By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
(Editor's note: In observance of the President's Day holiday, a new top story will not appear until Tuesday).
As the initial qualifier for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic, Florida real-estate agent Rich Howes had a lot of time to capitalize on what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The winner of last year's Lake Toho Southern Open has used it wisely.
He's garnered a big handful of sponsorships for his foray into the sport's premier event and his 2014 season in the Opens. He likely could've gotten even more, but he ran out of space for graphics on his boat.
"I have a business mindset and I was able to use that skill," he said this week as he relaxed in Guntersville, Ala., waiting out yet another snowstorm that preceded the start of official practice for the Classic. "In fishing, everybody and their mother wants to get sponsored, but they're always going to people with their hand out.
"If you can go and show them what kind of value they might receive from it and talk to them in a professional manner, there's a good chance they'll get on board. I was able to double my Open earnings through sponsor stuff. A few of them are one-time deals, but some I hope will stay with me (long-term)"
It's not only him who'll benefit, either. As a result of his (eventually successful) effort to persuade insurance giant Allstate to become his title sponsor, that company is now the presenting sponsor of the entire Opens series – all three divisions.
He's also channeled a great deal of effort in a philanthropic direction. His 1 1/2-year-old daughter, Norah, was born with a congenital defect (one leg considerably shorter than the other) and he's launched a campaign to raise money for a foundation started by a West Palm Beach doctor who treats kids with such ailments from all over the world.
Took some Convincing
Allstate is one of the companies Howes represents in his day job. He said when he initially approached the company's marketing people with the title-sponsorship proposal, they didn't take it real seriously and came back with a figure that was far below what he had in mind.
"I thought I had a 2-inch putt," he said metaphorically, "but apparently I didn't. So I went and got some of the media statistics that showed the reach that the Classic has, and a friend who's higher up in the company got behind it.
"We were encouraging them not to waste the neat opportunity of an agent being in the Classic. They eventually ended up going beyond my expectations."
Additionally, he's landed new or vastly improved pacts with Toho Marine and Outdoors, Mercury, Fitzgerald Rods, Typhoon Optics, Gambler Baits, Bass Pro Shops (Orlando-area outlets) and Lew's. And an off-beat deal transpired with a niche company called Fishing Ammo, which has appeared on the MSNBC series "Shark Tank."
"That one's outside the box a little bit," he said. "I ran into the guy at a chamber of commerce-type event and pitched him to buy space on my wrap. The product is a gimmick – a bobber that looks like a shotgun shell – and it's sold in places like 7-11s, Walmarts and Ace Hardware stores that have little tackle sections.
"Of course, I'm not going to use the bobber to fish with in the Classic, but how many duck and deer hunters will I be able to get it in front of? They bought into it, and I'll be carrying (the bobbers) around and passing them out when I can."
Lastly, he was able to work out a lodging arrangement that will accommodate himself and his entire family for the Classic.
"I came up in October to pre-practice for a few days and stayed at a place called Kudzu Cove, which is a beautiful place tucked away by itself with six cabins. The owner came by one day and we got to chatting and I told him what I was there for, and I told him I'd like to come back in December and then again (this month).
"I asked if he'd trade lodging for a spot on the wrap, and he went for it. That was a guaranteed expense I was going to have, so why not use what I had to offer to help with it."
Desire to Help Others
Howes' baby daughter will undergo several intensive procedures over the next dozen years or so to alleviate her condition, called congenital femoral deficiency. If things were allowed to progress naturally, her affected leg could be 9 inches shorter than the other leg by the time she reaches skeletal maturity at about age 13. Howes said that in the not-too-distant past, the condition usually resulted in amputation, but great strides in the treatment of it have been made over the past decade.
He and wife Nikki have sufficient financial resources to cover the treatments and their world-renowned orthopedist, Dr. Dror Paley, is just a 2-hour drive away. However, they've encountered a lot of families over the past year that aren't so comfortably situated.
Howes and wife Nikki are raising funds for a foundation that aids children with afflictions like the one their daughter Norah has.
"There's one family from New York where father has to stay home to work and take care of the other daughter while the mom comes to Florida (with the afflicted child) for 3 months at a time," he said. "It's so hard on those families, so we thought, hey, let's raise some money to help the ones that are really struggling."
At a website they've set up, FishingForTheKids.com, fans can learn about Norah's condition and the Paley Foundation. They can also help with the fund-raising by pledging a specific dollar amount for each fish that Howes brings to the weigh-in stage during the Classic.
"We've raised several thousand dollars already, and we're hoping to have several thousand more by the time the Classic's over," he said.
Crystals Back in Place
The month of January wasn't much fun for Howes as he spent most of it battling a case of vertigo. One night shortly after New Year's he woke up with a sensation that he'd never experienced before.
"My head was just spinning, like it was the worst college drinking experience anybody had ever been through," he said. "I woke my wife up not knowing if I was having a heart attack or a stroke or whatever."
Via a call to his family doctor, it was determined that his vital signs were okay. The next day he visited an ear, nose and throat specialist who diagnosed a case of vertigo.
"I found out it's like there's a snow globe in the inner ear that sends signals to the brain and when those crystals get shaking around, they can get into the wrong ear tube and send false signals. My left side was saying I was upside down and my right side was saying everything was fine, and that caused my head to spin. I could go through a series of head motions to correct it and put those crystals back where they belong."
He learned that the condition was likely caused by a calcium deposit that had broken off inside his head and would eventually be absorbed by his body. Until that latter part happened, though, relapses were likely to occur, particularly when he encountered situations that were visually striking in any way. For example, a trip through a glass-tube walkway at a science center in Orlando gave him the sensation that he was free-falling.
He had a bad episode early in the week of this year's Toho Open and felt like he was seasick for much of the event as the extreme dizzyness came and went – sometimes every other hour. He finished 176 places lower than he had a year earlier. He's had no issues for almost 2 weeks now, however, so he's just about convinced that he'll be fine going forward.
The one immediate prospect that concerns him is sitting in his boat as its pulled through the cavernous Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center Arena for the Classic weigh-ins, as all that enclosed space above and beyond the seating area will create an uncommon visual perspective.
"If I just sit there and don't move when I get called to the stage, you'll know why," he said.