A familiar face through the first half of the ESPN decade, Dean Kessel was named BASS GM 4 months into ESPN's ownership.
(Editor's note: This is the first part of a multi-part story that chronicles, in timeline form, major milestones and events during the ESPN era of BASS.)
As the proposed sale of BASS to independent investors Jerry McKinnis, Don Logan and Jim Copeland draws near to closing, the ESPN era of BASS draws nearer to its end.
The ESPN purchase of BASS on April 4, 2001 marked a seminal moment in the sport. Expectations were that the Worldwide Leader in Sports would shine a new light on bass fishing – both at the pro level, as well as the amateur ranks.
But although ESPN was the worldwide leader in sports broadcasting, it was clear from the beginning that the company wasn't
necessarily as versed in event and membership management.
Truth is, nearly everyone agrees that the ESPN era of BASS delivered both good and bad. Alongside the mega-platform of the ESPN networks and revolutions like same-day coverage of the Bassmaster Classic, no-info rules and the launch of an ambitious Weekend Series, there existed tension with the anglers, tension with the Federation, the elimination of popular programs like Bassmaster University and the firing of fan favorite Fish Fishburne.
The past decade was certainly the most tumultuous in the history of the sport. Ma BASS went toe-to-toe with the rising force of FLW Outdoors, and at times it seemed the only constant was change.
BassFan, which launched 4 months after ESPN purchased BASS, bore witness to it all. Before ESPN closes the doors on its BASS project, it's in the interest of history to chronicle that decade of ownership. Thus, this multi-part story presents, in timeline form, highlights (and lowlights) of the ESPN decade of BASS.
A few notes:
> Of course, not all events warrant mention. The timeline primarily deals with significant events like changes to competition format, the Federation split, the rise of the PAA, changes in management and such.
> The following is a BASS timeline. Occurrences involving FLW Outdoors are noted when relevant.
> As in all businesses, some decisions are good for the business and some are bad. It's easy to look back several years later and make such judgments. The purpose of this timeline is not to serve judgment on any decisions made by BASS, ESPN, its employees, members or athletes. Again, the purpose is to initiate an historical record of the most tumultuous decade in the history of bass fishing.
Year 2001 – The Purchase, Shootout Controversy
April 4 – ESPN, a Walt Disney Co. subsidiary, purchases bass for an amount rumored to be in the $40 million range.
Almost immediately, ESPN/BASS announces a new Bassmaster Classic qualifying format, whereby only 10 pros are guaranteed a Classic spot via the Bassmaster Tour. The rest will go to a 2-day shootout the week before the Classic for the right to compete in the big show. Angler upset forces ESPN to change the number to 30 guaranteed through the Tour. Marks one of the first instances of angler unity that results in a format change at the tour level.
August 1 – Citgo signs a multiyear agreement to become title sponsor of the Bassmaster Tour. Its sponsorship of FLW Outdoors runs through the end of the year.
August 16 – Dean Kessel, who formerly headed up Lowe's sports marketing, named BASS GM. Kessel and executive VP Helen Sevier report directly to ESPN Outdoors senior VP Michael Rooney.
September 11 – The nation mourns a tragic and cowardly attack on American soil.
September 18 – Pros form the Professional Anglers Association (PAA) with nine elected board members.
October 18 – BASS meets with a 10-man pro advisory board, coined BASS Athletes Advisory Council (BAAC), to discuss how to revamp the Tour. Interestingly, BASS doesn't accept the nine-man PAA board and instead retains the 10-angler advisory board voted by pro ballot. In attendance are BASS and ESPN brass, as well as Jerry McKinnis, Mike McKinnis and Angie Thompson from ESPN Outdoors' production company JM Associates of Little Rock, Ark. Most discussed was the idea of shrinking the Tour field but adding events.
October 29 – Gary Morgenstern named executive director of ESPN Outdoors.
November 7 – BASS kills its Classic Shootout, largely based on negative reaction from pros.
November 15 – Although Rooney was de-facto head of ESPN's outdoors initiatives, he's named senior VP and GM of ESPN Outdoors and is the senior ESPN manager in charge of BASS. Under the redrawn corporate structure, Rooney gives up his ESPN magazine responsibilities.
December 7 – Operation Bass is renamed FLW Outdoors.
Year 2002 – No Patch/No Points, Federation Tension
January 5 – The first ESPN-produced Bassmaster show appears at 10:30 a.m. on ESPN2. Production value and presentation are significantly higher than recent Bassmaster shows, which had become a pale shadow of the program produced years earlier by former BASS TV guru Bob Cobb.
Tournament director Dewey Kendrick becomes BASS site-selection manager. Trip Weldon promoted to tournament director.
March 8 – BASS Federation directors meet with BASS and ESPN Outdoors officials in Bristol, Conn. to air concerns. According to those who attended the all-day meeting, the result is good – ESPN largely alleviates pre-meeting concerns.
