For as long as there have been big-league bass tournaments, the top pros have guarded one vital statistic the amount of money they are paid by industry and non-endemic sponsors.
Most BASS fans know that sponsor dollars have long been the lifeblood of the touring pros. Without it, tournament fishing becomes professional gambling, as they would be competing strictly for their own entry fees.
Since the pros are purposely shy about discussing the subject, few people have any idea how much money the top guys pocket before they ever make a cast on the Bassmaster Elite Series. That is about to change, thanks to Marty Stone.
It was an article in the Orlando Sentinel newspaper that appeared during the 2006 Bassmaster Classic that particularly frustrated the veteran North Carolina pro. In the story, Gene Ellison, executive director of the Professional Anglers Association (the sport's equivalent of the players' union), was quoted as saying, "More than half the guys out here this weekend are going broke."
That statement bothered Stone, who was convinced that the flip side of the story wasn't being told that some Elite Series pros are making big-time sports money. He then proceeded to round up three of the biggest names in professional fishing for an unprecedented sit-down with Bassmaster Magazine: Kevin VanDam, Gerald Swindle and Skeet Reese. Newly crowned Bassmaster Angler of the Year Michael Iaconelli and Jason Quinn later agreed to talk freely about their sponsorship finances. (None violated the confidentiality clause in his contract, because individual sponsor deals were not discussed.)
The result was nothing short of mind-blowing, a revelation of dollar amounts that will have fans talking for weeks to come. Consider the total sponsorship dollars that these top-echelon anglers earned in 2006:
• Skeet Reese $600,000
• Gerald Swindle $515,000
• Kevin VanDam $500,000
• Jason Quinn $400,000
• Michael Iaconelli $370,000
• Marty Stone $320,000
Keep in mind that this is just income from sponsors. It does not include tournament winnings or residual income from doing seminars (which can bring as much as $5,000 a day) and other public appearances.
All of these fishermen share a common denominator that has led to their financial success off of the water: They are marketable (with vibrant personalities), sharp communicators and tireless workers for their sponsors. They actively seek additional sponsors, devote time to charitable events and efforts to help grow the sport, and labor to get media exposure.
Here is a closer look at the sport's highest-paid participants.
Skeet Reese. The 37-year-old California pro is No. 1 on the sponsor money list despite the fact that he has won just one BASS tour-level event and qualified for seven Classics. Still, Reese was the most consistent BASS angler from 2002-05 and has earned nearly $800,000 in just nine years as a full-time pro.
"I never fathomed that this kind of money was possible out here," he says.
"It's amazing, once you get into the sport and you have some success, you begin to understand the business of it. It's all about building relationships with some companies and doing your job. Everybody sitting here, we have all done our job from taking care of our sponsors and working hard for them, promoting the brands and promoting ourselves. Every one of us is marketable in a different way, and we've all capitalized on that. There are going to be guys that will come along and take our places, and they'll make more than we do."
Reese, whose biggest sponsor is Lucky Craft, is the best businessman among his top-paid peers, according to the panel's consensus. But he predicts that KVD or Ike have the potential to someday sign a contract with an iconic company like Nike that will be worth $1 million.
Gerald Swindle. This highly marketable 36-year-old Alabamian has never won a BASS tournament, but has the 2005 Angler-of-the-Year title to his credit. He has qualified for the Classic eight times in his 11 seasons and won $657,950 in the BASS wars. But, with the exception of the colorful and controversial Iaconelli, no pro gets as much exposure.
And that is a major reason why Swindle has 19 sponsors, including non-endemics such as Under Armour, Oakley and Fronduti's Haircare Products, and industry leaders such as Lucky Craft and Triton Boats.
"I never dreamed that a half million dollars would be on the line," he says. "I'm learning the business and I agree with what Skeet has said in the past: Never get too satisfied or too comfortable. I don't think anyone has a clue that we make this kind of money (from sponsors). I imagine that people behind me want what I've got, so I'm pushing myself to learn the business better, to deliver what sponsors need, and to become better at negotiating. We all put a lot of time into the business side."
Like many pros before him, Swindle can remember sleeping in his truck when he couldn't afford a hotel room at tournaments. During a tournament at Lake Champlain, when things weren't going very well, he even questioned whether he belonged in this sport. Today, the answer to that question is found in his bank account.
Kevin VanDam. No introduction needed here. You know the numbers: two Classic championships, three Angler-of-the-Year titles, 10 tournament wins, 17 consecutive Classics. What you might not realize is that KVD is the total package on and off the water.
Unlike most of the other top-earners, his sponsorship stable is void of non-endemic sponsors (with the exception of Oakley). But lucrative deals with Bass Pro Shops, Nitro Boats, Mercury and Strike King more than make up for it.
