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A star is born

12/29/2006

When Kevin VanDam won the 2005 Bassmaster Classic he was sponsored by Strike King Bait Company of Tennessee, but as the tournament unfolded on the Three Rivers in Pittsburgh, VanDam dug deep into his tackle box and pulled out a discontinued model of rival PRADCO's Rogue RB 1200.

The move caught most by surprise and created an unusual marketing opportunity for both companies.

According to Andy Carroll, Director of Sales and Marketing for PRADCO: "We were on the phone with our production team to make sure we could get the parts and materials to get that vintage RB 1200 back into production and on the market in less than 50 days. That kind of situation disrupts everything in production, but sales for the RB 1200 jumped from 10,000 to 100,000, so it was definitely worth the disruption."

The impact of a Classic victory for the company that makes the winning lure was enough to revive a virtually retired bait.

The Bassmaster Classic is where stars are born. Bass fishing immortality can be achieved over three days of competition as names are permanently etched into the minds and hearts of millions of bass anglers across America. Names like Larry Nixon, Davy Hite, Mike Iaconelli and Fat Free Shad. That's right. Fat Free Shad.

Classic victories have propelled more than a few baits from prototype to million-dollar seller in a matter of days. The right combination of angler and bait can alter not only the lives of anglers, but the fortunes of companies as well.

Strike King, for one, did just fine despite the Rogue incident. VanDam's second Classic victory in five years created a boon for several of Strike Kings's baits, including VanDam's preferred jerkbait, the Wild Thing Shiner.

"Last year was tricky with Kevin winning but not on our bait," says Strike King Marketing Manager Chris Brown. "But we were going to support him all the way. We want him to win more than anything else, and would never limit our guys."

For years bass fishing enthusiasts have heard tales of huge fortunes that come with winning the world's biggest bass fishing event. Not only has the Classic historically been among the richest tournaments in terms of first place checks — in 2006 the champ will pocket a cool $500,000 — but also in terms of endorsements, bonuses and incentives. However, while the winner's check has always been guaranteed, the spoils that come with it have varied from angler to angler and from company to company.

"Winning the Classic definitely changed my life," proclaims 1983 champion Larry Nixon. "But it creates something different for everybody."

Nixon had become a known commodity in bass circles prior to winning the Classic by earning the BASS Angler of the Year distinction in both 1980 and 1982.

"I had already established myself with my sponsors in the early eighties, so when I won the Classic it really just added to my resume," adds Nixon. He clearly believes that the victory produced a million dollar windfall, "but over a few years."

When Jay Yelas took the Classic crown in 2002 his career soared to new heights, but the bait he used — a prototype Berkley Power Jig — may have done more for its manufacturer than it did for Yelas. Eric Naig, Field Service Manager for Berkley, one of the fishing industry's biggest manufacturers, remembers the days following Yelas' Classic win and the long-term affect it had on Berkley's bait business.

"We were in meetings Sunday evening immediately after the event," he says. "We knew we would have to ramp up and have thousands upon thousands of Power Jigs ready for the stores in 30 days or less. Jay really used two baits to win, a Frenzy crankbait that was already in production and a Power Jig that was a prototype." Both baits still sell well.

As for Yelas, to this day he receives a royalty on the Power Jig and also the Frenzy crankbait he used during that Classic. "It has added up over the years since that event," he says. "But it's been much less than a million."

A Classic win is not the same for each angler, nor for the bait companies that compete. Veteran lure maker Ed Chambers believes that not every company can take advantage of the spotlight.

"If a company has everything in line, there is no better exposure for a bait than winning the Classic," says Chambers. "But that company has to be prepared to spend a lot of money on advertising and promotion, get the baits produced and get them to stores quickly, or they will miss the opportunity."

So great can the windfall be for bait companies that there's even been speculation of manufacturers having clandestine meetings and offering big payouts to persuade winning anglers to credit baits they never actually used during competition, just to be mentioned on stage or on TV in the winning moment. With exposure for the Classic expanding to include live television coverage on ESPN and a press corps from around the globe, the stakes for anglers and especially those bait companies will continue to rise.

Sunday evening another angler will take a victory lap and his life will change forever, but the brightest star in bass fishing may not be out of the mold yet.