March 15 – The 10-man BAAC resigns over concerns about BASS's plans for the 2003 Tour. The board tells BASS that all future negotiations on the terms and conditions of the 2003 Tour must be negotiated on the anglers' behalf by the PAA.
March 27 – BASS announces 2003 Bassmaster Tour with sweeping changes
> The Tour expands to 10 events with a 175-boat field for the first six. After the sixth event, the field cuts to 100, then to 50 for the final two events. The Top 40 of those 50 make the Classic. Four of the events will feature a Megabucks-style "hole course."
> Field is cut to a TV-friendly Top 12 for day 3 and Top 6 for day 4.
> Tour purse increases 44% to $9.2 million. Payouts become primarily cash and pay down much further through the field.
> New 30-day off-limits is instituted.
> Anglers will fish from BASS-supplied boats on TV days.
> The Western Bassmaster Opens are canceled and remaining Opens change from draw to pro-am.
June 24 – FLW Outdoors releases 2003 FLW Tour schedule, two dates overlap Bassmaster Tour.
June 27 – BASS moves first date that conflicts with FLW Tour. Conflict is never resolved and pros must choose to fish the Walmart Open at Beaver or go west with BASS to Clear Lake and the Delta (after the field cuts to 100).
September 5 – BASS announces pending decision that anglers must wear Busch beer patch in order to win money in the AOY race.
October 11 – ESPN and former BASS owners enter arbitration. At issue is the number of Bassmaster subscribers touted by the former owners, which roughly equates to BASS membership. Money is held in escrow until dispute is settled.
October 15 – BASS announces made-for-TV International Cup, to be held that week at a private lake in Stuttgart, Ark.
October 31 – ESPN and former BASS owners settle arbitration. Two sources familiar with the proceedings say former BASS owners receive $4 million out of a possible $5 million in a settlement that was agreed to on the day the arbitration began. BASS averages 560,000 paid subscribers at the time – a combination of membership and newsstand sales.
The no-patch, no-points conflict was a heated point of discussion in 2002. To left is the original patch, to right is the redesigned version.
November 11 – Pros are surprised when BASS announces the Busch patch is not a true contingency program – they must display the patch on their shirt and boat in order to receive AOY points. The BAAC, which is essentially now the PAA board – a fact BASS does not acknowledge – meets with BASS the next day. Several suggestions are made. BASS agrees to take suggestions to Busch.
December 5 – In a conference call with the BAAC, BASS grants the requests. The Busch logo is substantially toned down to more represent the Tour and AOY race. The eventual AOY is also granted a right to decline appearances in Busch media and events. Nevertheless, several pros either refuse to fish BASS or to wear the patch, including Lendell Martin, Jr., Randy Blaukat, Clark Wendlandt and David Walker.
Year 2003 – More Tour Changes, More Federation Tension
January 7 – Weldon announces several formative Tour rules. Nets prohibited, anchor rule thrown out, incremental fish-care penalties instituted, former pros prohibited from fishing amateur division, 30-day off-limits/no-info rule codified.
March 15 – The airing of David Wharton's win at Toledo Bend is the highest-rated "The Bassmasters" TV show so far on ESPN2. Its 0.47 rating represents an average of 396,000 households. Yet those ratings are lower than the old Bob Cobb-produced shows, although the Cobb shows aired at a time when fewer cable networks were available to viewers.
May – Kessel and national Federation director Al Smith meet with Federation presidents at the National Championship to float several changes under consideration. Reaction is negative and the individual Federations, which BASS does not own, incorporate as The Bass Federation, Inc.
June – BASS wants a BFL-like weekend trail, which leads to further concern from the Federations, since the new trail would conceivably be a competitor. The two parties had talked about getting the Federations involved in such a trail in the preceding months, but those talks fizzled.
June 13 – Irwin Jacobs makes his first overture to the Federation and tells BassFan: "We would welcome them like a family welcomes somebody home to their house, with our door wide open, if they wanted to become associated with us in any way, shape or form. I would be pleased to work something out to welcome the Federations into some relationship without even knowing what that is."
July 7 – BASS fires Smith, which further strains relations between BASS and the Federation. Many Federation leaders see Smith as a "fall guy" for mistakes made by Kessel.
July 25 – BASS announces new Elite 50 concept and series for 2004. Field draws from BASS all-time money list, 3-year Tour points average, current Tour points and reigning title-holders. The series offers a $1.6 million purse with no entry fees.
August 14 – BASS announces 2004 Tour. Still at 10 events (six Tour, four Elite 50).
August 19 – Don Corkran returns as Federation director.
September 3 – BASS releases more details of 2004 Tour. Shrinks the field from 175 to 150. Each of the six Tour events will offer the same all-cash payout as 2003: $448,000 per event with a 1st-place check of $100,000. Anglers who finish in 58th-75th place will win back their entry fees. Eligibility based on previous Tour standing, but exemptions offered for past accomplishments. No hole-style formats on the Tour, but E50s will all be hole-style. E50s are first tour-level events to use observers. Winter/spring-loaded Tour schedule ends in early March.