"One thing that really strikes me is it hasn't been like this for very long," VanDam, 38, emphasizes. "It's really been the last couple of years. Right now, we are in the beginning of a new era of bass fishing in which more people are making a living at it.
"The Elite Series was a huge step. Having our own identity with wrapped trucks, boats and things like that was a huge breakthrough. A lot of guys who were really struggling a year ago are so much better off today. Some of them complained and moaned about this new format until they went out there and actually tried to sell themselves."
Jason Quinn. The sponsored status of this 34-year-old South Carolina pro will surprise many fishing fans. In his 10 BASS seasons, Quinn has never won a BASS tournament and has just four Classic appearances to his credit.
"When I think back just a few years ago, when I was just a fishing guide, if you had told me that I was going to make $55,000 I would have been ecstatic," he says. "That's a lot of money. Now I'm spending $100,000 a year in entry fees and expenses, which is a lot of money."
The reasons are twofold: First, Quinn is highly marketable, thanks to a terrific personality and his unusual look (ponytail, six earrings, soul patch on his chin) that appeals to young people; and he was in the right place at the right time when the Classic came to his home lake (Wylie) in 2004. All of the pre-Classic publicity he received from being the hometown favorite caught the attention of the marketing folks at Evan Williams Whisky, who hired him to represent them in the Classic.
Today, Evan Williams is his biggest sponsor, and he recently signed a three-year deal.
Michael Iaconelli. The man with a plan who has progressed from BASS Federation Nation winner to Classic champion to 2006 Angler of the Year. In the process, he has become arguably the biggest name in the sport with a controversial style that has led to exposure in network television talk shows and non-traditional magazines like GQ and Esquire.
That high profile has enabled him to nail down deals with non-endemics such as Toyota (his biggest sponsor), Mountain Dew, Dick's Sporting Goods chain, Hooah Energy Bars, Cocoon sunglasses and Fish Bonz shoes. His sponsor compensation was at $400,000 a year before Ranger Boats dropped him after his well-publicized meltdown at the 2006 Classic.
"A lot of the money that I've made this year through my sponsorships has been contingency based," Ike explains. "It's awesome to have these programs built in. When I signed these contracts, I didn't know I was going to have the kind of year I did. I have a tremendous contingency program that pays extra not only for winning, but for finishing in the Top 5, Top 10 and Top 20. I also have media incentives in a lot of these programs to provide a bonus when an article is written about me or a photo is used that shows a company's logo."
Marty Stone. Recognized as Swindle's partner in crime, this two-time BASS winner shares many of the same sponsors and a penchant for being promotional-minded. His biggest sponsors are Lucky Craft, Mercury and Bass Cat Boats (all are within $5,000 of each other). His non-endemic contracts are with Advance Auto Parts and Purolator.
"I remember when (Swindle) and I didn't know if we could afford to go to a Waffle House," Stone says. "I remember the conversation, and this wasn't but six or seven years ago, that if we ever got to $25,000 a year, we would be big-timin'.
"But there has never been a better time to make a living. I'm 10 years into my career and I'm making a phenomenal amount of money. Here's where ESPN brought value. I would love to know what Denny (Brauer), Rick (Clunn), Larry (Nixon) and Roland (Martin) were making after they'd been 10 years into the sport. Then compare it to someone like myself, who doesn't have the accolades of a Skeet Reese, of a Gerald Swindle or Kevin VanDam. I've had a nice career, but I wouldn't call it a great career, yet. But I bet I'm making two or three times what those marquee guys were making after 10 years in the business. It's not because I'm any better; it's because of what ESPN has done."
While the sponsor income of a handful of Elite anglers does not disprove Gene Ellison's contention that a majority of professional anglers are losing money, another statistic does seem to contradict the statement: Of the 102 anglers who finished the inaugural Elite Series season, 96 wanted back in. All but two fishermen who earned an automatic bid for the second season paid deposits, while 19 others tried to qualify through the second-chance "Wild Card" tournament.
A Look At A Young Pro's Finances
In contrast to the older, more established Bassmaster Elite Series pros who sit atop the sponsorship ladder, John Crews offers a look at the financial help that one young angler might receive.
The 28-year-old Virginian pro is one of the sport's rising young stars.
Entering the 2006 Elite Series season, Crews received $63,600 in sponsor dollars. But then he put together what he calls a "breakout" season finishing 20th in the Bassmaster Angler-of-the-Year standings and garnering an invitation to his third consecutive Classic.
"There's going to be a considerable jump from this year to next year with a number of sponsors," he says. Crews, who is sponsored by Advance Auto Parts, Gambler Baits, Spro, Ranger Boats, Yamaha Outboards, Triple Fish, Carolina Lunker Sauce, Lowrance, Minn Kota and Oakley, expects his sponsorship income to double in time for the 2007 Elite Series. That increase would come in the form of raises from existing sponsors as well as new deals.