The Classic is upon us. As I mentioned last week, nothing gets me charged like the Big Show. It’s here we see true validity in our sport; even occasional credibility from the mainstream media. We’ve had former champs grace the pages of Sports Illustrated, be the subject matter of movies and even make appearances on Letterman.
Winning the Classic is the pinnacle of professional bass fishing. With very few exceptions, Classic champions have been able to turn their victories into a career. Andwhile most have gone on to remain competitive at the national level, even those who haven’t made a pretty good living for a while utilizing just this single highlight.
At one time, the Classic was estimated to be worth $1 million in endorsements. I highly doubt that figure holds water any more, as most Classic champs must prove their credibility and endorsement skills first. Today there are simply too many good promoters in our sport 365 days a year. Sure, a Classic win certainly sells a bunch of lures, but really, that’s about it.
For weeks now, I’ve pondered my pick for a champion. Like many of you, I’ve read the hype about who’s supposed to win, and who’s the “best in the world” right now (although I still say that’s Andy Morgan), and have considered those thoughts when compiling my own. You’ll soon see why.
> Likely to compete: A substantial number of fishermen have the potential to compete for the title. In today’s Bassmaster Elite Series, we’re seeing a segregation, if you will, of competitors. Sure, a majority of the field continues to perform well, and occasionally win. But there’s a core group of guys that have the potential to hit one out-of-the-park at each Tour stop.
Included from that list for 2016 are Edwin Evers, Todd Faircloth, Skeet Reese, Ott DeFoe and Alton Jones. It would almost be mathematically impossible for one or more of them not to be in contention going into the final day. But none are my pick to win.
> The downside of hype: Prior to this event, we’ve heard mention of two names more than all the rest: Jason Christie and Aaron Martens. Rightfully so, as each possess credit that no one else in the field can claim. Martens is coming off a career year, one that not only rewarded him for his trademark efficiency and systematic approach as an angler, but one that also included two regular-season victories. Martens’ only achilles heel are his near-misses in the Classic itself. While I hate to even include mention of such, as a journalist and predictor, I have to. At no time is the pressure greater, and the potential of a catastrophic collapse more apparent, than in the Classic.
That same pressure, I believe, will also impact Christie. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me make one thing perfectly clear: Jason Christie is one of the best tournament bass fishermen ever to compete on a national level, period. Fans of my column will recognize this opinion as being the basis for numerous Christie interviews in the past. Call it confidence, call it Native American heritage, call it a Southern butt whoopin’ – whatever. Christie is simply awesome. But I think his previous blunder in the ’13 Classic at Grand Lake, combined with his reported “I won’t do that again” attitude, will simply put too much in Christie’s head to deal with. Although there have been exceptions, especially last year, rarely do we see a hometown favorite take the title. The Classic is an event in which competitors must be able to fish freely to win, without the added pressure of fans expecting too much from their hero.
> Which brings me to my championship pick: Kevin VanDam.
As many of you can attest, I never pick VanDam to win. While I frequently pick him to make a strong showing and routinely give him credit for propelling the sport of bass fishing, VanDam has always been too lazy of a selection. Predicting VanDam as a winner equates to picking Tiger Woods, back in the day when he was racking up wins faster than Happy Gilmore. But the VanDam hype has waned a bit. Such adds to his potential.
Also, no one gets angrier or more aggressive following a bad showing than VanDam. He expects to compete for 1st place every time he opens his rod locker. And, being somewhat of a competitive person myself, I know VanDam’s absence in last season’s Classic still burns him.
Sure, the Expo went well, it was good for sponsor and fan interactions, and he even launched a few new successful promotional campaigns, but I bet money that VanDam NEVER wants to be in that spot again. He will come to this Classic armed for bear and ready to annihilate his competition. This combines with the fact that the pressure of VanDam’s decade of domination has actually lessened a bit, and will likely shift the eyes of fans (and their accompanying chase boats) to anglers such as Martens and Christie. I predict this will be the only year that VanDam may sneak in under the radar a bit, thus aiding in the pursuit of his record-breaking fifth championship.
Perhaps a newcomer will surprise us; maybe an Open champ, or the college kid, will make a run. But my money’s on the old guard – specifically those guys who have been there before. In any case, I’ll be in the stands the final day to watch it all go down, grinning ear to ear like each time before.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)