September 13 – Kessel pens an open letter to the Federation, published in September BASS Times, in response to open letter from the Federation "Fab 5" to ESPN/BASS. The Federation's letter was highly critical of Kessel. Kessel seeks to quell the divisiveness and what he sees as the desire of some to move the Federation from BASS.
September 29 – FLW schedules its 2005 FLW Tour Championship (FLWTC) on top of the Classic.
October 1 – Jacobs announces he'll move the FLWTC date.
October 7 – Citgo takes over title sponsorship of the AOY race.
October 13 – Christine Godleski, former ESPN Outdoors director of operations, promoted to VP and general manager of ESPN Outdoors. Kessel reports to her.
October 23 – BASS announces made-for-TV Busch Shootout. Anglers qualify based on heaviest single-day weights. Busch also pays big-bag money on each Tour competition day, and offers prize of $1 million if Dean Rojas' record is broken.
December 3 – BASS announces new points system based on the NASCAR formula – tiered points and bonus for daily leader.
Year 2004 – Enter Rucks, Bass Block Launches
January 31 – Fish Fishburne declines "take it or leave it" contract offer from ESPN (not BASS).
Don Rucks was named BASS GM in September 2004.
February 4 – After fan uproar, Fishburne is hired by BASS to emcee.
March 17 – BASS announces return to one-boat/one-motor sponsor arrangement, effective June 16. Triton and Mercury are the sponsors.
March 18 – BASS makes a change to its Elite 50s qualification system in the middle of the Tour season. The Elite 50s now use season-ending points for the prior 3 years, instead of the first six events of each season. The core issue is that anglers received points for catching no fish during the current season. Elias quits BAAC in disgust.
April 6 – Ray Scott "returns" to BASS and will appear at BASS events.
April 14 – First Elite 50 begins.
June – BASS sponsors NASCAR Charter Racing No. 60 Ford driven by Greg Biffle.
June 16 – BASS announces 2005 Classic will be at Pittsburgh.
July 1 – FLW Tour 2005 purse increases by $800,000, with $10,000 paid through 50th. Entry fees raised again.
July 9 – Crown Royal, one of the most visible independent sponsors in the sport and a participant since 1998, pulls out and dissolves its 12-man fishing team. Redirects sports marketing toward auto-racing as NASCAR now allows distilled-spirit sponsorships.
August 25 – Byron Velvick named as the next TV's The Bachelor.
September 15 – Former Citgo marketer Don Rucks named GM of BASS and reports to Godleski. Kessel demoted to newly created position of VP of BASS Operations, where he oversees BASS conservation, events, Federation and publications groups. Kessel reports to Rucks. Also several shuffles within ESPN.
September 22 – BASS announces pilot "weekend" event to serve as a test for its expected new weekend circuit.
October 4 – BASS announces its much-anticipated ESPN Outdoors Bassmaster Weekend Series with a BFL-like structure and national championship. Inaugural season to include 80 events over four regions. Entry fee set at $200 for boaters and $100 for non-boaters. Classic spot given to national champion.
October 6 – Citgo renews its sponsorship of BASS through 2009.
October 11 – ESPN announces new BassCenter and Loudmouth Bass shows to air Saturday mornings.
October 18 – Official word lands that BASS will leave its hallowed halls in Montgomery, Ala. and move to Celebration, Fla. ESPN and ABC Sports president George Bodenheimer notes: "Moving to Walt Disney World will tremendously enhance our ability to grow the sport. Our efforts to expand our reach and improve the fishing experience for millions of visitors will clearly benefit from the unique combination of fantastic fishing venues and the marketing capabilities of both groups."
Fish Fishburne was fired from his emcee job shortly after Rucks assumed the BASS helm.
November – Several anglers are successful in negotiating independent title-sponsor boat wraps, but still must use BASS-sponsor boats on TV days – a policy that began in 2003. Pros state they were told by BASS that the 2003 experiment was for 2 years, but new BASS sponsor contracts extend through 2008. The BAAC meets with BASS to voice concerns. Seeds for a rekindled PAA are planted.
November 9 – Rucks fires Fishburne. Keith Alan will replace him.
November 10 – After a 10-year relationship, major sponsor Flowmaster leaves BASS.
November 19 – 2005 Federation National Championship announced. Venue is split – 2 days at Toho and 2 days at Walt Disney World's Bay Lake.
December 1 – Although BASS previously set a hard deadline for its new $20 Federation dues, it backpedals and extends the deadline. The original $15 deadline stands, but additional $5 can be paid 4 months later.
December 7 – Don Butler, the first BASS member, passes after a long fight with bone cancer.
December 14 – ESPN announces full details of its new Saturday "Bass Block."
December 15 – Deadline for BASS employees to decide whether they'll move to Florida or lose their jobs.
December 21 – BASS and the BAAC meet again to discuss boat issue.
– End of part 1 –