By Frank Sargeant, Editor
The 50th annual Bassmasters Classic has been announced for Alabama’s Lake Guntersville March 6-8, 2020, with daily weigh-ins and the associated Outdoors Expo set for Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center in downtown Birmingham.
The event has become a sort of World Series and Superbowl combined for those who love competitive bass fishing, and holding it in Alabama for the golden anniversary is bringing it to the heart of the sport—Ray Scott of Montgomery came up with the idea of a national bass tournament circuit in 1970 and the first Classic was held at Lake Mead, Nevada in 1971.
Bass Anglers Sportsman Society—B.A.S.S.—was the membership group Scott put together to support the tournament system as well as educate bass anglers and promote fishery conservation, a relatively unknown concept in fresh water at that time. The time was right and Scott’s promotional abilities, combined with smart use of media, soon built the ranks to a half-million members, largest paid fishing club membership in history by a large margin.
The group was headquartered in Montgomery for many years before being moved to Celebration, Florida, just outside Orlando, when purchased by ESPN in 2001. It came back to Alabama and its current headquarters in Birmingham in 2011 when sold by ESPN to a group of investors, including fishing TV mogul Jerry McKinnis and Time, Inc. exec Don Logan.
The Classic—which is a life-changing experience for the annual winner, awarding a prize of $300,000 in cash—is also a boon for the communities where it’s held, filling up hotels and restaurants for days leading up to and during the event. This year’s event in Knoxville, Tenn., generated an estimated $32.2 million according to the Visit Knoxville Sports Commission, and was visited by a total of over 150,000 people considering all the venues including daily take-offs, weigh-ins at the convention center and the daily gate at the Outdoors Expo. Local and state governments also benefit—the Tennessee Classic generated $2.75 million in state and local tax revenue, including taxes on sales, restaurant purchases and lodging.
The Guntersville/Birmingham event is more spread out than the Knoxville Classic, with the lake some 75 miles from the weigh-ins. The weigh-ins require a large venue, and Legacy Arena can seat close to 20,000—nothing else near Guntersville approaches that. The adjacent expo halls also have the vast square footage necessary to hold the Expo, which has become the largest consumer fishing show on the planet. Many companies in the tackle and fishing boat business use the Expo to reveal their new-for-the-year products.
It also probably does not hurt that this Classic will allow the B.A.S.S. staff to sleep in their own beds—the home offices are located on the southeast side of town.
The daily Classic weigh-ins are worth a visit even for those who have no interest in fishing. With thunderous music, mind-bending light shows and lots of stage smoke, they’re more akin to a big-budget rock music show than a fishing tournament, and the anglers are made into stars.
The program has worked very well for a lot of the top tournament anglers, who are now wealthy men, not only from tournament winnings but also from endorsement and sponsorship deals with companies in the fishing and bass boat business. (We advisedly say “men”—though women are welcome to compete in B.A.S.S. events, none have ever made their way to the Elite Circuit level.)
Unfortunately, a lot of those wealthy men won’t be at next year’s event. They fled the home group seeking even greater financial rewards with the new Major League Fishing circuit. Van Dam, Evers, the Lee brothers, Howell, the Lane brothers, Iaconelli, Powroznik and many others are gone—understandably, for it is about business, after all, on all sides. The new MLF made-for-video circuit has proven an exciting and competitive venue so far, and live broadcast combined with the pocket viewing devices that are universal these days seem to spell success.
B.A.S.S. has responded to the new rival by reducing the size of the Elite field (and thus increasing the percentage of each angler winning a given event), vastly increased payouts (including three no-entry fee events that will pay out $1 million each), reducing entry fees and providing every angler with a check—the last place angler in each event earns at least $2500, the first $100,000.
There are not a lot of household names left in the Elite field, but Kevin Van Dam was an unknown boat salesman from Kalamazoo before he entered his first major B.A.S.S. event in 1990. The Classic and the media know-how of the B.A.S.S. team likely will create a new generation of bassing heroes, and it will all get underway next March in Birmingham. It should be well worth attending. (Visit www.bassmaster.comfor details.)