A Paycheck for College Athletes? Join the Fishing Team

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MARBURY, Md. — Before daybreak one drizzly October morning, 44 boats representing 31 colleges organized themselves around a marina at Mattawoman Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River. Light from the GPS navigation systems was all that illuminated the faces of the drivers, who wore wool caps and camouflage hoodies.

By 7 a.m., after a prayer was recited and a recording of the national anthem rang out, the teams were off, zipping across the water on motor boats to reach their chosen fishing spots. A handsome sum was on the line, at least by the standards of college students. The winning team would take home $4,000. The top 10 teams would automatically advance to a national championship tournament in April with a grand prize of $30,000.

And unlike at events sanctioned by the N.C.A.A., many of the participants could do what they wanted with their earnings: invest in equipment, support future fishing teams or buy whatever they desired, be it textbooks or beer.

As the N.C.A.A. works to reform its rules amid severe criticism that they are outdated and exploit the players who play the games, it has taken steps small and large to loosen its grip on the administering of athletics. In August it voted overwhelmingly to give its five most powerful conferences greater autonomy to make their own rules, a move that could pave the way for amateur athletes to receive a portion of the enormous revenue that college programs take in. But for those wanting a glimpse of what the future of college athletics might hold, one possible template has emerged — not on fields or courts, but on rivers and streams.

The college fishing circuit — outside the N.C.A.A. umbrella and administered by various fishing-tournament organizations — has grown to include more than 600 registered clubs, from about 90 in 2009, and these clubs have gotten serious. Many have sponsors who outfit them with boats and gear or pay for lodging, and some teams are actively recruiting high school anglers to join. Others have full-time coaches. At least two colleges now offer scholarships.

And without the N.C.A.A.'s involvement in the sport, college anglers can compete alongside professionals, win prize money and return to the classroom without any challenge to their amateur status or eligibility.

“It’s kind of evolved into a nice counter to what the N.C.A.A.'s quote-unquote stated mission is,” said David Ridpath, an assistant professor of sports administration at Ohio University and the president-elect of the Drake Group, which pushes for educational reform in college athletics. “Here you have college kids competing, earning money. I’m sure their academics aren’t much different from others that are out there. They’re not corrupted by the money.”

And there is money out there. The winner of last April’s college fishing national championship, the University of Minnesota, won the $30,000 prize and was entered into the Forrest Wood Cup, a top professional tournament, in August for an opportunity to win $500,000. The Bassmaster Classic, a competition organized by a different league, the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, typically airs on ESPN and has an overall purse worth about $1 million, up for grabs to any participant, college or professional. Some college fishing teams are more akin to a Frisbee club, with only a few members. But many teams have dozens, including Penn State’s, which has 45 anglers. Most simply have club status and operate outside the purview of a college’s athletic department.

Each club’s bylaws dictate what teams can do with the money they earn, and often it is redistributed back into a general pool of funds. But Brett Warrick and Sid Hoover, teammates on Ohio State’s club team, said they could keep a portion of whatever they earned.

The Buckeyes’ football program, on the other hand, generates close to $60 million every year, according to Forbes, and those players are prohibited from reaping any financial benefit for their effort.

“It just went beyond what we could imagine,” said Kevin Hunt, director of tournament operations for F.L.W. college fishing, which began in 2009. “When you’re in that circuit, you know who the big man is. These guys are competitive — they walk around with their chest pumped out. It’s just like football and basketball.”

There are three primary groups that run college fishing: F.L.W. College Fishing, run by Fishing League Worldwide, which also organizes the college national championship; Bassmaster College Series, run by B.A.S.S.; and Cabela’s Collegiate Bass Fishing Series, run by the Association of Collegiate Anglers. Each circuit has its own rules and tournament structures, and most college teams can fish in any of the circuits whenever they can. When administrators at Adrian College, a Division III school in Michigan, decided to initiate a bass fishing team last winter, they went all out. They hired a full-time coach, Seth Borton, and enlisted top-line sponsors like Ranger boats and Mercury motors to put together one of the nation’s finest fleets.

“There’s 100 percent an opportunity for us to bring in funds, for sure,” Mr. Borton said, adding, “The team essentially becomes a product that you’re able to sell.”

According to Mr. Hunt, a handful of colleges have begun offering scholarship money to top anglers, including Bethel University in McKenzie, Tenn. There, Coach Garry Mason oversees the fishing program, five bass boats, close to a dozen major sponsors and a pool of applicants that has grown to the point that he has been forced to turn people away.

“I’m attracting students from all over the country,” Mr. Mason said.

On a recent rainy and raw Saturday here, anglers strategized in boats near the docks at Mattawoman Creek, about 40 miles south of Washington. There was much to consider: When was high tide? What was the water temperature? What did the local fishing reports say?

It was easy to forget they were college students until the team from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry tried to determine whether fish liked rap music.

“Keeps the mood up when we’re not catching anything,” Jacob Ball, a freshman, said as the lyrics from Dr. Dre’s “Keep Their Heads Ringin’ ” played softly from an onboard stereo.

Teams came from as far as Portland, Me., and Kalamazoo, Mich., arriving as early as Wednesday to check out the water and do some practicing. Many brought textbooks.

“I’ve got my laptop, I’ve got all my books, folders, notebooks, all of it back at the hotel,” said Ronnie Penders, a junior who was part of the University at Buffalo team.

Michael Duffy, the athletic director at Adrian College, said that what mainly distinguished bass fishing from other club sports was the amount of interest from corporate sponsors. About 20 have added their names as endorsers for Adrian’s gear, equipment and uniforms, as well as the spiffed-up boats, which can cost around $35,000.

“There’s people in the Adrian community that I didn’t even know fish, let alone bass fish, and they’ve reached out to us and want to help in any way they can,” Mr. Duffy said.

Day 1 of the Maryland tournament unfolded without a hiccup, and a crowd gathered at the water’s edge to watch the teams motor back into the marina as the clock ticked toward the cutoff time. The teams then carried their bounty up a small hill to the parking lot, where a truck’s trailer, complete with a stage and video board, served as a weigh-in station.

The national anthem was played for a second time. And Aloe Blacc’s self-congratulatory sports anthem, “The Man,” was cranked up as the anglers — carrying bags of fish — approached the stage one by one. The University of West Virginia led after the first round with 16.7 pounds, and went on to win the tournament the next day.

“That’s the deal,” Mr. Hunt said to the crowd. “Whether it’s top 15, top 10, or they win the whole thing, these guys are wanting to be the man.”