Is a victory at the CITGO Bassmaster Classic worth $1 million, as we've been told by several past champions?
It's a legitimate question.
In reality, where some previous winners have profited — and reportedly reached the million dollar plateau — has been through a combination of sponsor contracts, appearance fees, product endorsements and other outside income generating activities.
In other words, the pros who have cashed in are those who have worked the hardest.
A winner's purse of $500,000 cash at next year's Classic will certainly make it more realistic in terms of cold, hard cash.
The financial windfall of a Classic victory increased substantially three years ago when the champion's purse was doubled to $200,000. But to hit the million dollar mark today still requires some creative marketing and personal incentive on the part of the winning pro.
Recently, BASS Times spoke with 2003 Classic champion Michael Iaconelli to get his perspective on the million dollar question.
"Including the tournament check, during the first year, I'd have to say that I got half of the million dollar figure that they always put out there," said the New Jersey pro, who has since become one of the most visible pros in the sport and will certainly reach the millionaire's club soon.
"I kind of knew already from talking to past winners that it wasn't an instant million," Iaconelli continued. "That figure is out there to aim for, but you have to work for it. So I knew it wasn't going to be a parade of money thrown at you right after you win. You have to put the time in to get it."
Iaconelli's Classic income — past, present and future — can be linked to several different sources. Added to the $200,000 winner's purse he collected, Iaconelli told BASS Times that his speaking engagement fee skyrocketed from $500 to $3,000 per day. Additionally, he asked for and received increased compensation fees from his current sponsors. And he revealed that he received "mid-five-figure" royalties from the sales of his Classic winning baits with Mann's and a "six-figure" book deal from the Bantam Dell Publishing Group, which is based in New York City.
That book, by the way, is called Fishing on the Edge and was just released this past spring.
Of course, other variables can help determine whether a Classic winner can milk the sport's most important crown to the tune of $1 million.
Some previous Classic winners like Davy Hite, George Cochran and Woo Daves made the conscious choice to sacrifice family and fishing time to pursue the big dollars that come from seminars, speaking engagements and other on-site promotions for sponsors. In fact, Daves took the entire BASS Tour season off since he had automatically qualified for the next Classic.
Don't underestimate the gold mine that the promotional circuit represents, according to those who have traveled that road.
A reigning Classic champion's daily appearance rate can run as high as $3,000, depending on the individual, and he can literally book as many appearances as he desires. Consider this: In a 12-month period spanning 1997-98, Cochran made 120 appearances.
Other pros, like reigning Classic champion Takahiro Omori, opted to take the opposite approach and concentrate on fishing instead of the promotional tour. The Japanese pro also faced a communications problem that would have somewhat limited his speaking opportunities.
Status in the sport
Although he may be the best communicator in the business, and certainly one of the most popular, Kevin VanDam didn't see a huge financial windfall from his 2001 Classic victory. That was because he already had lucrative contract deals with several major companies.
Texas pro Jay Yelas, who won the Classic in 2002, faced a similar situation. He was already making a good living with his existing contracts.
Iaconelli and Omori were in a better position to negotiate for bigger deals with existing sponsors.
When Hark Parker won the 1989 Classic, the well-known North Carolina native was in a position to take full advantage of his career highpoint.
With his business acumen, personality, hard charging ambition and television show, Parker easily approached the million dollar mark in the 12 months that followed his victory.
"If a person is willing to make the commitment, there is no question in my mind that winning the Classic is worth over a million dollars," Parker said.
"This Classic win has been for me."
In contrast, 1986 winner Charlie Reed and Stanley Mitchell, who won the 1981 event at the age of 21, never really pursued the financial windfall that was available to them. Financially secure, they concentrated on their fishing, while ignoring a litany of endorsement contracts and speaking engagement offers that typically await the newly crowned Classic champion.
Robert Hamilton's dream came true when he won the 1992 Classic. But the Mississippi pro never really got a chance to ring the bell. A series of debilitating back injuries limited his travel and contributed toward a downward spiral. After righting his ship, Hamilton has reappeared but has never been able to regain the momentum he held immediately after his world championship win.
Another example of poor physical health limiting a pro's post-Classic parade happened with Guido Hibdon, winner of the 1988 event.
Hibdon suffered a life threatening heart attack that forced him to slow down significantly.
Surprisingly, few reigning Classic champions have been able to crack corporate America and score the big bucks for endorsing products that have nothing to do with fishing or boating.
One exception, of course, was Denny Brauer. A New York City-based agent, SFX Sport Group, signed the Missouri pro and got him a $100,000 deal with Busch Beer. (And it didn't hurt that Brauer appeared as a guest on Late Night With David Letterman.)
Iaconelli and his agent, Octagon, negotiated with Nike off and on during his Classic year without sealing a deal, despite wearing a Nike T-shirt under his open tournament shirt at last year's Classic as the defending champion.
