By Joe Balog
Special to BassFan

(Editor's note: BassFan will suspend feature publication during the holidays as it does each year, although important breaking news will still be reported. The staff wishes everyone a joyous and safe holiday. We'll resume feature publication on Monday, Jan. 5.)

Out in my garage, in a rack next to dozens of the most cutting-edge, high-tech fishing rods available today, are two sticks of a bygone era. One is a Team Daiwa Larry Nixon worm rod. The other is a telescopic, fiberglass cranker that carries the name Clunn.

When veteran tournament pros stop by, many handle the two poles with a chuckle and a gleam in their eye. While these rods are junkers by today’s standards, to us, they’re priceless.

Some remember when Daiwa compiled the “Dream Team” of professional bass fishermen to endorse their products. Rick Clunn, Nixon, George Cochran, Denny Brauer, the Hibdons, Jay Yelas, Ken Cook; they each brought value to the design of rods specifically matched for their renowned techniques. In my teens, I owned them all, complete with matching Daiwa reels and a Team Daiwa poster on my bedroom wall, opposite those of rock bands and bikini models.

One man who certainly remembers that era is Curt Arakawa, because he helped create it as the Team Daiwa administrator. After leaving Daiwa in 1987 and working with various companies in and out of fishing, Arakawa is now back, and again heading Daiwa’s professional fishing team. Thus, he offers a unique “then and now” perspective on such marketing directions in fishing.

Millennium Promotions
Photo: Millennium Promotions

The original Team Daiwa, formed in the 1980s, consisted of the sport's biggest stars of that era.

During his initial tenure, Arakawa witnessed tremendous sales of products endorsed by his celebrity-status pros. During his absence, Daiwa’s direction changed, as well as the apparent effectiveness of pro-team endorsements. Arakawa thinks he knows why.

While the company continued to offer top-of-the-line products known for longevity, the R&D and marketing focus was solely on those carrying the highest price points. Daiwa’s pro-endorsed Steez line of rods and reels, although incredibly advanced and of the highest quality, were the primary product of a different time. Today, with a drastically changed economy, they fall out of the comfortable price range of many everyday bass anglers. They still have a loyal following, much like a luxury-brand automobile, but it can’t possibly be the majority of the market.

So the best pros were endorsing products necessary for their high levels of competition, yet few of us could afford them.

Beyond Belief

Conversely, during the earlier Team Daiwa's reign, products were reasonably priced, but that didn’t take away from performance values. The rods were, in fact, designed by the best in the business, and coupled with Daiwa’s incredibly popular TD1Hi reel, were used at the highest level of competition. According to Arakawa, many people couldn’t believe the hype – they often accused Daiwa pros of having special, custom-made sticks in their rod lockers.

It’s important to understand the theme of that marketing campaign: Daiwa’s paid pros, the best in the business, were designing and using gear that we could afford. In many aspects, bass fishing has gotten away from that. Examples are endless.

Therefore, it probably comes as no surprise that Arakawa is back with the same plans. Through the introduction of the Tatula line of rods and reels, Daiwa has again put pro-designed, tournament-proven gear in the hands of consumers at a reasonable price. The company's designers and testers include Takahiro Omori, Ish Monroe, Brent Ehrler, Randy Howell, Andy Montgomery and others.

This equipment is not a sub-par component to Daiwa’s lineup. In fact, the long-cast spool release system on Tatula reels, dubbed a “T-Wing”, is a patented, revolutionary mechanism only on select models. Convincing the new pros to use it was easy because the system itself was better.

More Transparent

Unlike previous pro-staff projects behind closed doors, however, much of today’s work is out there for the world to see. Through “Project T”, Daiwa introduced a series of videos outlining the process. Fishing fans can watch what happens behind the scenes, from the initial board-room style meetings with pros to on-the-water sessions intended to either destroy prototypes or prove their worth.

Why film and bring forth the everyday happenings of a major fishing tackle company? Again, it's part of a subtle marketing approach.

Now, armed with high-end gear at competitive prices and a modern-day approach to gaining visibility, the big question exists: How are things different than back in the days of the Dream Team? The answer lies in the staff itself, and offers insight into our changing world.

In the early '80s, Daiwa’s team was comprised of the winningest professional fishermen in the industry, period. Clunn owned the Classic while Brauer owned a technique. The Hibdons were doing something no one else was and Nixon won MegaBucks again and again.

Team Daiwa rods from a bygone era – a worm/jig rod designed by Larry Nixon and a cranking stick that carries Rick Clunn's name.

In those days, winning was everything. Without question, the most popular professional bass fishermen were those with the most – and most visible – wins. Therefore, choosing the right pros to design and endorse a product was likely pretty easy, given a big enough budget.

Today is different, however. While we see the top performers continue to become prominent names in the sport, oftentimes some of the most popular fishermen are those without recent wins. They frequently have a great stage presence, superior media relations and/or a large social media following.

In addition, we rarely see such singularly dominant anglers in today’s age, for reasons not altogether known.

Playing to their Strengths

Arakawa has seen how media-savvy athletes often trump dominant winners in the eyes of a sponsor. While his team certainly contains some of the sport’s best, he sees each member as a separate marketing component. And, during the course of our interview, he frequently gave examples of their unique marketability.

In addition, to draw closer to the mindset of the consumer, Arakawa stressed the importance of choosing members who excel in areas consumers are focused on.

In other words, if the bass fishing public is more focused on cool videos on YouTube than who just won a tournament on Seminole, then give them more cool videos – containing your product.

In addition, having guys like Erhler, who brings along a GoPro camera sponsorship and a corresponding presence everywhere in the world, fits right into the mold as a marketing win-win. And, according to Arakawa, that’s also no accident. He’s looking for such a match and regards an angler’s ability to discuss a product as highly as his ability to demonstrate with it competitively.

Although the Tatula line of products has been successful, Arakawa envisions more.

The gear is less expensive, but in some ways superior, to many current models. It’s been brought forth in a forum supported by the public, carrying the endorsement of some of today’s most popular pros. So why haven't Tatula products been flying off the shelves faster than the newest I-Phone?

After lengthy chats with Arakawa, with each of us interjecting our own real-world experience into bass fishing marketing, it appears it may be our own fault.

For years, pro bass has endeavored to bring itself into an almost “elitist” status within the world of fishing. This is no Andy Griffith portrayal, complete with cane poles and daydreams. On the contrary, by utilizing competition as a driving force behind promotions, we’ve pushed to create a market where technology seems imperative to success, and competitive success is the only important gauge of the activity.

In essence, we’ve led ourselves to believe that we need to own the most expensive gear available, complete with all the bells and whistles. The price point alone must signify the item’s quality, and only the top quality will offer us a better chance to win. Seventy-thousand dollar boats and $500 rods simply catch more bass, right?

Of course not, but the buying public seems reluctant to take a chance on the contrary.

Perhaps such a mentality is damaging our beloved sport. It seems a far cry from a simpler time, when a kid in high school could own one each of a rod and reel designed by his heroes, daydreaming of someday being in their shoes.