"KVD is not exactly the Tiger Woods of the sport. No disrespect to Tiger, but KVD dominates more, in a more demanding sport."
— Jerry McKinnis
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Kevin VanDam made ESPN's SportsCenter "Top 10 Plays of the Day," last Saturday morning. He was No. 3 on the list, based on winning the $250,000 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title the day before, during the Bassmaster Champion's Choice tournament at Oneida Lake.
In a SportsCenter video clip showing VanDam swinging a smallmouth bass in the boat, it was noted "they call him the Tiger Woods of bass fishing."
That comparison is both unfair to both men and getting a bit long in the tooth. But it's not entirely off-base, either. VanDam and Woods represent the singularly-dominant figures in their respective non-team sports.
The problem is that golf and bass fishing aren't really comparable. But the fact the latter is a sport — a physically and mentally challenging sport — has become increasingly apparent. That's good news for professional bass fishing, which has long lived under the image of good ol' boys swigging beer until they feel a tug on their line.
Jerry McKinnis, now 70, was in Syracuse last week when VanDam clinched the title. After hosting "The Fishin' Hole" show for 44 years and founding a company that continues to provide TV production work for ESPN, including the Bassmaster Elite Series, McKinnis has probably witnessed VanDam at work more than anyone.
And McKinnis knows his sports, not just bass fishing. As a former minor league player in the Kansas City Royals farm system, McKinnis experienced that sport as a participant. While fishing became his way of making a living, McKinnis has never ceased to be a keen observer of the major sports in this country.
Plus, McKinnis has a couple of pretty good "sports advisors," he counts among his closest friends, including legendary college basketball coach Bob Knight and former Major League Baseball manager Whitey Herzog, best-known for guiding the St. Louis Cardinals to three National League pennants and a World Series championship.
So just over a year ago, when McKinnis made that Tiger Woods/Kevin VanDam comparison quoted at the top of this story, it wasn't merely a flippant comment from a know-nothing. As someone who has also fished in bass tournaments and observed every aspect of the modern evolution of the sport, McKinnis can speak with some authority on the subject of sports and the athletes participating in them.
Sunday morning, as McKinnis stood on the launch dock at Oneida Shores Park, he noted everyone sees VanDam's competitiveness, and it's certainly an important part of his success. But McKinnis' TV work with VanDam also provided him a view of another equally-important part of KVD's success.
"I don't think people can see, or have a feel for, his focus," McKinnis said. "He's extremely focused. I notice that because he's always very open to us sending a cameraman with him.
"It doesn't matter what's going on around him, because he's oblivious to it all. His focus is really incredible."
If you're watching NBC's coverage of the Olympic Games now — and who isn't? — count the times "focus" is used in describing an elite athlete. No one gets to the pinnacle of any sport without an extraordinary ability to focus on the task at hand.
And if you know McKinnis, you know he would never cheer for one angler over another. But you don't work in the TV business for almost 50 years without knowing what viewers want to see. With malice toward none, McKinnis knows VanDam really is the Tiger Woods of bass fishing in that aspect.
It's been well-documented how television ratings go up when Woods is part of a golf tournament field. And they go even higher when he's in contention on the final day.
"I think Kevin is probably the most valuable asset that bass fishing has," McKinnis said. "Again, I'm not trying to put down all the other anglers. But Kevin is the man.
"He's the guy who can take bass fishing to where we want it to go."
McKinnis made one more interesting observation about VanDam's ability: his unwillingness to quit — ever — under any circumstances.
"All these other anglers talk about not giving up," McKinnis said. "And in most cases, that's just talk. Most of these guys give up at some point. It's human nature.
"Again, I don't mean that to be a negative toward the other anglers. But most of them shut down at some point. Kevin doesn't do that, absolutely doesn't do that.
"I think those two things — his focus and that he never gives up — are really important to where he is today."
Where he is today can be measured by over $3 million in BASS tournament winnings. Only one other angler, 59-year-old Denny Brauer, has crossed the $2 million mark in BASS earnings.
A recent mathematical study by Jennifer Brown at the University of California - Berkeley, documented Tiger Woods' affect on the other golfers in a tournament. Entitled "Quitters Never Win: The (Adverse) Incentive Effects of Competing with Superstars," Brown reached the following conclusion:
On average, higher-skill PGA golfers' first-round scores are approximately 0.2 strokes higher when Tiger Woods participates, relative to when Woods is absent. The overall superstar effect for tournaments is approximately 0.8 strokes. The adverse superstar effect increases when Woods is playing well and disappears during Woods' weaker periods. There is no evidence that reduced performance is due to 'riskier' play.
Something similar could have happened to Faircloth last week. Both he and VanDam acknowledged the enormous pressure they felt going into that final tournament with the TTBAOY title on the line. The first day was literally a wash, as both anglers had a 10-pound limit and stood in danger of missing the top 50, Day Two cut.
On the most crucial day of the season, VanDam rallied with 13 pounds, 1 ounce and moved into the top 50, while Faircloth faltered with 6-6, his worst single-day performance of the year.
The next day, Kelly Jordon, a fellow Texan who has known Faircloth since they were teenagers, still couldn't believe Faircloth hadn't found fish at Oneida Lake those first two days of the tournament.
"All I can think is that he got hung up on those smallmouth out here," Jordon said. "That can happen to anybody. But it's just hard for me to believe it happened to him on this pond, the way it's fishing for largemouth.
"That was probably his curse, when he found that big school of smallmouth (in practice)."
Or maybe it was just another example of "The (Adverse) Incentive Effects of Competing with Superstars."
With a fourth BASS Angler of the Year title added to his list of accomplishments, VanDam secured his reputation as THE superstar of bass fishing.