The Frontstretch: Beyond the Cockpit: A Special Partnership with Tony Stewart by Mike Neff -- Wednesday May 23, 2012

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All-Star weekend saw Tony Stewart’s No. 14 sporting a special paint scheme that was not only representing Bass Pro Shops, but was also supporting the National Wild Turkey Federation. Prior to the race the Federation and Bass Pro Shops presented Tony Stewart with a statue of two wild turkeys on a wooden base to thank him for his efforts in helping the Federation and for his role as honorary chairman of National Hunting and Fishing day later this year. After the presentation George Thornton, the CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation, took a few minutes to talk to Mike Neff about his organization and what they do, and Bass Pro Shops CEO Johnny Morris chimed in as well.

Mike Neff, Frontstretch.com: Talk a little bit about the Wild Turkey Federation: where it started, where the wild turkey was when the Federation started vs. where it is now?

George Thornton: The Turkey Federation is in its 39th year. At the time the Federation was founded, there were a little over 1,000,000 turkeys in North America. However, you have to go back and think about it a little bit before that. At the time of the Great Depression, there were only 30,000 turkeys left in North America and they would have been on an endangered species list had there been one. They were in little, what we call, reservoir areas. They were in swamps north of Mobile, Alabama. They were in places like Fort Benning Army Base, which is a quarter of a million acres. Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia had a residual pocket. There were isolated pockets where they had not been subjected to market hunting or expansion of farming.

“Having the company name on the hood of NASCAR racecars has helped Bass Pro Shops and the National Wild Turkey Federation in more ways than just boosting sales.”

Since that time, we’ve been able to restore turkeys to 99% of the suitable habitat in North America. There are over 7,000,000 turkeys in North America. We estimate that there are more turkeys in North America today than there were at discovery, when Columbus came across. It has all happened because private land owners, federal and state agencies, and volunteers from the Turkey Federation all got together looking for ways to first improve the habitat, then cooperated in trapping and transferring from the states and areas that had them to where they didn’t exist. It is a great example of working together.

So it is a tribute to people who had a vision some twenty or more years ago. Around 1980 they set some targets to reach these goals by the year 2000 and we reached them then and the population is now stable. With that we’re now focusing on helping other upland species.

Neff: How many members are there in the National Wild Turkey Federation?

Thornton: There are about a quarter million members in the Federation. We have 2,000 chapters around the country.

Neff: In a situation like this when you’re getting the exposure on a car, do you see spikes in memberships? I know a couple years ago you were on Martin Truex, Jr.’s car. Do you see increased membership when people see the car on TV and does that justify the exposure you get by being in the sport?

Thornton: We see some lift. It makes people more receptive to our message, particularly when they’re NASCAR fans. It is also a great symbol of the partnership we have with Bass Pro Shops. Johnny Morris has been an unbelievably generous benefactor, both personally and through Bass Pro Shops. He does that to help us get the word out and we just appreciate it so much. You cannot buy the kind of advertising and exposure that he gives to us. It is just an example of how committed he is personally to the protection of wildlife habitat in North America. He is a true sportsman.

Neff: A lot of people who aren’t hunters see these organizations and think they are totally focused solely on hunters and the species that they hunt. Can you touch on all of the benefits that there are to non-game species as well, thanks to what you do to preserve the turkey habitat?

Thornton: That is actually a really important issue. We actually have partnerships with the people who are working to protect bat populations in North America. The things we do benefit white tail deer, quail, rabbits, the red cockaded woodpecker, and the Longleaf Pine Society. The longleaf pine represents a habitat that was almost extinguished. The longleaf pine ecosystem is very key in the coastal plain of the United States from Virginia to Texas in preserving gopher turtles, rattlesnakes, salamanders and things that people might not think about being important to protect. So we work with all of them. Another big part of our mission is working with women to give them an outdoor experience. It isn’t necessarily hunting. It can be camping, it can be fishing, it can be feather art, it can be all sorts of things. We also have our JAKES (Juniors Acquiring Knowledge, Ethics and Sportsmanship) program for youth. It gives them a first hand experience and helps them feel comfortable either shooting or being outdoors and away from computers. Gets them a little bit of sunshine away from computer monitors. We also do a lot of work with disabled people, who have been disabled for any number of reasons. We are particularly focused on Purple Heart recipients and getting them out in mentored hunting situations and getting them reincorporated into civilian life. So we have a lot of things that are near and dear to our hearts but all of them are centered around being outside.

