Over three decades, tournament bass fishing has prospered, with competitions small to large at venues around the country. Club tournaments. State tournaments. Red Man and B.A.S.S. tours of tournaments. Big bass and big bucks.
But now a fledgling series of tournaments, the FLW Tour, is changing the face of tournament fishing, with a format that provides more and better television exposure and a total purse of $3.65 million for a seven-event schedule.
Since the first FLW event in 1996, the popularity of bass fishing has escalated to such dizzying heights that Wheaties, The Breakfast of Champions, soon will put an angler's face on the front of 2 million cereal boxes and distribute them nationwide.
Move over, Michael Jordan, make room for Guido Hibdon, Rickey Clunn, Randy Blaukat, Gerald Swindle or whomever wins the FLW Tour points championship next weekend in Hartford, Conn.
Who would have thought a bass angler ever could be like Mike or Cal Ripken, Red Grange, Chris Evert or any of the 26 athletes from 12 sports who have been on the box since Olympian Bob Richards started it in the 1950s?
Certainly Irwin L. Jacobs, an entrepreneur from Minneapolis and chairman of the FLW Tour, had an inkling.
"I have been involved in the fishing industry for 18 years, and I have a real passion for it, and so do people involved in the sport at every level," said Jacobs, who also owns 12 sport and fishing boat companies, including Ranger Boats. "It's one of the few sports opportunities available today that still embraces the wholesome family values of bygone generations."
It also has the potential for extensive cross-marketing of products and services -- rods, reels and tackle, boats, motors, fuel, batteries, clothing, trailers, tow vehicles, where to stay, where to eat, etc.
"The timing for the elevation of tournament angling is perfect," Jacobs said. "I envision a day very soon where tournament fishing will be on the front page of every sports section. Organized fishing today is developmentally where NASCAR was few years ago. It's a sleeping giant."
Over the past three years, Jacobs and the FLW Tour have signed a deal with ESPN to televise tournaments and signed a LTC dozen major sponsors interested in reaching out to the pocketbooks of 60 million anglers who spend an estimated $24 billion a year.
But, said Jacobs, competitive fishing isn't just about businessmen making money.
"I want to continue to develop role models in fishing," he said, "and I want to make millionaires out of fishermen and women as well."
This year, the Wal-Mart FLW Tour added more than $500,000 to the total purse, and first-place pro prizes range from $100,000 in four qualifying tournaments to $250,000 in the tour championship.
First-place prizes for amateurs range from $15,000 to $40,000.
Television plays a major part in the FLW Tour success, and the tour began after ESPN expressed an interest in developing a new tournament format that would lend itself to television coverage.
What evolved was a series of four-day competitions that start with fields of 150 amateurs and 150 pros. After the second day of fishing, the fields are cut to the top 10, based on weight of fish caught. At the end of the third day, the amateur competition ends and the pro side is cut to the top five, and each finalist starts the last day with zero pounds.
With only five boats to follow on the last day and the anglers starting even, the competition suddenly becomes tailor-made for television. Camera crews are assigned to each competitor, and all are in communication with ESPN commentators Tommy Sanders and Jerry McKinnis for real-time dialogue, whether there is a fish on the line or not.
"The success of the Wal-Mart FLW Tour has been phenomenal," said Jacobs. "Our vision of developing a wholesome sport with credible role models and giving them the opportunity to make significant money while receiving national media exposure is right on target. We are elevating this sport to new levels, and this is just the beginning."
This week, the tour goes to Hartford for the $1 million Forest Wood Open, to be fished on the Connecticut River (ESPN, July 4, 1 p.m.). First place is worth $200,000, and whoever sits atop the point standings at the end of the second day of competition gets to be like Mike.
Pub Date: 6/14/98