07/30/04 — Bassmasters bring big bucks to Charlotte

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Bassmasters bring big bucks to Charlotte

By Wire
Published in Sports on July 30, 2004 1:55 PM

CHARLOTTE (AP) -- The Super Bowl of bass fishing is expected to bring up to 100,000 fans and more than $20 million to Charlotte this weekend.

The Bassmaster Classic is intense competition in boats that can sprint across Lake Wylie at 70 mph.

This is anglers wearing logo-covered shirts that look like NASCAR hand-me-downs, who hoist their catches by the bottom lip in front of a screaming crowd in a darkened arena with fireworks shooting around them.

Charlotte sports and tourism promoters saw the turnout for the 2001 Classic in New Orleans and bid $500,000 to lure this year's competition, including $50,000 each from the city and Mecklenburg County. Organizers said the event will help fill Charlotte hotel rooms for a normally slow weekend during the summer season.

Rods and reels will be everywhere, from a festival in Freedom Park -- where organizers stocked the lake with 1,600 pounds of catfish Tuesday for the kids to catch -- to a 280,000-square-foot trade show at the Charlotte Convention Center opening today.

But the highlight has got to be the daily weigh-ins at the Charlotte Coliseum, where fishing takes on the tone of professional wrestling, with hyped-up announcers, fireworks and confetti.

The 53 competitive anglers who qualified for the Classic get a shot at a top prize of $200,000 and the potential to earn more than $1 million in sponsorships.

They'll spend eight hours on over the weekend dropping hooks into the most promising fishing holes on Lake Wylie, then bringing their five biggest catches to the Coliseum, where they're introduced like NBA players taking the court.

The fish are weighed in front of the crowd, and the angler whose catch tips the scale at the most pounds claims victory.

The bass then escape the frying pan, being released back into the lake. Any angler who shows up with a dead catch is penalized. The rule has been in place since the competition's early days, when organizers feared competitive fishing would deplete the bass population.

The Bassmaster Classic has been around since 1971. It was the brainchild of Ray Scott, an Alabama insurance salesman who organized his first fishing competition in 1967 and created BASS -- formerly the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society -- a year later.

The group has grown to more than 600,000 members and has chapters in six foreign countries. The Classic's finals have aired live on cable channels since 1985.

Interest continued to grow to the point that ESPN saw an attractive prospect, buying BASS three years ago for a reported $35 million. The network changed the Classic's format, increased the prize money and has given the sport much wider exposure.

Viewership of the Classic since ESPN took over has grown from 224,000 homes in 2001 to 425,000 last year, and the network expects much higher numbers with this year's expanded coverage.

ESPN and ESPN2, who know a potential breakthrough sport when they see one, will expand their coverage from three hours last year to 11 of this year's event.

BASS founder Scott -- whose new enterprise is building customized lakes, ala golf courses by Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus -- said, "ESPN's taking it to heights I never dreamed of."

Almost everybody involved with bass fishing thinks it could be the next NASCAR -- a once-regional niche sport that broke into the big time.

Scott points out that fishing is the No. 1 recreational sport in America, even bigger than golf, so competitive fishing has a built-in audience -- and a huge customer base for sponsors who want to sell boats and motors and reels.

Charlotte sports marketing expert Max Muhleman said he thinks it's too soon to start calling BASS the new NASCAR, but he does think it has the potential for broader appeal.

"It certainly has raised my eyebrows," he said.

Information from: The Charlotte Observer, http://www.charlotte.com