In 2011, before he entered Dallas Baptist University on a bass fishing scholarship, Trent Newman was headed for the oil fields. His hometown of Midlothian is in the heart of northwest Texas oil country, and despite the daunting job risks — 65 people died in Texas drilling accidents in 2012 alone, making it America’s deadliest workplace — its young men tend to drift into the fields straight out of high school, seeking work as drillers, derrick hands, tool pushers, welders and truck drivers. The pay is decent; the hours, long and deadening.
“I had a job all lined up,” Newman says. “I would’ve worked and worked and worked until I had enough money to fish the pro leagues.”
Newman had fished since he was 12. His first bass boat was a jury-rigged VIP fish-and-ski — he sawed the windows off and nailed on a plywood casting deck. His heroes were pro anglers Kevin VanDam and Mike Iaconelli. As a high school senior, he placed second in the Texas high school state bass fishing championship, no small feat in a place where many kids learn to fish before they walk. The pro Bassmaster Opens and FLW Opens series were up next. Because tournament entry fees run upwards of $1,500 — not counting gas for the boat, tackle, food, hotels, etc. — roughnecking, Newman figured, was his surest path. But he’d caught the eye of DBU’s head angling coach, who offered Newman the fishing equivalent of a full-ride: a brand-new Legend bass boat, truck, trailer, plus free tackle, gear, gas and hotel money for out-of-town tournaments for all four years of undergraduate study. There were no tuition breaks, so technically it wasn’t a scholarship, but to Newman it might as well have been.
“He had me at ‘new bass boat,’” Newman says.
Today, Newman is a graduate student in communications at DBU, a small Christian liberal arts college in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He got his undergraduate degree in marketing and business management while fishing weekend tournaments and helping to establish the DBU Patriots as one of the nation’s elite bass clubs, while also winning about $18,000 in prize money (most of which went back into the team’s budget). “What DBU has done for me has been huge,” Newman says. “It took the financial weight off my shoulders to be able to fish. When your school helps you out like that, it boosts your confidence and ability tremendously because you can fish as much as you want.”
Although he has two more years of eligibility left, Newman will compete in his first pro tours this year — the Bassmaster and FLW Opens, where prize money for top finishers spills into the five digits. His degrees, he says, are fail-safes in case it doesn’t pan out. He’s also keeping a sideline gig as a property manager in Midlothian.
Bass fishing, along with lacrosse and volleyball, is one of the fastest-growing collegiate club sports in the country — and, for many anglers, the most viable doorstep to the big show. The largest of the three main college leagues, the FLW Outdoors College Series (FLW stands for Fishing League Worldwide), has over 700 registered bass clubs — up from just 90 a few years ago — with 8,000 student anglers competing in 17 annual events, including a national championship with a $29,000 grand prize and an automatic berth in the $100,000 professional Forrest Wood Cup. The Carhartt Bassmaster College Series has 235 clubs with 1,161 anglers. Cabela’s Collegiate Bass Fishing Series, run by the Association of Collegiate Anglers (ACA), has slightly more than that. Since many anglers fish in all three leagues, however, the total number of active college fishermen is around 9,000.
“We saw college fishing as a way to introduce the sport to kids who weren’t playing football, basketball, baseball, and hockey, and it was a place where the sport needed to grow.”
For all practical purposes, organized college fishing began in about 2005, when the ACA held its first large-scale national tournament. There had been sporadic ACA events over the years, like an annual Big Ten Classic (which, despite its name, often had only two or three teams from the Big Ten conference competing against each other). But 2005 was the first year that teams from all over the country faced off in a big money tournament. Two years later, the FLW followed suit. Hungry for more anglers to enter its pro ranks, it sought to establish a college-to-pro farm system not unlike what exists for big varsity sports.
“We needed fresh blood,” says Kevin Hunt, director of tournament operations for FLW college fishing. “There’s only so many Larry Nixons, Jimmy Houstons, and George Cochrans [legendary pro fisherman], and sooner or later they’re gonna retire. We saw college fishing as a way to introduce the sport to kids who weren’t playing football, basketball, baseball, and hockey, and it was a place where the sport needed to grow.”
