When Scott was in third grade, his mother was happy when he had increasing praise for her sandwich-making as the year went on. One brown-bag peanut-butter-and-jelly became three, which became five, which became 10. When his mother went in for a conference, the teacher told her that young Ray was a popular but indifferent student who talked too much. "On the other hand, his sandwich business is going well," said the teacher.
Later, as a junior-high student, Scott did such a good job of persuading local merchants to sponsor his YMCA football team that his teammates acceded to his demand to play quarterback. That forced a youngster with slightly better signal-calling potential, a fellow by the name of Bart Starr, to settle for guard. "Maybe not my best personnel decision," says Scott.
One stormy March day in 1967, Scott was relaxing in his Ramada Inn room in Jackson, Miss., where he had gone for some bass fishing, when he had a vision. "In a microsecond I saw it all," says Scott. "I saw the lake I had just gotten blown off. I saw a hundred bass fishermen competing, tournament-style. It just came to me. I knew it would work."
Within weeks Scott had lined up financing and sent out invitations requesting the presence of competitive anglers willing to cough up a $100 entry fee for the First All-American Bass Tournament. One hundred and six anglers, the "hard-nosed, hairy-legged bass fishermen" who Scott says he knew were out there, showed up at Beaver Lake in Arkansas for what is believed to have been the first pro bass-fishing tournament. Scott paid $2,000 to the winner, Stan Sloan from Nashville, and proclaimed it a rousing success. A few months later he formed B.A.S.S. and began creating a cottage industry out of bass fishing and a phenomenon out of Ray Scott. "When I came down the road, people got out of my way," says Scott, "and the ones who didn't handed me money."
The pioneers of tournament bass fishing, men like Bill Dance, Roland Martin and Jimmy Houston (the latter being the pudgy, cackling blond from Cookson, Okla., who, during his weekly half-hour show on ESPN, Jimmy Houston Outdoors, says ad nauseam, "That's a na-a-ahce feesh") owe much of their celebrity to Scott and the organization he founded. When in 1995 Field & Stream listed its choices for the 20 most influential people in outdoor sports during the previous 100 years, the names included Teddy Roosevelt, Rachel Carson and Ray Scott.
Scott sold B.A.S.S. in 1986 for $15 million but stayed on as its president until early this month, when a dispute over his contract with B.A.S.S.'s current CEO, Helen Sevier, resulted in Scott's termination. For the first time since he organized the Classic in '71, Scott wasn't onstage, larger than life in his white cowboy hat, emceeing at the weigh-in. A few cries of "Where's Ray?" could be heard in the coliseum as a quartet of emcees tried—and failed—to generate the enthusiasm of one great Scott. "Guess it takes four people to replace me," Scott said with a chuckle after the tournament. Though his ego could fill a good-sized bass lake (without a trace of irony he says things like "I'm a fisher of men" and "The word synchronicity is laced through my whole fiber"), Scott is B.A.S.S. to many sponsors and fans, and the organization's hierarchy is making a big mistake if it doesn't bring him back.
The man who upped the ante in tournament bass fishing, however, is definitely Jacobs, 57, the multimillionaire CEO of Genmar Holdings Inc., the world's largest privately owned pleasure-boat manufacturer. Three years ago Jacobs, who was the majority owner of the Minnesota Vikings from 1984 to '92, launched the FLW Tour, named for bass-boat pioneer Wood. The next year Jacobs cajoled Wal-Mart into coming aboard. Mr. Weekend Angler has to spend his $200 a month on rods, reels, tackle boxes and lures somewhere, and Lee Scott, Wal-Mart's president, figured it might as well be at his store. Other big-name sponsors of the FLW Tour include Chevrolet, Coca-Cola and Wheaties, which explains how Brauer, by virtue of winning the 1998 FLW points championship, is joining the Michael Jordan-Bob Richards club.
By and large, FLW's made-for-TV stops (the tournaments are taped for later telecast) pay higher prize money than do B.A.S.S. events and have a glitzier feel. FLW announcers broadcasting from Wal-Mart parking lots talk live to fishermen in their boats, and weigh-ins at 1999 tour stops are scheduled to be aired live in Wal-Mart's 2,500 retail outlets. (Attention shoppers: Back-to-school specials available on aisle 9, and Skeet Reese has caught a five-pound largemouth!) Jacobs is already carny-barking the unprecedented riches to be paid in the FLW Ranger Millennium tournament scheduled for November '99: a $3.5 million purse with a $1 million first-place prize. Any angler, rank amateur or seasoned pro, can go after that money, provided that he or she competes in a Ranger boat, a stipulation that subverts Jacobs's proclamation that "the Millennium is the Super Bowl of bass fishing."
Though the comparison would probably turn his proud mane of hair even grayer, the Minnesota-born Jacobs is rather a North Country version of Scott. Both are physically imposing men of enormous competitiveness and self-confidence. Jacobs, too, is fond of pronouncements. Such as: "When Wal-Mart got involved with us, it was the biggest decision of that kind in the history of sports." Or: "Within a few years our tour will put bass fishing on the front page of every sports section in the country." You tend to write off half of what he says as the ravings of a corporate cheerleader, but even his detractors admit that everything Jacobs has touched—including his father's junk business, in which he got his start—has turned to gold.
B.A.S.S.'s hierarchy, not surprisingly, views Jacobs with a mixture of fear and loathing. "I know how they see me," says Jacobs, "as some guy out of the 1980s who's just in it for the money. Well, they're wrong." Jacobs is no bass-on-the-brain aficionado like Scott, but he is a longtime fisherman who is knowledgeable about the sport. Nevertheless, Genmar exists to sell boats—in a delicious bit of corporate cross-fertilization, Ranger Boats, the flagship brand of Jacobs's company, is one of the major sponsors of the B.A.S.S. tour—so Jacobs cannot separate his czarship of the Wal-Mart FLW Tour from the purely commercial. Some veterans believe that Jacobs, for all the prize money he has brought into the sport, will not be good for the pro angler in the long run. "He doesn't care anything about us," complains Martin, who has hosted a TV fishing show on various networks for 25 years. "The average Joe Lunchbucket fisherman, the guy who's going to buy one of his Ranger boats, is just as important to him."