challenge Cup, will be 153 minutes long — more than three times the average 44-minute viewing time on what is being shown on ESPN and the Outdoor Channel. Subsequent shows on the Outdoor Channel will last an hour and be shown five times a week.

The series will debut Monday.

"One of the complaints was, 'Why are you showing this on the weekend when I'm out doing it?'" said Rucks, a former executive on the Bassmaster Tour. "It's not about just giving them a longer show. What you end up is seeing how the anglers play the game, how they find the fish, how they deal with the stress and things they never have had to deal with. We're trying to disrupt them, to make them more stressed, and by making them more stressed, making them more competitive and making them figure out things a lot faster."

Unlike other bass fishing tournaments, the anglers will not be allowed to get the feel of the lake for a few days before the start of competition and will not be allowed to get information about the venue before their arrival. The lake will be divided into six zones, and the anglers will not be told in advance which zone they will be fishing.

Each of the angler's boats will have a real time scoreboard, with an official providing play-by-play. The former will be easy to follow: eight anglers at a time, with the seven- to eight-hour tournaments broken into three periods. Rather than giving points for each competitor's top five catches, every fish caught will be added to the total.

The only catch is that, for now, there is no prize money, as Major League Fishing tries to build its audience and its sponsorship. According to those familiar with the venture, the Potomac River has been given "serious mention" as a future location.

Randy White, whose production company was tasked with putting together the Internet package that will be available starting Feb. 13 as well as the hourlong shows on the Outdoor Channel, compares the new venture to mixed martial arts and how that sport relates to traditional prizefighting.

"Boxing has been the mainstay for years, and people watched it, but when something new came along, all of a sudden that's exploded and boxing's kind of lagged behind," said White, the lead producer on the series. "Not that we're trying to do that, but we've changed all the rules. It's bass fishing, but that's where the similarity ends."

The slogan that Rucks, a former executive for B.A.S.S. Pro Shops, came up with is simple: "New Game. New Rules. No Limits."

Former Bassmaster Classic champion Kevin Van Dam wrote in his blog, "You're not going to see sparks, you're going to see lightning bolts."

By launching the Internet package as well as a subsequent show on the Outdoor Channel, Major League Fishing will see whether it can do what ESPN and others have failed to accomplish: grow the sport by appealing to sports fans.

"We want to have the three elements that you have in professional football, or NASCAR or the PGA Tour, which is competition, emotion and characters. We want to give you the game," Duckett said. "We want you to feel fourth-and-1. We want to see you going down 17, you're behind by one and you take out the big dog [the driver] to cut off the dogleg over the water."

Duckett said the Internet shows that will be available for $2.99 each "will have a lot of 'how to' in it," as well as demonstrate how good the professional anglers are at finding — and catching — the fish compared with recreational anglers.

"For the hardcore guys, that's going to provide a tremendous amount of information that they're interested in," Duckett said.

The Outdoor Channel show will last one hour and be "purely a sports product," Duckett said. The Internet show will last two hours, compared with 44 minutes on the typical commercial network telecast.

According to White, taking a bass fishing tournament and boiling it down to an hour is "for lack of a better term, you basically get to see the highlights. You don't see the emotions the guys go through; you get to see glimpses of it. It's not like watching golf.

"We want our cameras on the guys and really get to expose the emotions the guys are going through throughout the whole day. We're really trying to simplify fishing to the point where everyone can grab it. If you love bass fishing, you're going to eat it up because everything's there. If you don't really know about it yet, you can actually grab it and grasp the concept instantly."


For more information, go to majorleaguefishing.com