Neff: Have you ever been to North Carolina before? I believe you’re from Georgia.

Thornton: Oh yeah. I grew up in Georgia. I live in South Carolina now. I’ve lived all over the country but I’ve been to North Carolina a thousand times.

Neff: Have you ever been to a NASCAR race before?

Thornton: This is my first NASCAR race. I am thrilled and can’t think of a better one to start off with than this one. I’ve had other opportunities but something has always gotten in the way. I said I’m not going to let that happen this time. I got to meet Tony Stewart and I’m hanging out with Johnny Morris, it is very cool.

Johnny Morris answered a couple of questions about Bass Pro Shops’ role in NASCAR, how the whole initial sponsorship came about and the benefits of advertising through the sport.

Neff: There has been some discussion in the Media Center today about the benefits of sponsorship of NASCAR, specifically for the military, but just in general, what kind of a benefit do you see for Bass Pro Shop being on car hoods and in the sport in general?

Johnny Morris: It is something long term, you cannot look short term. You can’t look at what it costs tonight and is the cash register going to ring enough in the next week or two to make that up. It is more like building a relationship with customers. One of the other things that isn’t financial but is very important is, look at how many young kids are Tony Stewart fans. If they know he loves hunting and fishing and they know that he loves the outdoors, how much more likely are they to maybe want to take up those sports for themselves? Sometimes our customers or pro fishing team members might ask ‘why would you take money and invest it outside of hunting and fishing?’. I say ‘wrong; this is helping grow hunting and fishing.’ When you see Jamie McMurray and Tony Stewart and other guys who make such and impression with so many people, especially young people, that transfers over. So in the big picture, it may be about creating good will for our company, Bass Pro, but also it is about can we help grow the sports of hunting and fishing and, in the case this weekend, conservation; saluting all of these guys from the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Neff: The first time you got in on the whole NASCAR sponsorship was with Dale Earnhardt. How did that come about? Did they reach out to you or did you reach out to them?

Morris: Actually, Dale and Richard, they both loved to hunt and fish. They had a guy, Bill Pattison who worked for them. Actually, even before that, I met them here at Charlotte at a race years ago through Bill Jordan, the guy that owns Realtree Camouflage introduced us. About a week later here is a guy knocking on the door trying to sell us a sponsorship. It was kind of funny, he said Dale and Richard want to make you a heck of a deal Johnny to get Bass Pro on Dale’s car. It all sounded great and I said ‘How much?’ and they told me and I about gagged. But they told me they’d do something extra. They’d put Bass Pro on the hood for the All-Star race and give all of the money from souvenir sales to conservation. We’ll just pick out the groups together. It was amazing to me and it really underscored the significance of investing in NASCAR. At that race, here in Charlotte, the All-Star race, $10,000,000 in souvenirs were sold. That’s basically caps, t-shirts and die-cast cars. A lot of that spoke to the popularity of Dale Sr. and NASCAR, but also hunting and fishing and hopefully the Bass Pro brand. That to me, like Bill Jordan told me with Realtree, these are our customers. What better way to get connected than to be in NASCAR. So that is how I try and justify it to everybody when the time comes to pay the bills for this stuff.

Neff: At the time you did that sponsorship, how many stores did you have? Were you just in Springfield or had you already branched out?

Morris: No, we were just getting ready to open Charlotte. Maybe we had four stores or something.

Neff: I know Bass Pro Shop went from the little store in Springfield, I was actually there before it expanded into the huge store it is now, to how many stores do you have nationwide at this point in time?

Morris: We have 58 stores and hopefully still growing. If it wasn’t for conservation and good groups like NWTF there wouldn’t even be a Bass Pro Shop. If people can’t enjoy quality fishing and hunting there won’t be a need to get more gear. We’re glad there is good hunting and fishing and we’re glad there’s a need for more gear.

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