It's a Saturday afternoon in July, inside the giant metal teat of Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena. The man with the brown pompadour and the sweaty face stalks the stage like an evangelical preacher, looking out past the TV cameras, the photographers, the spotlights and the four Hooters girls to exhort--no, demand!--that the 10,520 people before him "GET UP ON YOUR FEET!" and "LIGHT THIS CANDLE!" because it's time to "GO IKE FOR MIKE IACONELLI!" And since these are 10,520 of the most compliant fans you will ever see, they clap and hoot and wave their free hats as if they're Terrible Towels. And here he comes now, their hero, standing atop his $40,000 boat as it's towed behind an SUV, pointing to the crowd and pumping his fist and looking like the world's smallest, skinniest, Joisey-est prizefighter, the great Northern hope of bass fishing come to knock off all the good ol' boy anglers. And the little girls shriek Beatles shrieks; mulleted men raise their tank-topped arms to the iron sky; small boys boogie in the stands; and the three shirtless guys in the infield, the ones who drove all night from West Deptford, N.J., so they could be here with I-K-E scrawled in red paint on their hairy, beer-stretched bellies, bounce up and down with glee as overhead speakers thump out the bass line to Usher's Yeah! The roar grows as Ike vaults from his boat onto the stage, wearing his flame-embroidered jersey, the one with enough sponsor decals to make a Waltrip envious and, turning to face the crowd (and, more important, the cameras), he upends a mesh bag onto the scales to reveal ... four of the most average-looking fish you will ever see. No matter though, because Ike whoops and hoists two of the small, green, slowly asphyxiating bass high above his head as if he were Crazy Horse brandishing the scalp from one of Custer's men. The crowd screams in joy and for a moment, amid the concocted cacophony of this made-for-TV event, in this money-shot moment of the Bassmaster Classic--the Super Bowl of bass fishing--it's almost possible to believe that all this really matters. That 33-year-old Mike Iaconelli might indeed be, as some claim, a galvanizing sports celebrity on the order of John McEnroe or Tiger Woods, and that bass fishing's long-prophesied mainstreaming is finally upon us, that it is indeed NASCAR on water--BASSCAR, baby!--and that sometime in the near future you and I will be discussing crankbait casting and flipping and spinning just as readily as we do the Steelers' pass rush or the Yankees' bullpen. That this Iaconelli kid, the one with his own book and hip-hop DVD and groupies and Daily Show skit, is the new face of an old sport that is being transformed into something young and in-your-face and about to go world-effin'-wide.
But then that moment passes, like the fleeting shadow of a bass zigzagging along the muddy shallows of the Ohio River, and you remember that this is fishing, after all, not Ultimate Fighting, and that no one paid to get into this arena, and that there are few activities more poorly suited to MTV-ification than standing on a boat casting a line for seven hours.
But the small man onstage is still up there, smiling and pointing, and you can't help but notice how the crowd responds to him, and you wonder if--just maybe--this man could make it happen.
This is what you should know about Mike Iaconelli: He grew up in Runnemede, N.J.; his father died when he was an infant; he learned to fish when he was two years old; for a while he had a mullet and was a break-dancer. Still is, in fact, sometimes even on the bow of his boat after catching a big one. Also, he is good at fishing. Very good. In his short pro career, he has amassed 22 top 10 finishes and four victories, including the 2003 Bassmaster Classic, which doesn't sound like all that much but, in the angling world, is almost unheard-of; he is already 20th on the alltime money list in a sport where men routinely fish into their 60s. More important, when he won the Classic, he did so in dramatic fashion: on the last cast of the last day, snagging a 31/2-pound bass and letting out a scream caught on camera--hell, directed at the camera--the volume and ferociousness of which made Howard Dean look downright meek. People still talk about that scream.
This is what Mike Iaconelli would like you to know about Mike Iaconelli: He is willing--no, eager--to sign a copy of his book for you. Or his DVD, which is not your typical bass fishing DVD, either. Not by a long shot. (It's more Vibe than Field & Stream.) Also, he has a CD out, a website, a clothing line and a calendar. In addition he'd like you to know that he thinks highly of his sponsors, but not highly enough that he wouldn't sell them all down the river, figuratively or literally, if Pepsi came calling. ( Nike would be even better.) Finally, if you happen to be part of the media, he would like you to know that he's available to do interviews almost any time. Say, now. Unless, of course, it's the practice week for the Classic. Then he turns off his phones and ignores media and sponsors and friends and works 19-hour days, because the Classic is won during the practice week and his mom taught him that preparation is the key to success.
This is what ESPN, which has owned the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS) since 2001, would like you to know about Mike Iaconelli: He is young, he is handsome, he is urban, he is exciting, he is controversial (the Dennis Rodman of fishing!), he dances on his boat and he screams. Demographically speaking, he pulls in all kinds of numbers and BASS is all about numbers: 44 million people fish, more than play golf or tennis; 9.4 million people watched all or part of the 12 hours of Classic coverage over its three days this summer; anglers spend $50 billion a year on all things fishing.
These are some other things about Mike Iaconelli which aren't required knowledge but are worth noting: During tournaments he sets three alarms and gets a wake-up call to make sure he's on the water on time; among the 363 people or entities he thanks in his book he includes, "the entire hip-hop movement and all the real DJs out there"; finally, that he uses the words absolutely and brother a lot, as in "Mike, do you have time for an interview?"
Bass fishing is a little like playing a video game: It's interesting to do but boring to watch. Cast. Tug. Reel it back in. Repeat 2,000 times. Ray Scott, the gregarious former insurance salesman who started BASS back in 1967, knew this inconvenient truth from the beginning, when the idea occurred to him one day at a Ramada Inn in Jackson, Miss., that if golf could make boatloads of money, why not fishing? He knew he needed to create some buzz, so instead of wooing members of the media by touting the merits of his "sport," he went one step further and simply paid them to cover it. He paid for their airfare, their accommodations, their food and damn well anything else they wanted. Then he held tournaments in such nontraditional fishing destinations as Las Vegas. And he sold the sport everywhere. As this magazine put it in '69, Scott pitched BASS like "a revival preacher painting the glories of paradise gained."
These days Scott is still preaching his gospel. At this summer's Classic he was seated at a table in a Pittsburgh convention hall wearing his trademark white cowboy hat, blue jeans and black tassled vest, simultaneously hawking an energy bar called Hooah! and his memoir, Bass Boss, which features on the back cover a photo of him teaching George H. W. Bush how to cast. "Come buy the book!" Scott shouted to the milling crowd while tearing open an energy bar wrapper with his teeth. "C'mere, boy. Try this bar. Hooah! HOOO-aaahhh!" His head swiveled constantly, looking for a target. "Who's buying the book? This'll cost ya $25 at Barnes & Noble. Only $20 here! I got pictures of [TV host] Bill Dance topless! Hooah!"