BASS anglers hunting for sponsors

ORLANDO, Fla. — When the long hours of competition on the water and driving between events start to wear on them, Bassmaster Elite Series pro anglers Gerald Swindle and Stephen Browning have a statement they frequently exchange: "I'm only doing this so I can hunt."

It's a joke between them, but like any good joke, it's based in truth.

Fall and winter comprise the offseason for Bassmaster anglers.

"It's our time off from trying to make a living," said Browning, who lives in Hot Springs, Ark. "Hunting helps me renew my spirit."

Swindle, who is from Warrior, Ala., often describes his hunting interest in three words: "It's my passion."

That love of hunting is a big reason why Bassmaster pros like Browning, Swindle, Pete Thliveros, Shaw Grigsby, Brent Chapman and Todd Tucker attended the 2007 SHOT Show this week.

But it wasn't the only reason. Swindle and Browning, in particular, are interested in breaking new ground by linking hunting company sponsorships to the bass fishing world.

Under Armor currently sponsors Swindle. Lowrance is one of Shaw Grigsby's sponsors. Those companies have natural partnerships in both the hunting and fishing worlds.

But why would a camouflage clothing company, like Mossy Oak, want to sponsor a pro angler like Browning when there's not necessarily a practical aspect to camo clothing in the fishing world?

"There's a tremendous crossover," Browning said. "Most of the guys that are hanging around the fishing tackle store in the summer hang out at the gun store in the fall. They are year-round sportsmen."

Browning, who grew up in Pine Bluff, located in the heart of Arkansas duck and deer hunting country, thinks he can combine the exposure he gets on the Bassmaster Elite Series with his passion for hunting to provide a benefit for hunting sponsors.

With a tournament trail that extends from California to New York this year, Elite Series pros put thousands of miles on a vehicle.

In pulling a bass boat wrapped in a sponsor's logo, similar to the signage on NASCAR autos, the pros become 24-hour billboards for a company in addition to the exposure opportunities in television and print media.

Last year's Elite Series included boat wraps by traditional fishing sponsors, like Bass Pro Shops and Mercury Outboards, plus sponsors like Advanced Auto Parts, Citgo, Purolator, Evan Williams and Early Times, which have a broader market.

There is no equivalent opportunity for a hunting product company in the hunting world. Even smaller signage available in pro bass fishing and auto racing, like a logo patch on a shirt, isn't practical in the hunting world's TV shows, where blending into nature is a requirement, not an option.

But before that marriage between hunting sponsors and pro anglers can take place, some doors have to be opened.

Browning is doing it through Mack's Prairie Wings, the nationally-known waterfowl retailer in Stuttgart. Marion McCollum and Chuck Lock, the owners of Mack's, think Browning is on to something. Lock, who carries clout in the hunting world, has been introducing Browning to potential sponsors this week at the SHOT Show.

"Chuck is a fisherman, too," Browning said. "He saw the potential in doing this to provide more exposure for Mack's. He's been opening some doors for me with companies that would have no reason to know who I am otherwise.

"In some ways it's thinking way outside the box, and that's why it hasn't been done before."

Swindle has demonstrated, both with his larger-than-life personality on the Bassmaster weigh-in stage and in his bass fishing techniques, that thinking outside the box comes naturally.

So he turned this SHOT Show visit into, in his words, "a two-day crash course," on how to use his skills to benefit a potential hunting sponsor.

"I feel like the last two days have been a huge success," said Swindle upon heading back to Alabama on Saturday afternoon. "It has been a huge eye-opener. I shook a lot of hands this week.

"I'm known as a pro angler, but my passion is hunting. A lot of my fans like to hunt. On a smaller scale, I'm trying to do what's being done with hunting and NASCAR."

In pro bass fishing and in NASCAR, a sponsor has to look no farther than last year's BASS Angler of the Year or Nextel Cup standings to see a black-and-white ranking of the latest stars in those sports.

Other than Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young rankings, no such fact-based list exists in hunting. And even if there was a Boone & Crockett equivalent in, for example, duck hunting, it would still be more of a lifetime achievement list, not a ranking of the most recent success stories.

"Guys who take big whitetails on a regular basis, on camera, people are going to know about them in the hunting world," said Ben Maki, Mossy Oak's marketing director. "There's competition in the hunting sports.

"If you find a big gobbler that can't be killed, there's going to be guys lining up to do that. But you're not really competing head-to-head against other people."

Maki noted that 80 percent of U.S. hunters also enjoy fishing. But only 40 percent of fishing's bigger market share also hunt. That doesn't mean Maki is opposed to the idea of Mossy Oak sponsoring a pro bass fisherman.

"We haven't seen anyone who was the Bassmaster Angler of the Year translate that into hunting sponsorships," said Maki. "But I don't see why it couldn't happen."

It will be up to the salesmanship and public relations skills of pro anglers, like Browning and Swindle, to open those doors for the first time.

And, apparently, a few of them have figured out that there's no better place to lay that groundwork than the SHOT Show.