Editor's Note: This is the third of a three-part series examining the major developments in the 2006 BASS tournament structure and how changes in the professional bass fishing organization compare to changes NASCAR stock car racing experienced. Part Three focuses on similarities in NASCAR drivers and BASS anglers and how the sports have been — and will be — marketed.
CELEBRATION, Fla. — Richard Petty and Benny Parsons remember the days when they tried to do everything to help NASCAR racing grow. In the early 1970s, NASCAR racing was a regional sport, the word "marketing" was hardly ever applied and the sport was much less sophisticated than the sponsor-driven mega sport it is today. BASS had similar grassroots efforts in its early days more than 40 years ago but now has grown to be the worldwide authority on bass fishing, sanctioning more than 20,000 events annually through its BASS Federation. Its sponsors include CITGO, BUSCH, Purolator, Triton, Mercury Marine, Berkley and Bass Pro Shops and the organization has nearly 550,00 members.
"I never expected BASS to be as big as it is now," said Tom Higgins, a journalist who has covered NASCAR, fishing and hunting for more than 40 years for The Charlotte Observer. "I remember when Ray Scott (BASS founder) came to the newspaper office one day to talk to me about a story and I was too busy to talk to him, but someone else he talked to said he was selling memberships out of a cigar box. So BASS had humble beginnings, too.
"(BASS) started off, like NASCAR, as a regional sport, appealing to the middle-class man," said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., and generally recognized as one of the top event promoters in NASCAR. "And those are the only two sports ever to do that."
Petty and Parsons understood their role in growing the sport. "Any time that a lot of drivers back in the '70s could be part of a charitable event, or speak to a civic group in a city we were going to be racing in, we'd jump at the chance because it helped all of us," said Parsons, the 1973 NASCAR champion who now is a commentator for NBC Sports. "Some people would see us doing something like that and they'd say, 'You know, those old boys aren't as bad as we thought, I'll go see them,' or, 'I met that Benny Parsons, and he's a great guy.'"
Likewise, BASS anglers can be counted on to sign autographs and take photos with fans at the ESPN Outdoors Expo, the industry's largest consumer show that runs in conjunction with the CITGO Bassmaster Classic.
"We signed autographs, let them onto the track after the race, did anything we could do to make (fans) happy," said Petty, the most successful NASCAR driver of all time who enjoyed a career that spanned parts of five decades.
BASS has made major changes to its tournament formats for 2006, looking to further turn BASS into a major national presence. Developments such as the introduction of next year's CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series and Bassmaster Majors, expanded television coverage on ESPN and increased visibility for series and angler sponsors are in the forefront as BASS officials look to the future.
There are plenty anglers and officials who understand their role in taking the sport to the next level, just as Petty, Parsons and other NASCAR drivers did in the 1970s, and today's NASCAR stars such as Jeff Gordon continue to do.
Often, anglers spend their spare time in photo shoots for sponsor ads, responding to media inquires and making appearances at community functions – in essence, growing their brand.
Petty and Wheeler believe that any sport — if it wishes to gain national appeal — needs to have a couple of stars who transcend the sport. Wheeler pointed to what athletes including Joe Namath, Arnold Palmer and Mohammed Ali did for their sports.
"The success of any sport totally depends on personalities," said Wheeler. "They have to have a magnanimous personality to relate to the whole country. You've got to have a megastar. Of course, it's also the chicken and egg thing, because you also have to have the media shining on your sport to recognize the personality. It's what vaulted NASCAR.
"How do they get the mega-personality?" Wheeler asked. "I have a theory that all sports need two superstars and five stars, a total of seven people that the general population has heard about. You can't have more than two superstars because then they wouldn't be superstars. There are some bass fishermen who are known from doing TV shows. Somebody has got to emerge to be a big enough star to transcend the sport they are in."
Top-performing anglers who have made no secret of their desire to market both skill and personality include Gerald Swindle, Aaron Martens and Skeet Reese - the same anglers who've already signed up for the 2006 CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series.
"You need that one guy or two guys up there everybody is shooting for," said Petty. "Whether it was me or (David) Pearson or (Dale) Earnhardt or whoever, when you have a dominant winner, the fans don't have any complacency. They either love him or hate him. They either pull for him or pull against him. Look at golf. They were kind of just riding along after (Jack) Nicklaus, but once Tiger Woods took over, they picked back up again. He brought a lot of people to the tournaments and got a lot of people watching on television. The New York Yankees; even today, baseball fans either love them or hate them.
"There have been a lot of people who have compared BASS to where NASCAR used to be, and I see a lot of similarities," said Ed Clark, president of Atlanta Motor Speedway and BASS member who fished a 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Tour event as a non-boater. "The athletes in both sports are sharp people, personable and interesting, and people want to follow them and what they do. I think BASS has the athletes to take them where they want to go, with higher visibility on a national scale and greater paydays. It all comes with making changes to get to that next level.
"I knew we could have kept things the same — as they've always been," said Don Rucks, BASS vice president and general manager. "But we had so much feedback from our stakeholders and anglers, we wanted to truly deliver what they asked for and what the industry needs."
Those changes include making room for more sponsors. Like all sports, BASS is dependent upon sponsors and new rules in 2006, designed to increase sponsor visibility at events on the new CITGO Bassmasters Elite Series and the Bassmaster Majors, have been met with some confusion from anglers.
"BASS is a tremendous organization," said Clark. "I know that one of the struggles is it has lifetime people who ask, "Why do they need to change anything?' But how about that next generation of anglers, and the rest of the business? I personally think BASS can be a lot bigger.
"It all comes down to people," said Petty. "The more people paying attention to what you are doing, the more people who like what you are doing, the more important you are to sponsors.
"Overt commercialism is just a part of sports today, whether you like it or not," said Wheeler. "If the BASS anglers want to get where NASCAR is, they'd better get used to it.
"I've been a BASS man for 20 plus years and have seen a lot of growth in professionalism and money," said Clark. "But if they want it to be on a truly national level and get the recognition the sport should, they have to make some changes, and they are doing that. It's not going to happen overnight. You can fish for a lot longer than you can be a race car driver, but the BASS anglers who are in their 20s and 30s now will really benefit when it grows. It's like sewing a seed; you get to watch it grow and mature."