KISSIMEE, Fla. - Ten years ago, the idea sounded preposterous to Keith Lebowitz. Televising fishing tournaments and the weigh-ins that followed? “I chuckled,” he said. “I thought, ‘Who’s going to want to watch this? Who’s going to watch a guy holding a fish up in the air?’” But Lebowitz, previously a sports- caster in Los Angeles and a host of the Southwest Sports Report on Fox Sports Net, isn’t chuckling anymore. Though not the National Football League, bass fishing has become bigtime sports television. Lebowitz and FSN broadcast the FLW Tour and FLW Outdoors, named for Forrest L. Wood, the founder of Ranger Boats. ESPN owns the BASS circuit. This weekend, ESPN and ESPN2 will devote 15 hours of coverage to the 2006 Citgo Bassmaster Classic. The Classic boasts a purse of $1.2 million and a first prize of $500,000. Colorado Springs resident Joe Conway is one of 51 competitors. ESPN will provide live coverage of each post-round weigh-in and air “BassCenter” (a take-off on its wildly popular “Sports-Center” program) on Saturday and Sunday. The network will have some live coverage during the weekend. The ESPN Outdoors Web site will provide constant updates, live chats with the anglers while they’re fishing and a fantasy bass fishing contest. That’s right. Fantasy bass fishing. The “American Sportsman,” hosted first by Joe Foss and then Curt Gowdy, began televising fishing in 1964. The Classic has had some coverage since its inception in 1971. But in the last decade, the television coverage exploded because of ESPN and Fox — and the backing of major sponsors. The “integral piece of the puzzle,” according to Lebowitz, happened in 1996 when Irwin L. Jacobs purchased FLW Outdoors and then signed Wal-Mart as the tour’s title sponsor. “He knew there were over 50 million anglers who never had been marketed to, and they were everyday Americans with enormous spending power,” said Dave Washburn, the vice president of communications for FLW Outdoors. “And when Wal-Mart puts its seal of approval on something, other sponsors took notice.” FLW Outdoors then signed other non-endemic sponsors such as Kellogg’s, Chevrolet and Energizer. FLW increased its tournament purses, and in 1999 Fox Sports aired the first live broadcast of a bass fishing tournament. In April 2001, ESPN purchased BASS and Citgo became the tour’s title sponsor. According to Paul Swangard, the managing director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, bass fishing has succeeded on television because of a built-in fan base and the compelling way it’s shown. “Fishing is one of the largest participatory sports in the United States,” he said. To some, competitive fishing might not translate well to television but, as Swangard points out, “People made the same argument about poker.” Made-for-TV fishing has underwater cameras, footage from helicopters and multiple camera crews that allow live shows to bounce between anglers and recorded material. “There’s a lot of personalities here, guys that are making the sport real exciting to watch,” said “BassCenter” analyst Byron Velvick, who starred on ABC’s “The Bachelor.” “It’s not slow-talking Bubba, kind of lethargic watch-a-guy-go-catch-a-bass stories; it’s break-dancing guys that are screaming at the fish and screaming at themselves. And even conflicts on the water.” Velvick compared those conflicts to NASCAR rivalries. Bass fishing has a way to go to become as popular as NASCAR. But as Lebowitz said, “It’s not a fluke anymore.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0365 or email@example.com
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