Professional fishing is an evolving sport, both in terms of the top performers and the methods to sustain a career. Without question, sponsorships remain a key component, but one that might have changed the most.

Gone are the days of the good ol’ boy basser passing off as a product spokesman. Today’s top pros are more polished and media-savvy than ever, but I wonder if that’s all there is to it. Is it possible for anyone to gain endorsements as long as they have a mastery of YouTube? Does fish-catching ability still hold weight? And what’s the key to a successful marketing plan for today’s manufacturers?

To get the answers, I went to the source. Michelle Kilburn is the Senior Manager of Competitive Angling for Mercury Marine, heading what’s likely the largest pro staff in fishing with over 2,000 members.

A Canadian by birth, Kilburn stepped into her role at Mercury nearly two decades ago, watched her entire department lose their jobs during the economic downturn of 2010, and since helped rebuild what is undoubtedly the strongest marketing staff in professional bass fishing. Those who know Kilburn recognize her as an extremely passionate outdoor enthusiast who’s on your side from the get-go, but certainly no push-over.

Mercury Marine’s pro staff system is one of technological advancement; the pure size of the angler body requires such. Nearly all correspondences, orders and information are automated to some degree, allowing for quick annual processing. Still, an entire team steers the ship to ensure every member receives proper attention, from the KVDs of the world on down.

Over some 20 years, Kilburn has watched her anglers evolve and sees the greatest change in their personal branding. “Anglers have blossomed into personalities,” she mentioned, in reference to many pros endorsing multiple brands under their single persona. Skeet Reese immediately came up. Rods, reels, everything yellow; the whole package.

“And I always give kudos to their managers – many times their wives. They’re creating a business beyond fishing and that’s more valuable to Mercury. They take it through tournament season to a 12-month a year business,” Kilburn added.

Therein lies a key point to one of the biggest plans in fishing, and something I’ve heard expressed before. Taking fishing beyond fishing. Using promotional anglers and social media standouts to influence consumer choices.

“We’re always striving to create content; we want to connect to our consumers,” Kilburn went on to say. “We want to give them that connection to Mercury and influencers are an important way to do that.” Kilburn went on to add that most anything goes in terms of lifestyle branding in the outdoors. Boating. Camping. Music. Cooking.

I had to interject. How, I wondered, does watching someone grill a burger lead to selling more outboards, or coolers, or anything besides Big Green Eggs?

“It’s the organic part of that; the feeling,” Kilburn assured me. We, as viewers, are interested in the whole package. That helps sell the outdoors as a lifestyle, which we then attribute back to the brand – whether we realize it or not.

So being visible remains a key strategy for hopeful pro-staffers, and allowing that visibility to include all aspects of life can help. On a different note, I wondered if there were projects that didn’t work. Looking back, what has Kilburn learned to avoid in terms of pro bass marketing?

“Reductions were not good,” Kilburn summed up. Whether that was reductions in personnel, or opting out of certain programs, her team has learned the importance of diversifying involvement.

“Mercury has a lot of partners that are key to our success. There’s a very intricate circle to this. We are aware of the need to be mindful to those partnerships, whether that be people, dealers, OEMs or boat companies.”

Such steered the conversation perfectly to my next question; one I assumed would be the elephant in the room. What did Mercury plan to do about the expanding bass tournament scene? Could they support all the tours or would they be forced to choose a side, as it seems some manufacturers are doing?

“This is a topic we talk about a lot,” Kilburn sighed. “But we need to support venues that support anglers to fish competitively … and we want balance. We’ve had a very long partnership with B.A.S.S. and B.A.S.S. provides us with top-tier (competition) and the Classic. That’s crucial to the longevity of the sport. MLF gave us the opportunity for a unique television product and helped to expand and grow the sport and (MLF) now has a complete package (with the acquisition of grassroots-based FLW).

“These two venues offer different things, and both are unique.” Kilburn added that Mercury’s strategy to support each is, then, “balanced and strategic."

Another hot topic hit my mind: What were her thoughts on the collapse of Evinrude as an outboard manufacturer?

“It’s kind of sad,” Kilburn replied candidly. “It’s a part of history that’s gone. We like competition … and this puts more pressure on the remaining manufacturers.” She went on to summarize that the end of Evinrude’s business may have been “the right decision for them” and that, conversely, Mercury bet early on four-stroke technology, which is now paying off.

Through the conversation with Kilburn, her enthusiasm for the brand was always apparent, only bested by her devotion toward the outdoor lifestyle. The COVID pandemic had changed things, no doubt, but given many, including Kilburn, a re-direct on the important things in life. Reinventing, and sharing that time and those experiences with family. She sees boating as a way to allow everyone a chance to do so.

“We’re giving our customers a chance to live their dreams, whether that’s a peaceful morning on the lake, or going fast in a boat, or listening to music at the beach.” Marketing efforts today, she insists, “connect people with that passion.”

And Kilburn should know. “I love being outdoors and on the water,” she concluded. It’s truly the most precious time I have.”

(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.)