Fishing For Hot Spots

ESPN: The cable network gives its fishing coverage a 21st-century makeover - while trying not to affect competition.

August 08, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - The secret fishing hole is sacred no more.

It's being done in - not by a blabby guy at the local tackle shop, but by the electronic marriage of the Global Positioning System and the PDA.

The system was developed by the whiz kids at cable giant ESPN to track competitors at big-bucks tournaments such as last month's BASS Masters Classic.

The reason is simple fishing math: One angler plus one observer in one boat equals zero audience.

That's a far cry from NASCAR racing (which attracts a similar following), where the track attendance reaches 100,000 and the TV audience can peer over the driver's shoulder via a miniature camera.

So ESPN, which is at least partially responsible for turning stock car racing into the fastest-growing sport in America, looked around for a quick fix after it bought the 600,000-member Bass Anglers Sportsman Society in spring of 2000.

First, it added tons of camera boats and overhead shots from helicopters. But, producers found, that didn't give the television audience a sense of place and it didn't tell them what they wanted to know in real time.

"We needed to update the way bass scoring was done, a way to record and transmit estimates of pounds and ounces, baits used, water temperature and clarity and type of fish," explained Anthony Bailey, director of advanced broadcast systems for ESPN Outdoors.

The network turned to the same kind of technology that tracked Volvo Ocean Racing boats as they circled the globe and let children watch migrating waterfowl on classroom computers.

ESPN staff went to work writing software for Personal Digital Assistants (handheld computers used for address books, calendars and other chores), that will allow the official observer in a competitor's boat to quickly record that information, along with the GPS coordinates, for transmission to a satellite over Texas. From there, the data can be beamed to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn. Total elapsed time, 45 seconds.

Web site employees will be able to turn that information into updates every five minutes, duplicating the turnaround time for other major sports.

"We know this is what people want," said Jamie Wilkinson, digital media manager for ESPN Outdoors. "If we are 10 minutes late with [online] results, we get bombed with e-mail and our phones light up. People want real-time results like they get with baseball. They're no longer willing to wait a week for results."

ESPN, which tested the system during the Classic on all 52 boats, hopes to roll out a full complement of units in time for the beginning of the tournament season in January.

Fans might become instant converts to the new technology, but professional anglers - generally a suspicious and secretive lot - may be a tougher sell.

Opening days in any high-stakes tournament would make any former KGB agent proud. Anglers mumble when asked about lures or lucky spots; some flat-out shake their heads and back away. Others get cranky whenever spectator boats show up to watch.

Just how secretive they are became clear earlier this year, when during his induction into the Professional Bass Fishing Hall of Fame, Denny Brauer apologized for misleading fans and fishing writers during the years he wracked up hundreds of thousands of dollars' in wins.

But ESPN and BASS officials insist they are sensitive to those concerns.

"We're not going to go into their playbook," said ESPN Outdoors spokesman George McNeilly. "We can't take the fans out to the water, so we'll are going to use the technology [to] bring fishing to the fans. But, that said, at the end of the day, we wouldn't want the third-place guy to get online and learn what the first-place guy is doing."

McNeilly says once anglers get over their suspicions, they may find the new technology helpful to them.

The GPS data might be able to settle boundary disputes when one angler accuses another of fishing outside tournament lines.

Precision tracking might help boats in lost or in distress. Two years ago, a professional angler at a California tournament lost track of the hour and didn't return to the boat ramp by the appointed time. Rescue boats and a police helicopter had to be sent out before the fisherman was located.

An angler who's easy to find stands a better chance to be on TV, too.

During the second day of the three-day Classic here, an ESPN cameraman was unable to find eventual winner Jay Yelas, an understandable loss on 12,000-acre Lay Lake with its many creeks and backwaters.

The panicky cameraman called on his cell phone to Wilkinson, who dashed to the command center and located Yelas by GPS.

"He's in the slue right behind you," Wilkinson phoned back. Within minutes, the cameraman found the leader.

"He never would have found him," said Wilkenson, laughing and shaking his head.

The other factor that may convert suspicious anglers is another simple piece of fishing math: One tournament circuit plus plugged-in fans plus network TV coverage equals bigger cash prizes.

"Palm Pilots may never be the same after this week," said McNeilly during the Classic. "People in the airport may think you're working, but you're really checking out what's happening on the water."

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