The FLW held its first national college tournament in 2009, on Falcon Lake in Texas. Only 80 anglers showed up, and none had brought their own boat — the FLW had to pay local fishermen to take the college kids out on the water. Within a couple of years, the sport had mushroomed, fed largely by thousands of high school bass fishing clubs around the country, from which college clubs actively recruited. Last month, when 406 anglers competed in an FLW regional tournament on Tennessee’s Lake Chickamauga — broadcast on FLW TV through NBC Outdoors to a potential audience of 500 million — every single one of them had their own boat.
DBU’s head angling coach offered Trent Newman the fishing equivalent of a full-ride scholarship: a brand new Legend bass boat, truck, trailer, plus free tackle, gear, gas and hotel money for out-of-town tournaments for all four years of undergraduate study. “He had me at ‘new bass boat’” Newman says. (Photo: Atonement Entertainment)
From the start, the FLW had no affiliation with the NCAA, and college fishing remains a “club” sport free from the rules governing varsity student-athletes. This means anglers can seek sponsorships and keep tournament winnings. While many bass clubs are lucky to cut a sponsorship deal with a local tackle shop, tire shop, or restaurant — small-change stuff that covers uniforms and not much else, like in Little League baseball — others have signed with national tackle companies like Strike King and Eagle Claw, or as with DBU, Legend boats. Cash payouts are the student’s to do with as he pleases. Ditto the boats, rods, reels, fish finders and tackle that are often divvied among a tournament’s top finishers. In 2010 and 2011, two anglers from the University of Florida won back-to-back national championships for $100,000 a pop. With earnings from regional tournaments and the sale of four Ranger bass boats they’d won, the pair made $315,000 all told. (Every angler I spoke to for this article told me that most, if not all, of their winnings, including cash, are either split among the team’s anglers or funneled into its budget.) But the sport has become far less lucrative in the past few years. In its early days, as it sought to promote college bass fishing, the FLW was looser with its purse strings; the national champion got $100,000, and even the winner of regional qualifiers won $10,000. Nowadays, the national champ gets $30,000 and regional qualifiers $2,000.
In 2010 and 2011, two anglers from the University of Florida won back-to-back national championships for $100,000 a pop. With earnings from regional tournaments and the sale of four Ranger bass boats they’d won, the pair made $315,000, all told.
A guiding light of amateur athletics — and the very argument the NCAA and its member schools often use against paying college athletes — is that it shields kids from the ravenous capitalist bloodlust of professionalism. Student-athletes, the thinking goes, unshackled from the moral gravel-pit of the free market, learn the value of honor and fair play, and get a free education to boot. But according to law professor Stephen F. Ross, director of Penn State’s Institute for Sports Law, Policy and Research, this is tough to square with the financial picture at the nation’s big collegiate athletic programs — schools like Alabama, Texas, Michigan, and Penn State, to name a few — which earn between $40 million and $80 million in profits a year from football alone. “The principal motivation for most NCAA rules is not the lofty ideals of amateur athletics but the commercial self-interest of member schools,” Ross says. Indeed, a benefit of the “student-athlete” designation, he points out, is that it saves universities from having to pay worker’s compensation when players get injured. The Big Ten and SEC football programs don’t keep players on the practice field four or five hours a day during exam week, in other words, because it instills a sense of fair play.
“The moral claims about not paying college football and basketball players are purely driven by self-interest,” says Ross. “Athletic directors want to use the surplus money from football and basketball for other varsity sports. If they actually had to pay players, they’d have serious financial problems.”
Immunity from NCAA oversight can have a downside for anglers, however. Unlike the DBU Patriots, the vast majority of collegiate bass clubs get little to no financial support, or even official recognition, from their university. They function more or less like the ultimate frisbee team, paying all of their own expenses. For a club that hasn’t won a tournament in years, or ever, as many haven’t, the financial burdens can be grim. As Kevin Hunt of the FLW says, “You go fish a tournament, you might as well cross $500 off the books, real quick-like.”
DBU is among a select few universities that fully fund its anglers. Most are off-the-radar Christian schools, like Bethel University in Minnesota, Adrian College in Michigan, Campbellsville University in Kentucky, and East Texas Baptist University in Marshall. Some promise “bass fishing scholarships” to anglers who compete for their school’s club, though in reality this amounts to little more than 5–10 percent tuition subsidies.
Despite its enrollment of just 5,500, DBU happens to be smack in the heart of perhaps the richest bass fishing recruiting ground in the country. The DFW metroplex, a 13-county swath of northeast Texas, has at least 60 high school clubs, and even some middle school teams, plus hundreds of annual local and regional tournaments. Which partly explains why the Patriots are currently the #1 ranked club in the Bassmaster College Series and just finished as team-of-the-year on the Arkansas Trail, an Association of Collegiate Anglers subregion.
