How To Make Millions With Fishing Tournaments
Brady Bunte was trolling for marlin off the coast of Cabo San Lucas in Mexico when he saw what looked like a "submarine coming out of the water" - a 565-pound monster had just hit his line. It was the final day of the Bisbee's Black & Blue tournament, held each fall.
The marlin stripped out 800 feet of 130-pound test line in a few seconds, Bunte's reel spinning so fast that it gave off steam when sprayed by seawater. When he finally brought the marlin close to the boat after a half-hour of dramatic leaps and runs, the crew called it a "money fish" - 12 feet long, with a rear tail fin spanning nearly six feet across.
They were right: Bunte, now 41, the founder of Trust One Mortgage Corp. and Cabo Foods, both in Irvine, Calif., had just won the first-ever million-dollar prize for a blue marlin.
That was back in 2003, and Bisbee's Black & Blue has since taken its place among the richest fishing competitions in the world. Last year it paid out $3.8 million in prize money, including $1.3 million for the top fish, a 531-pound black marlin.
This month, the 25th anniversary of the tournament, some 800 anglers will vie for more than $4 million. ESPN plans to shoot an episode of the show "Wanna Go Fishing?" during the competition, and a TV production company in Los Angeles is creating a series of televised fishing events incorporating what competitors refer to as "the Bisbee's."
Not bad for an event that was dreamed up in hopes of creating a little extra revenue for a small, humdrum business. In 1982 founder Bob Bisbee owned a fuel dock and fishing store, and his original vision for the tournament was merely to sell some tackle and have a good time fishing with his friends. Instead, he conceived a marketing event so successful that it replaced his original company.
Starting out small
Bisbee launched his Marine Fuels & Sportfishing Headquarters in 1975 on Balboa Island in Newport Beach, Calif. The island was one of the last stops in the U.S. for boats heading south to fish off Cabo San Lucas, so the store specialized in big-game accessories and boat parts.
A few regulars were at the store one night in 1982, talking about contests in which anglers would bet on whose boat could land the biggest fish. "It sounded like fun," recalls Bisbee. "So I said, why don't we try it?"
Each man kicked in $3,000, and seven boats headed down to Cabo to catch black and blue marlin, majestic fish that can weigh more than 1,000 pounds. (They are far bigger than the striped variety found off the coast of California.) The world record is a 1,560-pound black marlin caught in Cabo Blanco, Peru, in 1953.
Marlin are incredibly strong, with razor-sharp bills. It was a marlin that nearly killed the fisherman Santiago in Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea." This summer an experienced charter operator in Bermuda was speared in the chest and carried into the ocean by a leaping 800-pound marlin. The man survived but needed emergency surgery. (The marlin escaped.)
In his first tournament, Bisbee offered total prizes of about $10,000. "Everyone won something, but it wasn't much," he says. (Bisbee took first place, a prize of about $2,000.) The prize money and number of entrants grew fast, though, up about 25 percent a year through the mid-1980s.
"We'd go into a hotel in Cabo, and there would be this mound of cash on the bed, $40,000 or $50,000 in pesos and dollars," recalls John Doughty, Bisbee's store manager at the time.
By 1990, prize money was close to $750,000, all from entry fees. That was the year Bisbee's lease for the store and fuel dock expired and he retired. (John Doughty decided to lease the property and opened J.D.'s Big Game Fishing Tackle, a business that operates today.)
Passing the torch
Bisbee continued running the tournament until 1995, however, when his son, Wayne, took over. His daughter, Patricia, joined as a minority stakeholder and vice president. Both now work on the tournament year-round, along with a third employee in Mexico, who helps with logistics, and a part-time staffer who handles public relations.
Wayne's first task was finding creative ways to market the event and lining up corporate sponsorship; the Black & Blue now has about 20 such sponsors, bringing in several hundred thousand dollars a year. The biggest pay what Wayne describes as "a little over a six-digit commitment" each year.
The rest of the company's revenue comes from tournament entry fees (as much as $5,000 for each boat; about 200 will participate this year) and separate fees, ranging from $200 to $10,000 a day, for daily jackpots. The company takes 30 percent of the main entry fees, 10 percent of the daily jackpot fees and all sponsorship money. With two warm-up tournaments and the main event, the company will net between $300,000 and $400,000 this year.
The growth of the Bisbee's mirrors a nationwide surge in sportfishing. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's most recent survey, the number of anglers in the U.S. increased by 130 percent from 1995 to 2001, to 34 million, nearly twice the rate of U.S. population growth. Cable channels now televise salt- and fresh-water fishing competitions, and ESPN, which owns the Pro Bass tour, runs a fantasy-fishing league with about 40,000 participants.
As the prize money has soared, the rules have evolved. During its tournament, Bisbee's retains a biologist to examine every fish that comes in, looking for signs that it may have been frozen or its windpipe blocked, which would allow water to be pumped in to boost the fish's weight. (Competitors can also enter a catch-and-release version of the tournament.)
Anyone who wins money must also submit to a polygraph test, a rule Wayne Bisbee instituted in 2000. Only one fish has been disqualified since then, when an angler received help on the boat and initially lied about it. (The rules require that the person holding the rod when the fish strikes work alone to bring it in.) "People are people, and there's a lot of money on the line," Wayne says.
These days, the Bisbee's is dominated by entrepreneurs. "Most of the people I know who fish Bisbee's and other tournaments are business owners - very competitive, successful people," says Donnie Seay, 66, a founding partner of Entera Energy Trust, an oil and gas production company in San Antonio. "You have to be able to take time off, and you have to be able to afford to compete." This year will be Seay's third Black & Blue tournament.
Anglers such as Seay often spend tens of thousands of dollars on basic equipment such as rods, reels, lures and lines, and high-end accessories such as line testers, fish-finding sonar, radar and infrared night-vision cameras.
Brady Bunte, the Bisbee's winner three years ago, just bought a 2003 tournament-rigged 61-foot Viking worth about $2.2 million. His equipment - rods, reels and lines - is worth more than $40,000. The boat's custom-made fighting chair cost $19,000.
But it doesn't take an expensive lure to win the Bisbee's. Or night-vision goggles. All it takes is a boat, a rod and some bait. "Sport fishing is probably 80 percent luck and 20 percent skill," says Seay. In the early 1990s a 21-year-old from Southern California won the first prize, about $350,000. "It was the first time he'd ever fished for marlin," says Wayne.
When Brady Bunte won his million-dollar purse, security guards had to clear the crowd away as he and his teammates brought the marlin to the weigh station. Bunte compares it to the feeling he imagines professional athletes get after winning the World Series or Super Bowl. "Only the thing is, I could never win the World Series or Super Bowl," he says. "Yet there I am, up there all sweaty in my flip-flops and swim trunks."
My Fishing Business