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Little Good Will for Hunting Event

The made-for-TV tournament has raised the ire of the sport's enthusiasts as well as its foes, but is still scheduled to air next month.

September 15, 2006|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

David Farbman figured that he'd found a kinder, gentler way to promote his beloved sport of deer hunting: stage a made-for-television and Internet tournament, with hunters using tranquilizer-tipped darts rather than bullets and arrows.

The Detroit real-estate developer figured that top hunters would jump at the opportunity to compete for significant prize money, and that the tournament would give the often-bashed hunting culture a welcome boost. And he was willing to bet that squeamish non-hunters would tune in, knowing that the white-tailed deer would live to be hunted another day.

Hunting enthusiasts acknowledge that their sport needs a helping hand. It has been more difficult to attract younger hunters, in part because readily accessible hunting land is in increasingly short supply. But Farbman was stunned this past summer when hunters savaged the proposed World Hunting Assn. tournament slated for October in rural Michigan.

Many hunters were appalled by what they viewed as a politically correct attempt to incorporate a "catch and release" philosophy into the sport. Others derided the fact that hunters would track their prey inside a 1,000-acre, fenced tract -- akin, they said, to shooting Bambi in a barrel.

After sponsors backed away from the tournament and national hunting organizations continued to distance themselves, Farbman agreed to drop the tranquilizer-tipped darts in favor of "traditional harvest formats."

Or, as one hunter bluntly put it, "they'll shoot to kill."

Farbman, 34, an outdoors enthusiast who jokingly refers to himself as "a hunter disguised as a real-estate developer," maintains that the retooled show will go on in October. In addition to dropping the tranquilizer-tipped darts, Farbman eliminated a bounty system that promised a premium to hunters who hit select bucks and maintains that the furor over high fences will abate. "Hunting has been my passion since I was a kid," said Farbman, who six months ago turned over his management role at a family-owned real-estate business in order to work on the tournament. "I've dreamed about being able to do something that could help reverse the decline in the number of hunters by attracting younger people. But what we found out was that it was perhaps too much change in one shot -- pun intended, I guess -- for the market."

Many of Farbman's critics acknowledge that hunting could use some marketing help.

"Many kids find hunting to be boring because it's definitely not a video game where everything is going to happen fast," said Dan Schmidt, editor of Deer & Deer Hunting magazine. "They're getting hit with TV, video games and iPods and you're asking them to sit in a tree, stand in the rain for five hours and maybe not even see a deer."

Greg Russell, a 49-year-old hunter from Coatesville, Ind., has taken to the Internet to gather more than 1,500 signatures from disgruntled hunters who sense that "something we care about very deeply is kind of slipping away."

"To guys like me, hunting is something that's nearly spiritual, something we take very seriously because of the tradition and heritage. To have someone suggest non-fatal darting is ridiculous," Russell said.

Hunters say they are worried about their lifestyle being turned into the next bass fishing. " 'Catch and release' is part of the fishing culture, but hunting has no such tradition," said Doug Painter, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation in Newtown, Conn.

Hunters do compete at skeet and trap ranges, and the OLN television network features dozens of hunting and fishing programs such as: "Wanted: Ted or Alive," a reality show featuring rock 'n' roll hunter Ted Nugent.

"The taking of game is something that most hunters take very seriously," OLN President Gavin Harvey said. "I don't think that any mainstream [hunting] people would believe that tranquilizers or chemicals have a role in hunting."

The proposed hunt also failed to pass muster with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- regardless of the weapons used.

Meanwhile, the state of Michigan isn't even sure if non-fatal darting is legal; it has asked the state attorney general for "clarification," according to a spokesman.

Business associates say that Farbman made a fundamental marketing mistake by embracing such a dramatic change.

"He thought that [killing animals] was one of the fundamental reasons why the sport had never succeeded in the mass market as far as TV goes," said Geoff Piceau, chief executive of a Detroit automotive coating company and a longtime friend of Farbman. The proposal to use tranquilized darts also alienated outdoor sports retail chains, equipment manufacturers and hunting advocacy groups that "exist by virtue of animals being killed, not darted," Piceau said.

Farbman continues to believe that a high-energy hunting show and website -- complete with the de rigueur vignettes of hunters -- will help to build interest among consumers who have little contact with the outdoors.

"We've already picked up sponsors and we're in the process of finalizing a video-on-demand deal, a pay-per-view deal and we're working on some Internet TV downloads," Farbman said.

Painter, however, still has his doubts: "I heard ... that Paris Hilton has released an album of her songs. My point being, just because you have the ability to do something doesn't necessarily mean that it's a good idea."

greg.johnson@latimes.com

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