Reel interest in bass

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Operation bass is becoming the Nascar of the fishing world, with general-market sponsors rushing in as consumer interest in its competitions boom.

Kellogg Co. just came aboard as a major sponsor of two Operation Bass tournaments, along with Eveready Battery Co.'s Energizer, Shop-Vac Corp. and Poulan/Weed Eater. Coca-Cola Co., Land O' Lakes, US Bank and VF Corp.'s Wrangler are among sponsors that joined over the past two years.

Freshwater bass fishing is an estimated $6 billion sport. Total prize money in about 140 Operation Bass tournaments this year is expected to exceed $13 million.

"It's getting to be like Nascar, where the fishermen are stars who attract crowds when they make appearances, and sponsors want to be part of that," said Irwin Jacobs, owner and chairman of Gilberts-ville, Ky.-based Operation Bass, which was started in 1979. Mr. Jacobs also is chairman of Genmar Holdings, the leading marketer of bass boats with brands including Ranger Boats.

35 MILLION BASS ANGLERS

An estimated 35 million people participate in bass fishing each year in the U.S., and recently the sport has begun to draw more women and younger people, Mr. Jacobs said. In addition, nearly every region of the U.S. can support bass fishing, along with other countries, where the sport is becoming increasingly popular, including in Japan.

"Anyone of any size, strength or age can become a top bass angler, and it's a very diversified sport that can take place almost anywhere, which is why sponsors like it," Mr. Jacobs said.

Operation Bass sponsors receive signage and exposure at tournaments telecast on ESPN and ESPN2; this year, sponsors also will get the chance to see their names on the apparel worn by anglers, as well as their trucks, boat trailers and other fishing equipment.

Operation Bass' biggest sponsor remains Wal-Mart Stores, which inked a deal in 1996 to be title sponsor of the new FLW Tour, a top-level competition for pro anglers. That deal marked the first -- and only -- time Wal-Mart has ever lent its name to an event.

Since then, the relationship between Operation Bass and Wal-Mart has steadily grown to include a broad line of FLW Tour-branded fishing gear and accessories sold at Wal-Mart. Individual stores hold in-store promotions and contests nearby each tournament.

WAL-MART WEIGH-INS

Three years ago, Wal-Mart began a tradition of inviting the winners of bass fishing tournaments to come to Wal-Mart parking lots for "weigh-in" events. These gatherings have become marketing festivals attracting thousands of consumers who participate in a "Family Fun Zone" that includes fishing events, games and activities.

Fuji Photo Film USA, a longtime sponsor of Operation Bass, offers a kids casting contest and provides actual bass fishing practice in Wal-Mart parking lots; winners get their photos taken inside the stores.

Last year, Wal-Mart began live broadcasts of the most significant tournaments' weigh-ins on the "Wal-Mart Network," consisting of the TVs in the electronics departments of all 2,600 Wal-Marts nationwide.

`SUBSTANTIAL COVERAGE'

"Put all those people and TVs together and do the math, and it's some pretty substantial coverage," said Charlie Hoover, president-CEO of Operation Bass.

In addition to the FLW Tour, Operation Bass runs the Red Man Tournament Trail amateurs competition, sponsored by the smokeless tobacco brand of Swedish Match and attracting thousands of new participants each year.

Those who succeed at that level can advance to Operation Bass' EverStart Series for advanced anglers who are not yet professionals. That series was named for Wal-Mart's battery brand.

Rival fishing organization B.A.S.S., Montgomery, Ala., said the nation's appetite for bass fishing is growing so fast there's plenty of room for competition.

Claiming to be the largest bass fishing tournament group with 600,000 members who all receive the monthly BassMasters, B.A.S.S. also offers a couple dozen tournaments each year and produces the well-known "BassMasters" cable TV fishing show on The Nashville Network.

GM INTEREST

Sponsors of B.A.S.S.' tournaments include General Motors Corp.'s Chevy trucks and AC Delco, and Mercury Marine's Mercury Outboards. Kmart Corp. recently parted ways with the group.

Although B.A.S.S. said it has no new sponsors to announce so far this year, its relationships are all long term.

"Our sponsor relationships are a lot more than a bumper sticker on a tailgate -- these are long, deep connections," said Wayne Goble, B.A.S.S. research director.

Operation Bass claims 21,000 members but said its main strength is the variety and number of its tournaments. The organization also has a monthly magazine, Bass Fishing, which is mailed to all members.

Next month, Operation Bass will launch a revamped version of its Web site (operationbass.com) that will include daily updates on fishing, along with detailed tournament information.

And despite its name, Operation Bass is entering new waters. This year, it will offer its first-ever tournament to catch walleye, said to be even more challenging to hook than bass.

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