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The power of television

12/29/2006

Editor's Note: This is the second of a three-part series examining the major developments in the 2006 BASS tournament structure and how changes in the professional bass fishing organization compare to changes NASCAR stock car racing experienced. Part Two focuses on how television fueled NASCAR's growth in the 1980s and how expanded television coverage of the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series will do the same for BASS.

CELEBRATION, Fla. — ESPN, which bought BASS in 2001, will continue its exclusive coverage of the professional bass fishing organization in 2006 with expanded coverage on both ESPN and ESPN2. The popular cable television network is expected to bring even more attention to BASS in the future.

Just as its coverage is helping the growth of BASS, ESPN has been widely credited for much of the growth NASCAR stock car racing experienced in the 1980s and '90s, especially with its live, flag-to-flag coverage.

"It was just the fact that ESPN exposed the series, and then people saw it and said 'Hey, this is pretty good entertainment here,'" said Bob Jenkins, the play-by-play announcer for most of ESPN's NASCAR telecasts for almost two decades. "People were aware that stock car racing existed, and they were aware of the Daytona 500, but not necessarily that there was a series, and that they raced every week and that it was good entertainment. People started watching and as a result, started going to the races that were in their neck of the woods."

ESPN's expanded coverage of BASS in 2006 will include same-day coverage of the final-day weigh-in at the three Bassmaster Majors events, in addition to tournament coverage from the new CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series and continued coverage of the CITGO Bassmaster Classic. ESPN also airs BASS Saturday each week, a block of morning programming devoted to the sport which includes BassCenter, ESPN's first and only derivative of SportsCenter.

"TV has definitely helped BASS along, and both sports are things people can do very easily," 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. "They can drive and they can fish. Any person can go out and fish, but the average person doesn't really do as well as the pros. But these BASS anglers always seem to catch fish, even in the heat of a 100-degree day. TV has captured both and brought them to the living room.

"There was a time when people thought no one would want to watch TV and see cars race around and around a track, but obviously they were wrong," said Wheeler. "There are also people who have wondered why anyone would want to watch people catch fish, but people do like to watch."

In fact, an average of more than 405,000 households tuned in to the weigh-in telecasts of the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic on ESPN and ESPN2 on July 29-31, up 9 percent from the 370,000 homes that watched last year. In all, the network devoted 12 hours of coverage.

"I suspect that with bass fishing, a highly innovative and creative TV production person will come along and show us a new way of doing it. He will have the bass version of the in-car camera," Wheeler said.

"A lot of things have been tried," he added. "It can be traced back to things that have made other sports popular by a big breakthrough in TV, such as going to multiple cameras in football. With stock car racing, it was the in-car camera. In golf, it seems so simple now, but instead of trying to show everything, it was to televise just the last three holes, and then (Arnold) Palmer, (Gary) Player and (Jack) Nicklaus came along."

In bass fishing, game coverage now includes both on- and off-the-water angler interviews and weigh-ins in front of thousands of spectators.

"It wouldn't surprise me if the exposure on ESPN makes BASS really take off and bust out," said Tom Higgins, a journalist who has covered NASCAR and fishing/hunting for more than 40 years for The Charlotte Observer. "It's hard for a print guy to say this, but the power of TV is incredible. You're going into every home, kids are watching it. Without TV, I don't think NASCAR would have grown to what it has become. And look what it did for golf. They started televising tournaments, then they got lucky when Arnold Palmer came along, and it took off and boomed. I think BASS will take off, too."