It's crazy enough that someone can get paid $1 million for catching a fish--the angler who wins the championship tournament on the largest professional bass-fishing circuit in the country takes that awfully sweet bait. But it's certifiably insane that someone else can sit on his or her butt and win a million bucks by predicting (actually, more like guessing) which fisherman will hook the biggest bass.
All the fantasy baseball leagues that give $1,000 to the winner are small fry compared with the high-stakes world of fantasy fishing. That's right, fishing. The fantasy-sports craze has grown so large--it's now an $800 million industry, with 30 million players in the U.S. and Canada--that folks are picking dream fishing teams. And if pisces don't pump you up, there's also fantasy surfing, fantasy motocross, even fantasy politics and fashion to satisfy your fix. (See the best and worst Super Bowl commercials of 2009.)
So how does fantasy fishing work? The company that runs the pro tour, FLW Outdoors--named after Forrest L. Wood, developer of the modern bass-fishing boat--also administers the free fantasy version at fantasyfishing.com The setup is simple. Before each of the six regular-season FLW tournaments (the first one starts Feb. 12 on Lake Guntersville in Huntsville, Ala.), players pick 10 anglers from the 155 pros who enter each tourney, in the order they believe the fishermen will finish. The better your picks do, the more points you rack up. And there's a hefty bonus for an exacta--if your pick for first or second or third, etc., matches the tournament rankings. The player with the most points at the end of each competition gets $100,000. Whoever piles up the most points over all six tournaments wins the million, a record fantasy-sports payout.
FLW is also giving away boats, trucks and gift cards as part of the game. Overall, it's distributing $10 million in cash and prizes to its top fantasy performers. During fantasy fishing's '08 debut, many winners got lucky. Shellee Kuykendall, a stay-at-home mother of two in Little Rock, Ark., didn't know fishing even had a pro circuit until she heard about the fantasy tournament from her husband and won $100,000. The million-dollar winner, a Minnesota man named Michael Thompson, had been out of work for more than a year before fishing saved him. Now he's the face of fantasy fishing: Thompson says he just saw a cardboard cutout of himself at a boat show.
Despite such heartwarming stories, fantasy fishing does have detractors: the dozens of pros who would like to earn more than the few thousand bucks they've been reeling in. "Guys are struggling," says Ken Wick, an FLW pro. "If anything, can't the [fantasy] prizes be maybe $50,000 for the tournaments, and $250,000 for the big one? That's still a good amount of money for playing around on your computer."
FLW argues that the mondo prizes will draw new fans to fishing and thus are a long-term investment in the health of the sport. The strategy might just work. Why wouldn't fans spend hours watching a guy fish if they knew they could catch a cool million?