Does competitive bass fishing have the potential to become a nationwide TV phenomenon like poker did a few years back? Boyd Duckett and a couple dozen other top anglers believe it does, and that premise is the foundation behind the long-rumored new venture hatched by the 2007 Bassmaster Classic champion and successful businessman.
Major League Fishing (MLF) is a made-for-TV endeavor that, in Duckett's words, relegates fish to the figurative status of "a football or a hockey puck." Its aim is to capture the essence of fishing competition like it's never been shown before, and thus expand the sport beyond its traditional reach by attracting viewers who don't fish tournaments themselves (or perhaps don't fish at all), but are captivated by the drama created by the interaction of intense competitors.
Then in turn, the theory goes, the larger audience will attract major non-endemic sponsors.
"We're not trying to build outdoor programming – we're trying to build a sports product," Duckett said. "The three biggest factors in televised sports are competition, emotion and characters. That's what happens in the NFL, in NASCAR and in the NBA, and we need to capture those three.
"This isn't about a bass and it isn't about a crankbait – there's a place for that and it's where we all come from, but it has 325,000 (estimated TV viewers). If we can find a way to make that number even 600,000, then the value to a non-endemic sponsor has doubled.
"That's easy to say, but a lot harder to do. Can we do it? I don't know."
Stars Lined Up
The MLF roster consists of 24 of the biggest names in the sport, chosen primarily on the basis of fan following and potential TV appeal. More than half of them formed an entity in 2009 specifically for this project called Pro Bass Tour (PBT) and have invested their own money in the venture. The rest were invited later.
In addition to Duckett, the lineup consists of B.A.S.S. headliners Kevin VanDam, Skeet Reese, Mike Iaconelli, Gary Klein, Kelly Jordon, Shaw Grigsby, Dean Rojas, Edwin Evers, Mark Davis, Aaron Martens, Greg Hackney, Mike McClelland, Jeff Kriet, Byron Velvick, Alton Jones, Tommy Biffle, Denny Brauer, Tim Horton, Ish Monroe, Takahiro Omori and Jason Quinn. FLW Tour standout Brent Ehrler and Marty Stone, a former Bassmaster angler who was coaxed out of retirement for this venture, are the lone non-Elite Series pros.
Davy Hite, Terry Scroggins and Gerald Swindle were members of the original lineup, but have dropped out. Hite, whose son may play college football at Army this fall, had a scheduling problem and Scroggins and Swindle reportedly encountered conflicts with their Toyota sponsorships that couldn't be overcome. VanDam and Iaconelli are also members of Team Toyota, but their participation evidently will not be affected.
Klein, the principal architect of the competition format, has been selected president of the PBT. The MLF commissioner, who'll be in charge of competition issues, is former B.A.S.S. GM Don Rucks.
Gary Klein has been chosen president of the anglers group that's behind Major League Fishing.
Jim Wilburn, founder and chairman of production company Winnercomm, will serve as GM and handle the business side. The other member of the management team is communications director Randy Coleman, a former newspaperman who's spent the past 12 years working in public relations.
Format and Schedule
The anglers will compete in "black tournaments" – no announcement of the venue beforehand (and thus no practice), no GPS waypoints in the on-board electronics of their MLF-provided boats, no media coverage during the event or in its immediate aftermath, no public weigh-ins, etc. The results of the competition won't be disseminated prior to the broadcast on the Outdoor Channel, which has partnered with the PBT for this venture.
"One of the things that hurts bass fishing's TV numbers is that so much of the information is already out there through the other publications that it restricts the audience," Duckett said. "We'll shoot live events, and then the interviews will come after.
"The anglers won't even know where they're going – it'll be a learn on Friday where to be on Monday kind of thing."
There will be no encroachment rules – bumper-to-bumper fishing will be allowed and perhaps even encouraged for the sake of heightened TV drama. The only stipulation is that anglers are not allowed to snag a fellow competitor's line.
"That could be considered a gimmick, but there won't be any arguments over territory," Duckett said. "When we told the anglers about that, you've never seen their eyes get so big. It should make for compelling TV."
A preview event, dubbed the Major League Fishing Challenge Cup, will take place this fall, with two or three weeklong events possible for the fall of 2012.
Under an experimental format, one-third of the Challenge Cup field (eight anglers) will compete on each of the first 3 days, with half of those competitors advancing. Days 4 and 5 will feature six anglers each, with two from each group moving on to the final day. Each competition day will produce a 1-hour TV show, to be aired in the second quarter of 2012.
Prize money is an aspect that's yet to be determined. For now, there isn't any.
"That's the last thing to get worked on and we're not certain how that'll play out," Duckett said. "It'll depend on sponsorship, viewership and all that. This is a different deal with no entry fees, so there's no payout from entry fees. This is a business partnership and the company has to make money before any of the anglers do."
The initial roster will remain intact through 2012, but Duckett said it will change over time.
"We're going to have to come up with a definitive qualifying process," he said. "We'll have new guys qualify every year – maybe two new ones and we'll drop the bottom two. We're trying to make TV, but we're also trying to build a sports product, so it needs to be real and guys need a way to qualify. We've even talked about doing a media vote and developing it through that process. But whatever it's going to be, let it be consistent.
"Ideally, what we'd like to have is 24 TV stars. The sport right now is basically what NASCAR was in the early 1980s – we're (perceived as) a bunch of rednecks. We're not that, and we're fixing to prove it. This is a well-funded group of anglers who have a desire to grow the sport and benefit everybody involved with it.
"We want (to be like) the World Series of Poker," he continued. "Can you imagine the looks people must've gotten when they came up with the idea to film card-playing? Man, that's like watching paint dry. But oh yeah, they've got 10 million viewers.
"We're going to try to bust out of that 300,000 bracket that fishing's in right now and make it 3 million."
> Following are quotes from a couple of participating anglers contained in today's press release announcing MLF's formation and plans:
Gary Klein – “It is like nothing we’ve ever done or seen at this level, and I can assure you the anglers are excited about this."
Skeet Reese – “What your grandfather did, your father did, and what I did last week in tournament fishing has been around for decades. If you want to see a new, fun and exciting format that will take competitive fishing to a new level, then you’ve got to check out Major League Fishing.”
> Said Outdoor Channel CEO and president Roger Werner: “Major League Fishing will offer sports fans a unique way to view bass fishing competitions, with production features that go beyond just fishing to focus on the personalities, struggles, strategies, conflicts and emotions of the anglers. Outdoor Channel is proud to be involved in this project from the ground floor and we see an outstanding future in this partnership. This latest venture reflects Outdoor Channel’s ongoing commitment to innovative, high-quality content that our core and loyal base of viewers has come to expect from us.”
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