Ironically, I recently found myself engaged in nearly the same conversation with three different marketing professionals at three different times. The subject matter was scholastic fishing Ė the ever-expanding high school and college competitive leagues Ė and the place for such athletes in our industry. Not surprisingly, each executive discussed the impact of supporting such programs, the sponsorship of individuals involved, and how such might affect the buying public.

The arguments for all sides could be summed up as follows:

Marketing professional A believed in full support of youth-level competition Ė supporting the leagues, the teams and the individual athletes. Support of such showed a commitment to the sport, and could be counted on to return to the parent organization in terms of sales and brand support now and in the future.

Marketer B supported the student competitions in terms of branding only. In other words, sponsorship or support of the ďmovement," but not necessarily individuals or teams. To this exec, there was no reason to endorse a 16-year-old over, say, an Elite touring pro. Such wouldnít influence consumers.

Marketer C showed no support for student fishing. Itís not college kids buying his products, he reasoned, itís the same 40- to 60-year-old male that studies show buys the lionís share of hardcore bass gear, always has and always will. Call it like it is.

So whoís right?

I ask because, as a recent participant in numerous promotional projects within this growing sector of competitive fishing, I still canít predict how far student fishing will go. A case in point: Even with pen and paper in hand and a laptop at my fingertips, itís hard for me, a person entrenched in the business of fishing, to follow all of the leagues, qualifiers and championships in scholastic bass. The number of participants is growing at levels never before seen in any form of competitive fishing.

For example, did you know that itís now common for high school fishing teams to have 30, 40, even sometimes over 100 members? Not long ago, it was uncommon for them to have more than a dozen, if they existed at all.

So how will all of this impact the way industry leaders market to the public? First off, we must recognize that thereís a continuing increase in the number of competitive fisher-people in the United States, as discussed. Notice I didnít say thereís an increase in consumers, because thatís not necessarily the case. But with more individuals focused on the competitive side of things at an earlier age, the importance will shift toward keeping those anglers involved.

The immediate concern will be getting them equipped without spending a fortune. Relatively few people have extra cash right out of college and, as those anglers become members of a working society, there will need to be a realistic alternative to bank-robbing in order to own a bass boat and gear. But weíve talked about that before.

Moving back to the subject matter at hand, how important, then, is support of these groups throughout their growing years? If provided with a discount on a fishing reel at age 16, does that person load the shopping cart with the same brand at age 35? He or she just might.

I vividly remember the brand loyalty I exhibited as a teenager. Team Daiwa, Rattleback Jigs and Stren Clear/Blue were my only cares. Later in life, while others debated Chevy vs. Ford, my buddies and I turned it into Ranger vs. Skeeter. And even today, when browsing the soft-plastic aisle at Bass Pro Shops, I usually just go straight for Zoom.

As bass fishermen, weíre extremely brand-loyal. But does it take incentives and a few freebies to get the attention of todayís scholastic crowd, or will they fall in place like I once did?

And what about the public perception, in general, of fishing at this level? Does society really care if a company supports school-age bass competitions as a means of just getting their name out? Does Jimmyís dad go off and choose Shimano over Quantum just because they support his sonís league?

Or maybe marketer C is right. Maybe itís pointless for a manufacturer to concern themselves with anyone other than direct consumers with cash in hand. Market to them and own the market, right?

Doubtful. Today, the economy is good and the fishing industry is quite strong. As is common in times like this, consumer purchasing practices are often driven by public trends, advertising and media. In order to capture the audience, fishing-industry giants need to stay ahead of the game and support the sportís fastest growing sector. And right now, thatís student fishing.

Whatís the proper protocol for all of this? I couldnít tell you. But, as all three of my marketing friends are realizing, the trainís gaining speed.

Better get on board.

(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)