What will be your goal in tournament fishing for the 21st century? Are you interested in draw events, pro-am, or team tournaments? I've fished all of these and enjoy each, but the most fun and rewarding for me have been team events.
The professional events receive the most press and television airtime, and everyone is impressed with the hundreds of thousands of dollars won. But don't let that fool you. The events are significant but keep in mind entry fees are generally over $1000 with several hundred anglers. I've read figures that say less than 100 anglers nationwide make their living just by fishing tournaments.
I'll be the first to admit that I've been fortunate and blessed to make a living fishing, but if I had to count on just tournaments alone, I would have gone broke long ago. You've got to have the support of your family first and foremost. If you don't, you will have a very tough time. My wife Diane has always supported every decision I've made regarding my fishing career. That support hasn't always been easy for her, either.
Good sponsors are the next things you have to have. The most misunderstood thing among aspiring professional anglers is that the last thing on their list when looking at your resume is how well you fish. How well you can help promote their product is what comes first with them, not just wearing their logo at the weigh-in. While wearing their logo is important, it's also important how you conduct yourself in public, how well you speak, and how professionally you represent their company name and product.
The best way to acquire sponsors is just like everything else in life. Most often, it's who you know. With boats, that means knowing a reputable boat dealer. A boat dealer can help you obtain boat sponsorship. Find one that supports tournament fishing. Not all boat dealership owners do. My dealer, Jeff Gilbert of Fun-n-Sun Boating Center (Texas), is a big proponent of the tournament industry and was instrumental in helping me get Champion Boats as a sponsor. But that also means I've always been available to him if he needs my help. Being loyal is important, and Jeff knows that he has my loyalty and that I work to promote the products he sells. Knowing they can depend on you will help them go to bat for you with sponsorships. This kind of relationship doesn't happen overnight. It takes time. Of course, this is easy for me to say. Fun-n-Sun is one of the best dealerships in the country, bar none.
The other thing that will help you the most to jump-start a fishing career is to seek sponsorship outside the fishing industry. The first place to look is at your tow vehicle or SUV. Automobile dealerships work differently than fishing industry sponsorships. I'm lucky that Nichols Ford of Fort Worth looked elsewhere than the usual football or baseball players for promotions. They sponsored Paulie Ayala, the champion boxer, and myself. I'm not a world champion like Paulie, but I work hard for Nichols, and whenever Ken Nichols needs my help, he has it. I help with promotions at the dealership on Fridays and Saturdays and take managers or sales personnel fishing (always happy to help with this task). Not every dealership or business can help you with such a large contribution as a vehicle, but help with entry fees or other expenses is also valuable. You can start small and allow it to grow as you've shown your ability to promote for them.
In closing, the most critical aspect of sponsorship is selecting quality products. Always go with companies or products you believe in and have faith in. It's not easy to promote something that you do not have complete faith in.
Should larger professional events, where such sponsorships are a must, not be your choice, you can fish team events just for fun. As I said, some of the most fun events I've fished have been regular team tournaments. There are many levels of competition, from amateur to pro, and fishing, the type of event that gives you the satisfaction you seek will keep you happier.
Bill Wilcox is sponsored by Ranger Boats, Yamaha Outboards, MCMC, BG Products, Pro Rule, Johnson Fiberglass, Brown's Automotive, Continental Batteries, Kistler Rods, Swamp Hog Lures, Strike King Lures, and Fun-n-Sun Sports Center.