BASS, NASCAR Share Similar Histories

CELEBRATION, Fla. – As BASS takes major steps to elevate the sport of professional bass fishing, comparisons often are made to NASCAR stock car racing.

That sport went through similar changes and restructuring in the early 1970s and ‘80s on its way to becoming among the fastest growing sports in America. Not surprisingly, NASCAR experienced some of the same growing pains BASS is encountering as it went from a regional, Southeastern sport to a national phenomenon.

BASS announced in August the creation of the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series, the highest level of competition offering the world’s top anglers the chance to cash in on more than $11 million in the tournament series, the CITGO Bassmaster Classic, the Bassmaster Majors, the CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year program and other contingency programs. BASS also introduced the CITGO Bassmaster Northern and Southern Tours, events that will qualify anglers for the Elite Series.

Some are comparing the formation of the new Elite Series, the most prestigious professional fishing tour ever, to NASCAR’s formation of the Winston Cup Series in 1972, now known as the Nextel Cup Series. But unlike NASCAR of the time, BASS already has big-time sponsors including CITGO, BUSCH, Purolator, Triton, Mercury Marine, Berkley and Bass Pro Shops, television coverage on ESPN and nearly 550,000 BASS members.

“Everybody was broke at the time, going around with nickels and dimes in their pockets,” said H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., and generally recognized as one of the top event promoters in NASCAR.

Just as BASS has narrowed its focus to a series of premier events with the Elite Series and the Bassmaster Majors, NASCAR took what had been called the Grand National division, with 50 or more races a year, and reduced it to approximately 30 top-paying races at premier venues. The 11 CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series events will offer $100,000 to each event winner and will pay down through 50 finishing positions for each tournament for a total of more than $7.4 million. Also, the three stand-alone Bassmaster Majors will award a nearly $2 million prize purse, including $250,000 to the first place winner of each event.

“When R.J. Reynolds came in, the factories were getting out, the teams were going broke, their cars were held together with duct tape and a lot of them could barely make it to the next race,” said Ed Clark, president of Atlanta Motor Speedway and BASS member who fished a 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Tour event as a non-boater. “Winston saved the sport. BASS isn’t in that situation, but it can be bigger.”

Similarities in sales and marketing of both sports during their growth spurts also exist. Starting with the original Winston Cup Series checkered flag logo in 1972, NASCAR required drivers and team members to carry series sponsor patches on their uniforms, and gradually claimed the front fenders on both sides of cars for series sponsor and contingency award decals. Placement rules were the same for everyone, and teams had the rest of their uniforms and cars to display their own sponsor logos.

BASS is taking a similar approach in 2006, as the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series and three Bassmaster Majors will have a distinctive look for spectators and fans as anglers fish from their own sponsor-wrapped boats. All anglers will be required to have their boat wrapped following a BASS-approved template, giving anglers the ability to promote themselves, build their own individual brands and provide more visibility for their sponsors. BASS and Elite Series sponsor identification will be more prevalent than ever on boats and uniforms.

“We want the sport of professional bass fishing to become more of a spectacle and create more excitement for fans,” said Don Rucks, BASS vice president and general manager. “And we want to offer every opportunity for anglers to build their own brands wherever they can. The wrapped boat does both.”

Some anglers are questioning the new boat wrap and sponsor identification rules. “A lot of the people who have helped get BASS to the level it has attained are smart people and have been doing it for a lot of years,” said Clark, whose track will host the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 race on Oct. 30. “But any time there are going to be changes in the way people have done things for a long time, there’s going to be some initial pushback. Any time you’re going to that next level, you’re going to go through an awkward stage. It comes with a certain amount of risk, but it has to be done to get where you want to go. That comes from someone who isn’t directly involved in what is happening with BASS but is keenly interested,” the BASS member said.

Richard Petty, the most successful NASCAR driver of all time who enjoyed a career that spanned parts of five decades, said NASCAR participants welcomed the changes that came with series sponsors. “You’ve got to remember, back then, it's not like there weren't a whole lot of places to put patches,” said the winner of 200 NASCAR events. “We didn't have sponsors, much less a lack of room on our uniforms. There were plenty of us who would have tattooed it on our foreheads if we had to.”

Already, a group of invited Elite Series anglers have signed on to compete and now are preparing to offer their individual sponsors more exposure.

“Everyone knew that putting patches on uniforms and decals on cars was for the good of the sport,” said former Daytona 500 winner Benny Parsons, now an NBC Sports NASCAR commentator.

“It was very popular for the most part,” said Tom Higgins, a journalist who has covered NASCAR, fishing and hunting for more than 40 years for The Charlotte Observer. “I don’t recall any kicking and screaming at all. The drivers and teams were tickled to death. Junior Johnson (legendary NASCAR team owner) had put Winston and NASCAR together, and he had told everybody what was going to happen and how good it was going to be.”

And the growth had only begun.

BASS is the worldwide authority on bass fishing, sanctioning more than 20,000 events through the BASS Federation annually. Guided by its mission to serve all fishing fans, BASS sets the standard for credibility, professionalism, sportsmanship and conservation, as it has for nearly 40 years.

BASS stages bass fishing tournaments for every skill level and culminates with the CITGO Bassmaster Classic. Through its clubs, youth programs, aquatic resource advocacy, magazine publishing and multimedia platforms, BASS offers the industry's widest array of services and support to its nearly 550,000 members. The organization is headquartered in Celebration, Fla.

For more information, contact BASS Communications at (407) 566-2208 or visit www.bassmaster.com.