MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Here's a man to add to the list of trash-talking professional athletes only this guy talks trash to fish.
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MIKE IACONELLI: Here I come.
BLOCK: That's Mike Iaconelli, the reigning wild man of professional bass fishing. He was recently crowned Angler of the Year by the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society and while some might wonder whether a man who taunts fish is a good ambassador for the sport, Iaconelli and other young fisherman are drawing new fans. NPR's Jack Speer traveled to Missouri to see how large purses and growing corporate sponsorship are changing tournament fishing.
JACK SPEER: It's barely dawn at the What's Up Doc Marina in the sleepy town of Kimberling City, Missouri, where the juggernaut that is big-time professional bass fishing has come to town, though at the moment the flotilla is socked in by fog.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) as long as it's foggy, you've got to have your running lights on even if you're fishing. This dock and the next dock down, you know, where the rest of them is are the only two docks you can use this afternoon.
SPEER: One hundred and one brightly colored bass boats bob on the waters of Table Rock Lake, their propellers sputtering, waiting for the signal to take off. The angler who lands the most big fish at the end of this four-day tournament pockets $100,000. There are payouts of $10,000 all the way down to 50th place.
One of the contestants, Florida's Pete Ponds, says to be successful here you have to be focused.
PETE PONDS: I don't think about baseball, I don't think about football, I don't think about golf, I don't think about racing. I don't think about anything but bass fishing and that's all I do. It's an obsession.
SPEER: An obsession, that for the moment, doesn't pay nearly as well as any of those other sports. These fishermen do see themselves as athletes. For three days prior to a tournament they're out on the water practicing, often for 12 hours at a time, marking spots and plotting strategy.
Brent Chapman is another tournament pro.
BRENT CHAPMAN: It is truly an endurance sport. I've fished with quite a few different athletes over the time, and halfway through a hard day's fishing they're wore out.
SPEER: Chapman is fishing this season with the backing of a major corporate sponsor. His black and gold boat is plastered with the Silicon 2 logo advertising a line of caulking products made by General Electric.
Jay Osgood is with GE's marketing department.
JAY OSGOOD: We were excited to become one of the first major sponsors not strictly from the fishing industry. When we looked at the demographics we realized we wouldn't only be reaching fishing industry enthusiasts but also our target customers, which are the do- it-yourselfers, the contractors, the homeowner.
SPEER: GE won't say exactly what it spends to sponsor Chapman, though Osgood says it's small compared to what the company spends on NASCAR. But having a big corporate sponsor is still a rarity. Most of the men on this tour struggle to make ends meet. They must finish in the top half consistently in order to make any money.
One way organizers of pro bass fishing are trying to enliven the sport is by creating more interaction with the fans, many of whom travel long distances to attend the events.
Unidentified Man #2: And ladies and gentleman, we've got one more man we need to meet before we can start weighing fish. Let's get him up here. He's the man in charge.
SPEER: Each afternoon when the day's fishing is done anglers bound up onto a large stage, plastered with corporate logos, to have their fish weighed. A jumbo TV screen shows the day's highlights.
BLOCK: We have weighed 88 anglers so far, ladies and gentlemen. Brent Chapman enters the event on the bubble for the classic.
SPEER: Unfortunately for Chapman, he doesn't do well on this first day of the tournament. He's caught just two small fish, leaving him in 54th place. The anglers on the tour all seem to get along, but there is tension here too. Not everyone likes Mike Iaconelli's antics, including Brent Chapman.
CHAPMAN: I've tried to make a name for myself by being professional. I think some other people try to go the opposite route and, you know, try to do the Dennis Rodman-type stuff. And I think the fisherman that are trying to do that, I they're, you know, I think they're just going to be a flash in the pan.
SPEER: But Iaconelli believes he's bringing a new level of excitement to the sport. Iaconelli is sponsored by Toyota. He has his own line of T-shirts, he's been on shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live, he's even sold the rights to his life story. He admits his personality may not appeal to everyone, but says he and some of the other anglers on the tour are connecting with the fans.
IACONELLI: It's nice that you're seeing different personalities, you know? And I don't think you want to see one personality across the board. And so we've got a whole bunch of different types of people here, and when you show that, it's great because people can relate to those personalities. And that's nice to have that.
SPEER: Standing in front of the weigh-in stage, Kurt Daugherty and his son are both big bass fishing fans. The older Daugherty says he'd like to see more professional fishing on television.
KURT DAUGHERTY: You know, they show golf and basketball on TV all the time. They never show the bass matches on regular TV, you know, on Sundays like down here.
SPEER: Do you think they should?
DAUGHERTY: Yeah, they should, because there's more people down here in this area that bass fishes than plays golf.
SPEER: Do you think bass fishing will be as big as golf someday? It might be.
DAUGHERTY: Yeah, it is. It is bigger than golf, to me, and to all these people out here.
SPEER: ESPN bought the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, or BASS, several years ago and has been working to increase the visibility of professional fishing. ESPN is trying to take a page from NASCAR as it looks to make the sport more television friendly. The cable network provides video highlights of the major tournament events and it does same-day coverage of the Bass Master Classic, bass fishing's version of the Super Bowl, which features a $500,000 first prize and last year attracted 9.5 million TV viewers.
But for most on the pro tour, landing a major corporate sponsor is as challenging as winning a major tournament.
Sitting outside the travel trailer he takes on the road to keep expenses down, 35yearold Terry Butcher from Talula, Oklahoma can only sit and wait to see who wins here at the last major competition of the season. Butcher was eliminated after the second day, so he'll receive no paycheck from this event. He says it's been a tough year, but he isn't ready to quit yet.
TERRY BUTCHER: Oh you have days, you know, you think man, why am I doing this? But, you know, you sleep it off for a week or so and think about it, and you're ready to go again.
SPEER: But without a major corporate backer, Butcher says deciding whether to continue for him is an annual decision. He knows that some of the fishermen here won't be back again next year. In the end, Todd Faircloth, a pro from Texas, walks away with the $100,000 first prize at Table Rock Lake. Brent Chapman is knocked out of the competition, left to wonder what went wrong in Missouri and about how to ready himself for next year. Jack Speer, NPR News.
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