Mike Duffy saw opportunity when an Adrian College board member handed him a newspaper article about collegiate bass fishing. The sport isn’t typically associated with college athletics, yet it has exploded in recent years: Three different organizations now conduct national championships for more than 600 university club programs. And in that rapid growth, Duffy, Adrian’s athletics director, saw momentum he could seize.
This spring, Adrian and its 10 anglers will launch the first varsity bass fishing program at an NCAA member school, complete with two shiny new Ranger bass fishing boats, equipment sponsors and a sense that they’re in front of a trend.
“It’s amazing how that’s recruited for us,” Duffy said of the school’s variety of sports activities. “What makes Adrian College different than those other 449 (Division III programs), plus all the Division II’s and Division I’s? Bass fishing is just another niche we’ve got.”
The sport fits with Adrian’s willingness to support niche sports. It already sponsors varsity figure skating, cheer and dance programs. The school even constructed an ice arena and populated it with six club hockey teams, two synchronized skating teams and an intercollegiate hockey program – opportunities that brought 200 students to Adrian who might never have stepped foot on campus. Bass fishing is already drawing similar interest: Since the new program was announced in spring 2014, coach Seth Borton has fielded dozens of calls from inquiring prospects.
It’s one sign of the sport’s eruption over the past five years. When one of its organizing bodies, Fishing League Worldwide, started its college division in 2009, only 90 club programs existed; this year, 220 participated.
And indicators point to continued growth: Two NAIA programs – Bethel University and Campbellsville University – have launched varsity programs and offer athletics scholarships, which helped Bethel sign two-time junior national champion Dakota Cantrell last summer. And in the past three years, high school athletics associations in Illinois, Kentucky and New Hampshire sanctioned bass fishing as a varsity activity and now organize state championships. Missouri also sanctions the sport and is working to offer a state championship.
“We really touched a nerve when we launched college bass fishing,” said FLW Vice President of Operations Dave Washburn. “It’s becoming more and more mainstream.”
And the best programs aren’t necessarily the biggest schools: The University of Louisiana at Monroe and Stephen F. Austin State University currently lead the Cabelas Collegiate Bass Fishing rankings. And with broadcast partners such as ESPNU getting involved, Borton believes bass fishing offers unique appeal to small schools willing to sponsor it at the varsity level, a move that gives the sport credibility, funding and access to equipment.
And unlike many other sports, those schools can have an opportunity to take down one of those big schools in a televised national championship.