Classic champ joins Elite field

CELEBRATION, Fla. — Reigning CITGO Bassmaster Classic Champion Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., will fish the 2006 CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series, the angler announced today.

 The 38-year-old has earned 15 consecutive Classic berths, won the Super Bowl of bass fishing in both 2001 and 2005 and generally is regarded as one of the greatest "power" fishermen to ever compete. He was named by fans the fifth greatest angler of all time in ESPN's Greatest Angler Debate presented by John Deere earlier this year and VanDam has been in the money in nearly 80 percent of the 166 BASS tournaments he's fished. The angler said he was excited to renew his long-standing relationship with BASS and eager to continue working with the membership organization to elevate tournament fishing to an all-new level.

 "The Elite Series is the best model we've ever had in the sport that will truly grow an angler's identity and offer a tremendous earning potential and opportunity," VanDam said.

 Specifically, Elite Series anglers have the opportunity to cash in on more than $11 million in 2006 in the tournament series, the CITGO Bassmaster Classic, the Bassmaster Majors, the CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year program and other contingencies. The Elite Series also features smaller field sizes and offers increased media exposure, two elements VanDam believes anglers are the most excited about.

 "The smaller fields allow people to really get in their own game plan, get out and shine," he said. "There's tremendous opportunity and a lot of money to be won."

 Don Rucks, BASS vice president and general manager, said: "The CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series was created for anglers to build their unique brands and enhance their careers. Their talent and individual personalities, combined with BASS' and ESPN's unmatched exposure, will drive excitement for fans and sponsors and benefit everyone who participates in the Elite Series."

 Because anglers fish from their own boats on all competitive days of the Bassmaster Majors, including the final day when same-day coverage will air on ESPN2, VanDam believes more sponsors will be exposed to bass fishing and want to sponsor anglers. "It's an opportunity for a lot of companies to get interested in a sport that they've never been associated with before."

 VanDam's sponsors include Mercury Marine, Bass Pro Shops, Tracker Marine Group, Strike King Lure Co., Quantum, Biosonix fish attractant, fish hook manufacturer O. Mustad & Son A.S., Plano tackle boxes and Kevin VanDam's Line and Lure conditioner.

 He's also finalizing negotiations with other sponsors, including those that will be featured on his boat and truck wrap. He said he's bringing the new sponsors on board by offering a "whole marketing package," including ad campaigns, retail promotion and corporate hospitality. "Kevin is a distinguished leader in our industry and a great asset to our organization," said Kevin Luebke, manager of freshwater endorsements for Mercury Marine.

 Better known as "KVD" by his peers, VanDam — who has earned nearly $2 million on the BASS circuit and trails all-time BASS money winner Denny Brauer by less than $35,000 — now is focused on the $500,000 top prize up for grabs at the 2006 CITGO Bassmaster Classic, on Lake Tohopekaliga in Kissimmee, Fla., Feb. 24-26. If VanDam takes the 2006 Classic, he will become the only angler to win four consecutive BASS titles, succeeding Roland Martin, who won three in a row. "It would be huge for me personally," VanDam said.

 Just weeks after the Bassmaster Classic, Elite Series anglers will begin their season with the "Battle on the Border" on Lake Amistad in Del Rio, Texas. The Elite Series and Bassmaster Majors also will visit Lake Guntersville in Alabama, Lake Wylie in North Carolina and the Potomac River in Maryland.

 "It's the best schedule we've ever had, as far as the quality of lakes and the times we are going to them," VanDam said. "It's a marathon year, without a doubt."

 Majors locations will be new for VanDam, including Lake Oneida in New York, the area of the Arkansas River in Arkansas and Eagle Mountain Lake in Texas. Still, he's ready to perform well, striving to earn his fourth CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year title, which includes a $125,000 check with the accolade. The program will award a total of $600,000. "Any time you base the CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year award on more events, it definitely rewards an angler for his consistency."

 With such a monumental endeavor, VanDam said communication will be a key to success. "BASS needs to understand that communication and respect is critical to the success of this," he said. "Anglers are the customers and there has to be a philosophy of committed customer service."

 Rucks agreed. "These anglers and their families are passionate about bass fishing and, as the authority and leader in the sport, we strive to serve them completely. We're ready to raise our level of customer service to new heights that both our anglers and members have not seen before."

 Until the kickoff, VanDam is urging other anglers to carefully decide what's best for them as individual businesspeople. Invited anglers who do not fish the Elite Series in 2006 must re-qualify through the CITGO Bassmaster Northern and Southern Tours the following year. "All of the anglers and sponsors are excited about the opportunity for increased exposure," he said. "Long-term, if it's successful, the sky's the limit."