The bottom line
The consensus among past Classic winners used to be that the championship is worth $1 million over a five-year period. That time frame has been significantly shortened since the Classic pot of gold jumped to $200,000 a few years ago and will hit hyper speed when the 2006 champion pockets $500,000.
"The Classic has become so big that winning it can set you up for life," said Florida pro Roland Martin.
"To the pro with the right promotional skills, a Classic win can be worth more than $1 million over a period of time. I should know — it's the only thing I've never won. I've spent 30 years chasing that dream."
The true 'lure' of the Classic
Insiders guarantee there's no better way to publicize a new lure or breathe financial life into any fishing product than to have it associated with a CITGO Bassmaster Classic victory.
The track record speaks for itself. A Classic victory means significantly increased sales due to the outdoors media's in-depth and intensive coverage of the event.
Consider a few examples:
Hank Parker won the 1989 Classic on a spinnerbait he'd been trying to sell Mann's Bait Co. for some time. After he won the Classic, Mann's interest — and that of the American fishing public — predictably soared. It quickly became Mann's No. 1 seller and arguably the best selling lure on the market. Sales of "The Classic" spinnerbait topped the million dollar mark in the first year, according to Parker and Gary Dollahon, a Mann's spokesman at the time.
Brian Thomas will tell you that there's nothing like a Classic victory to introduce a new lure. As senior marketing manager for Pure Fishing, he had a front row seat to the buying craze that followed Jay Yelas' dominant win in 2002 using a prototype "Berkley Classic" jig and Power Frog trailer.
"It had a huge impact. It was a nice way to roll out a product that we had been working on. It gave it a big jump," Thomas said. "Even like in our Power Bait lineup, we think the Classic typically will give you anywhere from a 10- to 15-point kick on your volume."
Although Pure Fishing promoted the jig with a nationwide advertising campaign, Thomas credits other avenues for spreading the word about the Classic winning lure.
"There definitely has to be some (advertising), but really — in this day and age with all of the technology and the way that news gets out so fast and to such a wide scope of anglers — it's become much easier," explained Thomas.
"Because of the technology and the availability of information, whether it's through the Internet or news services and magazines, news travels around this country pretty darned fast."
Last year, Takahiro Omori won the Classic with a closing blitz that produced three bass in the final 45 minutes of the tournament. And he was classy enough to admit that those pivotal fish came on a Bagley crankbait, a product he is not paid to endorse.
Bagley has seen a definite upswing in sales because of Omori's honesty.
"Yes, there was an increased demand in all Bagley products after that," said owner Mike Rogan.
"Balsa B2s in the color 109 is one of our strongest sellers. But [sales] did go up [after the Classic]. There's no two ways about it; it was a significant bump. Absolutely."
Sponsors use the Bassmaster Classic to showcase products and performance
Officials with Mercury Marine knew they were taking a huge risk when they decided to put their new Verado outboards on the transoms of the Triton boats for the 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Classic just two months after the engine's introduction to the boating and fishing world.
After all, no single outdoor sporting event attracts as much worldwide publicity and public scrutiny as the Classic.
Any design or mechanical flaw would be greatly amplified under the Classic spotlight.
But Mercury officials understood that there was no better way to showcase their new technology.
"That's how good we felt about Verado," said company spokesman John Hoagland.
"We had 55 Verados on the water without a problem. It was an engine that we had just introduced in May. You don't think that sent a message throughout the industry? And the risk that we took to do that?
"And then to have the results and the performance that came. What better story about dominance with a new product?"
Mercury's decision did not go unnoticed. The Classic fleet, rigged with Verado outboards, spent four days on Lake Wylie without a single problem.
Aside from showcasing a specific product like the Verado, other benefits are associated with a major sponsorship.
"For sales, it helps promote the specific engine that a [Classic winner] supported," Hoagland continued. "It was a great time for Kevin [VanDam] to win [the 2001 Classic] with the OptiMax. Since that win, our OptiMax sales every year have grown. It's a factor."
Earl Bentz of Triton Boats is convinced that backing a Classic winner can lead to a considerable boost in boat sales.
"Well, first and foremost, we're tickled for the angler because it's certainly the career changing event that can occur in an angler's career. It elevates him to a certain status by giving him instant credibility," explained Bentz.
"What we do from our perspective as a boat sponsor of the Classic, if one of our supported pros happens to win, obviously we use him in national ads. That reaches the masses. But more importantly, we support our dealers across the country with appearances. This creates a little bit more of a drawing card to bring customers into a dealership or into a dealer's booth at a boat show.
"It reinforces a buyer's decision. I don't think that someone will go out and buy a given brand of a boat just because the Classic champion runs that brand. & But if [a buyer is] already considering, say, two brands of boat — with the brand that the Classic champion runs being one of them — it might give the customer that little nudge to lean in that direction."