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Fishing in good hands

3/1/2007

When ESPN purchased the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society from a group of Birmingham investors in 2001, it instantly gave a new level of credibility to the second- or third-tier sport of pro fishing.

Under ESPN, the interest in the Bassmaster Tour has skyrocketed. In six years professional fishing has gained fans and sponsors thought unattainable in 2001.

Some fans and anglers made a prediction in 2001 that ESPN would do for bass fishing what it did for NASCAR in the 1970s. ESPN's broadcast of the entire NASCAR schedule in that decade allowed the sport to flourish. ESPN hasn't yet elevated bass fishing to that level, but the rise has been impressive.

ESPN had allowed NASCAR to slip away to other networks, so it bought BASS to make sure a similar mistake wouldn't happen again, some people speculated.

Now they aren't so sure about ESPN's intentions toward pro fishing.

It was with raised eyebrows that many in the fishing industry learned last year that ESPN will once again broadcast NASCAR racing this season. The immediate question was whether the new baby would make ESPN turn its back on the Bassmaster Tour.

ESPN2 is broadcasting 29 of the 35 Busch races this season. Its partners ESPN and ABC are picking up the six others. ESPN will broadcast six of the final 17 Nextel Cup races this season. ABC will broadcast the 11 others.

Is the love affair between ESPN and bass fishing over?

"Absolutely not," George McNeilly, the senior director of communications of ESPN, adamantly said Friday.

NASCAR and the Bassmaster Tour attract many of the same demographics and both can be promoted together, McNeilly said. He pointed to the large number of Bassmaster Classics promos shown during ESPN's coverage of the Daytona 500.

ESPN Outdoors conducted a major powwow with its people in a closed room at the Sheraton Hotel in Birmingham on Friday. One of the attendees said it was made clear that ESPN has no intention of lessening its coverage of professional bass fishing.

"Our studies show that NASCAR fans are twice as likely to be boaters and fishermen than the rest of the population," McNeilly said. "We believe that NASCAR offers us the opportunity to draw new viewers to our outdoors programming."

Rest easy, Bassmaster fans. The sport seems in good hands.