"Woo-Hoo's your daddy?" Mike (Ike) Iaconelli screams his lungs dry, then busts a break-dance move, his legs spinning wildly. It's not unusual for a Phillies fan to do this in the stands. But Iaconelli is on a speedboat, and his smack talk is aimed at the pouty lips of a largemouth bass. "When I land a fish," he says, "I let loose."
The most popular pro fisherman today, Iaconelli, winner of 2003's Bassmaster Classic--considered the Super Bowl of rod-and-reel events--is a superstar in his field (and stream). Clad in Dolce & Gabbana jeans, torso adorned with tattoos, he is helping transform competitive bass fishing into TV's next big sport, following the success of NASCAR and poker.
Yes, cable networks are battling over bass, with three of the industry's major players trolling for profits. In 2001 Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN acquired the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, which holds tournaments around the country. This year ESPN will run 29 different fishing shows, including a four-hour Saturday-morning block. "Bass can be much bigger," says ESPN-ABC Sports president George Bodenheimer. "We're in this for the long haul."
So is Rupert Murdoch; his Fox Sports Net allied with boat manufacturer (and onetime Disney corporate raider) Irwin Jacobs for its weekly FLW Outdoors Tour sponsored by Wal-Mart. Comcast, the top U.S. cable firm, plays up fishing on its Outdoor Life Network. OLN, which just bought rights to NFL games, might expand to challenge ESPN after its ratings spike from Tour de France finals.
Lance Armstrong was the story on dry land this summer, but on water nothing topped ESPN's Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburgh, Pa., where 47 anglers raced across a Y-shaped "playing field" covering the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. ESPN crews produced several live shows that captured the, um, thrill of watching grown men struggling to catch fish. It can take hours to get a bite, but cool editing tricks, Pixar-type animation and dizzying camera work keep the action moving at breakneck speeds. ESPN had 35 cameras, two helicopters and a blimp at the classic, while the FLW uses more outré gimmicks like underwater "snorkelcams." "Having competing media is the best thing possible," says Iaconelli. "First ESPN does something, then Fox one-ups them. That domino effect helps the sport's visibility. We need that New Yorker who's fished once in his life to feel connected to bass fishing. Big media does that."
But big media also need big advertisers. Toyota and erectile-dysfunction drug Cialis sponsored this year's Bassmaster Classic, along with oil refiner Citgo. FLW attracted not only Wal-Mart but also Kellogg's and Dodge. "From both a business and a ratings perspective," says Fox's George Greenberg, "this sport is about to catch fire." For this year's Bassmaster Classic, the total number of households tuning into the final ceremony rose 9% over last year, with about 526,000 homes watching. (The biggest cable sports show that week: wrestling's Raw Zone, seen in 3.2 million homes.)
Still, the profits haven't rolled in yet. "We're investment spending at this point," says ESPN's Christine Godleski. Staging the classic cost $2 million, although Pennsylvania covered much of the bill to promote tourism. "Sure, it's about the money, but it's not about the money," quips ESPN's Marc Quenzel, who confirms that the classic was "a loss leader" to showcase "the sport's prestige."