Connor Smith, director of athletics at Dallas Baptist University, says adding a funded bass fishing team to the university’s club system in 2011 was a no-brainer. “Remember, we’re in Texas,” he says, “and this is a really cool sport that kids here are into. Plus, any time you add a team to athletics, you’re trying to boost enrollment and participation numbers, and also increase retention. These students are getting a chance to fish on national television. What better publicity could you bring to your athletic department?”
DBU’s bass team, overseen by the university athletic department, has its own operating budget, and Smith’s office helps anglers find scholarship money if they need it. “We treat them the same as we do our NCAA varsity athletes,” Smith says. “They’re held to the same standards. There’s not one thing that an angler here has to pay for, fishing-wise.”
Ironically, at the bigger schools in the bass fishing pantheon — Florida, Auburn, Alabama, the University of South Carolina — anglers don’t have as much support from, and sometimes not even an official imprimatur of, their university. Because of licensing deals, for instance, the University of Texas bass club is prohibited from using the Longhorns symbol on its uniforms.
“You can only imagine,” says Smith, “if you have a bass fishing club that wants funding at a school of 50,000 students. Then why not the wake-boarding team, too? The chess team? The ping-pong team? The Quidditch team? A big university can’t keep up with that.”
Patrick Walters, a senior angler at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, reckons he goes out of pocket $1,000–$1,500 for each of the 25 tournaments he fishes a year. “Until 2016, the university never gave us a dime,” he says. But after back-to-back national championship wins in 2015 and 2016, USC began kicking in $150–$200 in gas money per event for Walters and his teammates.
“They turned an eye to how much publicity we were bringing to the university,” Walters says. Still, the money often doesn’t cover the diesel to and from tournaments, and everything else — boat, truck, trailer, gear, food and hotel money — is up to anglers. “Gas money helps,” Walters says. “It’s a dent, but if you’re driving 18 hours to Oklahoma for a tournament, it’s a very small dent.” Although he has won about $25,000 fishing for USC, all of it was split with his team members, who poured it right back into gear and tackle.
According to the FLW’s Kevin Hunt, only about one-percent of the league’s 8,000 anglers eventually make it to the pros. “It’s a tough world to break into,” he says, likening it to making the leap from NCAA basketball to the NBA. “Money is a huge obstacle. You gotta have a boat, equipment, the finances to get to and from tournaments. Most won’t make it, so they need a degree to fall back on. Not everyone can be Steph Curry.”
Walters is double majoring in business management and marketing. Like Trent Newman, he had been looking past college to the pros while still in high school. But he decided a college degree was critical to having a professional career. “I came to college specifically to fish and to get a degree to show to potential sponsors,” he says. “Sponsors want to see a degree. Nowadays, they don’t just want someone who can fish. They want a college-educated guy who’s well-spoken and who can handle himself in front of cameras.”
“It’s all about marketing,” Newman says. “Knowing how to talk to people, knowing how to support your sponsors and represent the brand.”
In 2016, all nine pro Bassmaster Elite Series events had a $658,000 purse, with winners taking home $100,000 and every angler placing through 52nd place winning at least $10,000. But of the 111 fishermen currently in the Elite Series, only a handful are making private-island-in-the-Maldives retirement money. Top anglers like Kevin VanDam, Skeet Reese, Larry Nixon and Mike Iaconelli, with tournament winnings and sponsorships, can make somewhere in the neighborhood of a million-plus dollars a year. But perhaps the top 50 are making closer to $80,000–$100,000 annually, while the rest are struggling weekend fishermen living paycheck to paycheck, or in some cases, maxing out their credit cards just to pay entry fees.
“It’s a hard, long road,” Newman says. “There’s so many great anglers out there, you really have to have an excellent year just to make a living. To win one bass tournament with 100 boats in it, there’s a little bit of luck that’s played into that. And to win a single big money tournament in any given year is really tough.”
“But that’s why I went to college,” he says. “I have a business plan, a launch program for the next two years. I have it all planned out: how I’m gonna make boat payments, how I’m gonna make it to the next tournament, and the next tournament after that. It’s a fine line to hold, but there’s a lot of money to be made.”