Football fans across the land get a look at a brave new world of televised sport Sunday when the Fox Network broadcasts the first live national coverage of a bass tournament.
The event is the Ranger M1 Millennium Tournament from Cypress Gardens, Fla., which precedes or follows Fox's NFL coverage, depending on where you live. In Washington and Baltimore, the 90-minute show will come on at 2:30 p.m., before the Tampa Bay-New Orleans game.
The tournament features 400 of the nation's best pro and semipro bass anglers. They will compete over four days for a top prize of $400,000 cash, plus incentives from event sponsors that could drive the winning share to $1 million. It's billed as the biggest payday ever for a fishing tournament.
The marriage of football and fishing is the brainchild of Minnesota businessman Irwin L. Jacobs. Four years ago, he saw a marketing opportunity in the booming field of competitive bass fishing and has worked since, by his own account, "to turn it into a high-profile spectator sport."
With veteran sportscaster Joe Buck and former major league baseball player Bob Brenly doing play-by-play, football analyst Terry Bradshaw providing background features and bass legend Forrest L. Wood offering commentary, the show promises to boost the profile of fishing for cash to new heights.
How do you televise an event conducted over four days on a huge chain of 15 lakes? Fox plans to have boats chase the 10 finalists Sunday, plus helicopters and tethered balloons to beam out live overviews. Anglers will have a microphone and earpiece for live interviews while they're fishing.
The show's first 15 minutes or so will be a scene-setter, with video of the four days' action. The final 75 minutes will come live from the floating weigh-in arena--a stage usually used for water-ski shows--with feeds as the anglers finish up and the boats streak in with potential winning catches.
"The cost of this show exceeds what we spend on an NFL championship or a World Series," said producer Bill Brown, who will monitor the output of 16 cameras during the run to the finish.
Still, how exciting can a show about weighing fish be? Not too dull, actually. The weigh-in scene at the Bassmaster Classic in Baltimore in 1991 was so emotionally charged, it moved former Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer to tears.
What moved Fox and Jacobs to put competitive fishing on a national stage isn't so much emotion as demographics. "Fifty-five million Americans identify themselves as fishermen," said Jacobs. "And of those, 35 million fish for bass."
Jacobs said that as chief executive of Genmar, a holding company with dozens of boat-building operations including Hatteras, Ranger Bass Boats, Wellcraft, Carver, Aquasport, Trojan, Lund and others, "I asked myself, 'How can we get more people into fishing so they buy our boats?' The answer was money and TV."
Four years ago, he waded into competitive bass fishing, taking on the venerable Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, which started the bass tournament phenomenon 30 years ago. Jacobs brought six-figure cash paydays, taped cable TV coverage of tournaments and a national sponsor, Wal-Mart, to the arena.
The purses started big and grew, garnering the attention of national media including USA Today, "World News Tonight With Peter Jennings," ESPN and ESPN2. The Millennium tournament's top prize is $400,000, biggest ever according to Jacobs, but that can grow to $1 million with incentives from event sponsors Ranger, Evinrude, Garmin Electronics, Citgo and Watkins, which is a direct seller of consumer goods.
All those sponsors offered six-figure bonuses to the winner as long as he had purchased their product in advance. Example: The winning angler gets an extra $200,000 if he recently bought a new Ranger Comanche Bass Boat, and $100,000 more if it has a new Evinrude hanging on the back.
Like most bass tournaments, the cash payouts are largely covered by entry fees. Four hundred anglers, all Ranger bass boat owners, were selected to compete--200 pros and 200 semipro "co-anglers" who have to fish from the back of the boat. Pros pay $5,000 each to enter, co-anglers $2,500 each. That comes to a whopping $1.5 million in entry fees.
Still, the first-place payoff is huge. That should build excitement as the 10 finalist boats come screaming to the finish at 3:45 p.m., and Brenly and Buck build up the grand finale weigh-in to 2,000 fans in the stands and countless others in TV land.
Who's going to win--Denny Brauer, the venerable Bassmaster Classic champion? Or Guido Hibdon or his son Dion, who'll shuffle in from Lake of the Woods, Mo.--or David Walker, whose picture is currently on Wheaties boxes?