Each year, I attend the Bassmaster Classic, wearing the hats of both a press observer and ravenous fan. While there, I gather the pulse of the industry and its people through a pocket-sized notebook. Once things have settled following the event, I read through my notes and report the most relevant back to you. Here’s what I turned up this year:
> There is an obvious growing interest from fans toward touring pros, rather than just TV celebrities. In the days of old, hardcore tournament anglers would sign a few autographs, while guys like Bill Dance and Roland Martin would draw lines a mile long. Today, however, more fans are taking to the active pros. I credit this most to B.A.S.S. increasing exposure for its anglers, as well as the anglers doing so themselves through social media.
> The 2017 Classic Outdoor Show may be remembered as the year of the mega-retailer. In the past, a few big-box stores set up decent retail space. This year, however, there may have been more square footage devoted to shopping than manufacturer display booths. Cabela’s, Dicks, Tackle Addict, Academy and more battled for the best deals, and shoppers were rewarded.
> Each time BASS brings the Classic to a major metropolitan area, I find myself asking why. Early on, I’m sure the plan was to introduce more fans to the concept – grabbing the attention of urban dwellers who may have never heard of a sport called professional fishing. But, in today’s age, when more importance is being placed on live feeds and social media than the weigh-in itself, perhaps it’s time to stop forcing the issue. Classics held in moderate-sized metropolitan areas draw larger crowds and are much easier to navigate than those in monster urban centers with brutal traffic and endless toll booths. My $75 parking ticket – after arriving to my car 15 minutes past curfew – didn’t help sell the big city.
> To rebut myself, of all major urban hubs I’ve visited, Houston has one of the most beautiful downtowns of any. Green space has been included in the layout of the town to increase appeal, and downtown festivals are a wonderful site. What a change from the grey, urban-sprawled cities of the North.
> The live feed within the Classic Outdoor show is quickly becoming the most popular exhibit. A Jumbotron-like screen is set up for fans to stop by and quickly tune in, and much of the commentary includes hardcore tips and techniques. Pointers abound for viewers of all skill levels.
> It was great to see Lonnie Stanley and company still at the show, still selling jigs. It made me reflect how, when I first started fishing, Stanley sold the best jig on the market for 99 cents. In contrast, just last week I paid nearly $8 for a specialty Medlock model.
> Many Classic competitors thanked the fans for being so courteous on the water; perhaps this is a sign of our sport’s progression. Remember, anytime a pro golfer addresses the ball, the crowd goes completely silent. While I think we’re miles away from that, it would be nice if fans didn’t purposely cut off the best fishermen in the world on their most important day.
> I was shocked to hear an announcement over the loud speaker within the show: “Attention fans,” it said “in 5 minutes, YouTube celebrities will be signing autographs.” Really? YouTube celebrities are trumping bass pros for endorsements at the Bassmaster Classic? Shame on the sponsors that support this.
> In the world of marketing, “lifestyle branding” continues to be the golden goose for manufacturers, but can be a fickle thing. Builders of quality items in direct competition with the Yetis and Under Armours of the world still struggle to figure out just what’s so special about those brands. Costa Del Mar made a great move to hold its spot as an industry favorite by offering customers a “Tune-Up Booth” for their glasses, repairing and replacing frames in seconds.
> Berkley also made giant strides in customer service by filling three reels with new line for every customer who brought them in. Braid, mono and fluorocarbon were all offered. At last check, the Berkley team had surpassed 1,400 fill-ups.
> The brutal sponsor plugging by the pros of years past has, thankfully, been curtailed. Instead of reading off a laundry list of supporting sponsors, each fisherman kept it to a minimum, primarily only plugging relevant equipment providers. Thanks to whomever at B.A.S.S. who briefed the anglers on this childish behavior.
> Even still, the overall Classic weigh-in continues to be too long. On the final day, the crowd arrived on time for a 4 o'clock show. Jordan Lee was crowned champ around 7. Several yawns were observed in between. Perhaps the answer doesn’t lie in speeding up the anglers, but in reducing the field size. Regular-season Elite events cut to 12 fishermen the final day, so why not the Classic?
> If you’ve never attended a Classic, you really should. Nowhere is our obsession more justified – it’s like going on a trip with 50,000 members of your bass club. For a week, we’re all there, basking in the attention that our sport deserves.
However, if you can’t make it, you can always count on me to fill you in.
(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.)