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Johnny Morris casts a wider net

Track Off Road and Bass Pro Tour serve as new offerings for 2019

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January was particularly busy for Johnny Morris, founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops. He announced a new line of all-terrain vehicles and side-by-sides – and launched a company-sponsored professional fishing tour.

Dubbed Tracker Off Road, a new line of at least eight vehicle models – four ATVs and four side-by-sides – is the result of a collaboration between Tracker, part of Bass Pro’s White River Marine Group, and Textron Specialized Vehicles Inc., a subsidiary of Providence, Rhode Island-based Textron Inc. (NYSE: TXT). The two companies signed a memorandum of understanding during a 90-minute announcement event Jan. 17 at Bass Pro Shops’ headquarters. The star-studded event, broadcast live to all Bass Pro and Cabela’s stores, included appearances by former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, country musician Luke Bryan and professional fisherman Jimmy Houston.

“It’s truly about the opportunity to strengthen our company and boldly grow into the future,” Morris said during the presentation posted to Bass Pro’s YouTube channel.

The future also is reflected in the start of the Bass Pro Tour, a new offering of Major League Fishing. Bass Pro is sponsoring the 80-angler, eight-event tour. It started late last month, and runs through June, with a championship scheduled in August, said Bailey McBride, MLF director of marketing and relationship management. 

Fishing also happened to be a partial catalyst to the Tracker and Textron deal, said Bass Pro Communications Director Jack Wlezien. Morris and Scott Ernest, CEO of Textron Specialized Vehicles, are friends and, while out fishing, they started an informal discussion about a partnership in the ATV market.

“It was theoretical for a long time and then only recently became more substantive in nature,” Wlezien said, declining to disclose financial terms of the agreement or the volume of vehicles scheduled. “We view it as a long-term partnership to bring value to the ATV industry. From our perspective, we’re going to be investing in it for years to come.”

Brandon Haddock, director of communications with Textron Specialized Vehicles, directed questions about the agreement to Wlezien.

Market disruption
Already underway, production of the Tracker Off Road vehicles is handled from a single Textron plant in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, Wlezien said.

The line is scheduled to roll out in the spring at the nearly 200 Bass Pro and Cabela’s stores nationwide. The ATVs and side-by-sides also will be displayed at 570 Tracker boat dealerships.

However, some units could begin hitting showroom floors by March, Wlezien said, noting he’s uncertain if any would appear at that time in the Ozarks.

“Certainly, by this spring you’ll see them very visibly in our stores,” he said, adding retail prices are still being finalized.

In addition to its ATVs and side-by-sides, Textron Specialized Vehicles manufactures golf carts, utility and personal transportation vehicles, snowmobiles and professional turf-care equipment. Textron, the publicly traded parent company, reported 2018 revenue of nearly $14 billion, and officials are forecasting 2019 sales at a similar clip.

Revenue also was at a high level in 2018 for Bass Pro, with Forbes magazine pegging the Springfield-based retailer and its $8 billion in revenue at No. 45 on its list of the 229 largest private American companies. In 2017, Bass Pro finalized a $5.5 billion buyout of Nebraska-based Cabela’s Inc.

In the YouTube video, Ernest said 250,000 ATVs and over 400,000 side-by-side vehicles are sold worldwide each year, making up a $6.5 billion global market. He told the dealers attending the announcement that if each was to sell 100 units a year, it would amount to only 10 percent of the market.

“There’s unlimited potential for us to grow and grow together,” Ernest said in the video.

Noting Tracker expanded the U.S. boating market by lowering price points when introduced in 1978, Wlezien said the company’s goal with Tracker Off Road is similar. Morris said at the Jan. 17 event that the average boat was selling between $10,000-$12,000 in 1978, but the first Tracker was priced at $3,000.

“We think there’s room for disruption,” Wlezien said of the ATV market. “This is a market that serves a lot of different folks in a lot of different ways.”

ATV base models from competitors Kawasaki, Polaris and Yamaha start in the $2,000 range for youth sizes and run $4,500-$6,000 for recreational models, according to the companies’ websites.
 
Gone fishing
Similar to the ATV market, Wlezien said Bass Pro views its MLF association as an opportunity to disrupt the fishing industry. League competitions are filmed over the course of a six-day event and broadcast on the Outdoor Channel, CBS, CBS Sports Network and Discovery Channel. 

The MLF Bass Pro Tour is a chance to expand not only the visibility of the company but also the sport itself to younger viewers, Wlezien said. In September 2018, Bass Pro also renewed and expanded its sponsorship contract with Fishing League Worldwide.

“The format they’ve established is catch and release, which is a great conservation message,” Wlezien said of the 8-year-old MLF, declining to disclose terms of the Bass Pro sponsorship contract with the pro league.

McBride also declined to disclose the sponsorship contract terms.

“We’re certainly encouraged on what we’ve seen so far,” Wlezien said of the tour that kicked off Jan. 29 in Kissimmee, Florida, with Morris making the ceremonial first cast as grand marshal, while standing next to longtime friend and MLF angler Kevin VanDam. “This is purely about visibility for the sport of fishing and growing it out.”

The brands of Yeti, Geico, Mercury, Garmin and Lew’s, another Springfield-based fishing company, are listed among over 60 sponsors on MajorLeagueFishing.com.

The first four stops on the Bass Pro Tour have been announced, with the second event concluding Feb. 17 in Conroe, Texas. McBride said Missouri hasn’t been announced as an MLF destination yet, but she expects a Show-Me State appearance this season or next.

“We would be remiss if we didn’t include Missouri in our schedule in the near future,” McBride said, adding the anglers have signed a multiyear agreement for the Bass Pro Tour.

“As a business, we look beyond that time, but the anglers are guaranteed that tour for three years,” she said.

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