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He casts a new look as fishing's front man

In the world of professional bass fishing, Mike Iaconelli announced his arrival at the top like a boombox set on stun.

The New Jersey wise guy shook the cultural underpinnings of a sport long dominated by sons of the South last summer when he won the Bassmasters Classic, the Super Bowl of bass fishing.

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As he begins his drive toward another Classic and a shot at Angler of the Year honors with the start of the Bassmaster Tour on Thursday in Florida, Iaconelli has more than a few old-timers hoping he disappears as quickly as a ripple on a lake.

It's not just that Iaconelli lacks the proper Southern drawl. He break-dances on the deck of his metallic red boat, has a tattoo of a leaping bass on his right biceps, screams with joy when he catches a big fish and could talk the ears off a paper bag if given the chance.

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"That's just who I am," says the 31-year-old. "I get as excited fishing a tournament as I do fishing my own little 5-acre lake at home."

He is eager for the traditional endorsements and appearances that go with the Classic and often turn the winner into a millionaire, but he wants a wider audience, too.

"Get me in Good Housekeeping or a visit on Letterman," he says. "The sport is at a point where I'm obligated to go out and spread the gospel."

That makes Iaconelli the perfect messenger for ESPN, the sports network that spent millions three years ago to buy the 600,000-member Bass Anglers Sportsman Society and its eight publications. The Disney-owned network was looking for the next NASCAR after losing a bidding war for the auto racing circuit's television rights.

Although ESPN bought a loyal fan base, it wasn't one with a lengthy future.

"The average BASS member is 52, 53 years old and that's not a good sign if you want to grow," says Jay Kumar, who runs the Web site, Bassfan.com. "BASS is similar to where NASCAR was, with a very controlled, clean-cut image. Now that the sport has gotten some legs, it's OK to show some personality, just as NASCAR has."

In a sport of aw-shucks guys, Iaconelli is one of a handful of young urbanized anglers to bring sizzle to the TV screen. And it didn't hurt that he won the Classic in a made-for-TV finish. With minutes to go before heading back to the weigh-in, Iaconelli turned back a challenge from a 21-year Classic veteran by wrestling a whopper of a bass through the weeds and into his grasp. His Hail Mary cast gave him a three-day, 15-fish total of 37 pounds, 14 ounces - 1 1/2 pounds more than the runner-up.

Iaconelli let loose a burst of emotion worthy of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.

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"We can hold Mike up as the new brand of angler out there," says Dean Kessel, senior vice president of ESPN Outdoors. "Mike is a great guy to build stars around."

But since that hot day in New Orleans when Iaconelli took center stage literally and figuratively, chat rooms on fishing Web sites have denounced his "hot dogging," his ego, his "useless noise."

Huffed one writer on fishfactory.com: "Unless ESPN thinks they can find 400,000 more nipple-ring wearing, hip-hop Generation-Xers who will buy a [BASS] membership and be as passionate about the sport as your average Bubba bass fisherman, I think they are screwing up."

The rumblings got loud enough to merit a response by Bassmaster magazine. On the cover, it tied together Iaconelli's win and behavior in a single headline: "IKE OVER THE TOP."

On page 2, editor James Hall put Iaconelli in the same league as tennis great John McEnroe, basketball's Dennis Rodman and football's Warren Sapp, three "bad boys" who brought attention to their sports.

"Does his attitude place a black cloud over bass fishing ... hardly," Hall wrote. "I have a feeling Ike will be an inspiring champion [who] will have the ability to bring in a new fold of fishermen."

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Steve Bowman, editor of the fishfactory.com Web site and an independent producer of outdoors shows for ESPN, also believes the shake-up is good for the sport.

"Bass fishing is probably the last holdout of your middle-aged white male. The sport needs a shot of adrenaline. It needs to 'Do the Dew,'" he says, evoking the soft-drink slogan aimed at young people.

Even some pro anglers who fit the Southern gentleman profile agree.

"He's good for the sport because he broadens the appeal," says Virginia's Curt Lytle, who was fifth at the Classic. "Long-term that benefits all of us."

In the past, fishermen with a sense of showmanship were forced to conform by tournament organizers, sponsors or peer pressure. It was OK to color outside the lines - say, kiss the fish you caught - just not too far outside.

Even today you can count on one hand the standout personalities: Skeet Reese, with his surfer-boy good looks; Ishama Monroe, the first black professional angler to fish the Classic; Jason Quinn, who wears a ponytail and multiple earrings.

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But cable TV and Web sites are changing that, says Kumar.

"Before [coverage] was all lures and lakes, lures and lakes with a little bit of personality. But the focus has changed to the athlete first and the event second," he says.

Iaconelli, who has a bachelor's degree in advertising and public relations, hopes to tap markets beyond the bait, boats and beer sponsorships traditionally open to pro anglers. He's hired a marketing firm, an agent and a personal assistant.

Kessel says ESPN is working with him to open more doors.

"You can put a pretty compelling package together matching his brand, the brand of Mike, to a company brand," he says. "But you've got to have a dynamic guy to do those things."

Iaconelli is aware of his critics and has made an effort to occasionally dial back the intensity.

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Once known for his rod-throwing temper tantrums, he has harnessed that energy when things go bad. During the second day of the Classic when his outboard motor died in the middle of nowhere, he sat on the deck to collect his thoughts and then called a mechanic, who talked him through repairs.

The new maturity extends to the promotional circuit, where youngsters with fishing caps pulled down to their ears always get Iaconelli's attention and an autograph. At a bass fishing show in Timonium, he spent 15 minutes with pen and paper communicating with a deaf angler about techniques.

Last November, he announced a charity drive to raise money for the V Foundation for Cancer Research created by Jim Valvano, the late North Carolina State basketball coach. Several of his biggest sponsors have agreed to match contributions.

The divorced father of two young daughters, Iaconelli puffs with pride when he brags about their budding fishing skills and grows quiet when he talks about the weeks away from them.

Those who know Iaconelli think he'll be able to win over critics once it becomes clear there is room in the sport for the young guys and the graybeards.

In fact, some in the industry believe a healthy rivalry could grow between anglers from different regions and different eras, giving fans something to cheer or boo about.

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"I think it would be great," says ESPN's Kessel, pointing to Dale Earnhardt Jr. vs. Jeff Gordon and Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson as examples. "As Richard Petty once told me, 'The last thing you want is to walk across the stage when your name is called and you don't hear a thing.'"

Bowman, the TV producer and Web editor, agrees.

"I'm 41 and I don't wear an earring or a ponytail, but I love to watch Jason and Ish and Mike because they're good fishermen," he says. "What they've done is prove that bass fishing isn't Bubbas in a boat. There's diversity and there's something for everyone."

Mike Iaconelli file

Age: 31

Hometown: Woodbury Heights, N.J.

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Graduated: 1996, Rowan University, summa cum laude

Turned pro: 1999

Career winnings: $595,850

Times in the Classic: 4

Personal: Divorced; Two daughters, Drew and Rylie

Hobbies: Lure design, hockey, collecting antiques


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