It’s frequently apparent that JT Kenney doesn’t concern himself with the approval of others.
“I’ve got a big pocketful of 'I don’t give a damn' and I’m happy to pass it out, if people need it.”
I could see this was going to be an eventful interview, as usual. For some time now, I’ve known the big man to be a blatantly honest guy, more than happy in his own skin. I’ve equally known him to be a vintage tournament pro, anxious to throw down on any body of water in the Eastern U.S., with a dang good chance of coming out ahead.
As a fan, I’ve admired Kenney’s tenacity toward the fishing aspect of tournament bass; while his marketing and brand presence is strong, it’s apparent he’s always done his best to earn the bulk of his cash with a rod and reel rather than a Facebook page.
So I was stumped – floored, really – to learn of Kenney’s apparent retirement from competitive fishing for a career in fishing broadcasting with MLF’s new BPT circuit. Could this be the biggest sell-out in the history of professional bass fishing? Was punk rock really dead?
Let’s hope not, at least to that last part. In any case, I felt compelled to get to the bottom of the Kenney story and find out just how pitifully political things had become for one of my favorite pros. I must admit, his story intrigued me.
To back up, it’s important to look at the Kenney record: five major tournament wins, including three at the Tour level, with over a million and half dollars in earnings on the FLW Tour, and another six figures with B.A.S.S. A pro for over 20 years, Kenney’s never really had a “day job” and likely had a spot reserved on nearly any circuit in the country this season. His first offer came from MLF in the form of a competitor.
“I was invited and immediately took the opportunity. I’m positive I was the first guy to hand in my contract (committing to compete in the new Bass Pro Tour).” Kenney’s reasons were straightforward: “Money was definitely part of it (referring to the increased tournament payout), and the organization looked excited to take the sport further. That’s stuff we’ve all heard before, but no one did anything about.”
Kenney also based his decision on a variable overlooked by many. “MLF’s weigh and release format is far superior to anything else. I may be wrong, but I think we (tournament participants) kill the hell out of the fish with delayed mortality. So a big factor was conservation.”
So there, in the early stages of picking a roster for the upcoming circuit, Kenney was on board, all-in, as a competitor. But a funny thing happened.
“A couple weeks later, they (MLF television) were editing footage, and they evidently liked my camera presence, so they called and asked me if I wanted to join the broadcast crew. I immediately said 'absolutely not – that’s ridiculous. I’m an angler.'''
However, in time, Kenney started to warm up to the idea. His reason surprised even me.
“I had always thought my (career) end game would be fishing television; specifically announcing.”
I wondered how that could be. Who ever dreams of being a tournament fishing announcer?
“My dad was a motocross announcer on the side, actually. And I like being in front of the camera. So a few days after (the original conversation), I was thinking about it, and I asked myself, if I was going to do that (work in tournament TV), where would I want to be? B.A.S.S.? Nope. FLW? Probably not. MLF? Maybe …”
Kenney admitted that timing wasn’t the best, but he felt he should think about it more. He told MLF that his answer was still no, but he would listen.
“Then their ideas – they really impressed me. Their plans are to completely change (tournament) broadcasting. I was very intrigued and the (offered) pay was quite … sufficient.”
Entertaining the idea further, Kenney talked to celebrity anglers in similar positions and found their endorsement deals were very lucrative. Further chats with his current advertising partners perked Kenney’s interest more. “They told me I’d be even more valuable to them. The timing was the only thing not right; everything else seemed perfect.”
Now hold on a minute; a tough question immediately entered my mind. How could Kenney – one of this generation’s original high rollers – justify endorsement dollars without continuing to compete in the trenches? Are we now in an era when weigh-masters and colorful TV hosts are dealt the same street cred as proven tournament champions?
“I busted my ass for 20 years and won five national tournaments; I’ve proven myself,” Kenney interjected. “I mean, I’ve proven I wasn’t a Kevin VanDam, but I feel like my tenure (has earned) my credibility.”
Say it ain’t so. Certainly there’s more flip-stick boosted big bags to be weighed by JT Kenney.
“I’ll probably never fish a tour event again, but I’m still going to fish a lot. They (MLF) have no problem with me fishing Costas or anything like that. And I’ll still be filming with my YouTube partners. But I’m not getting any younger and security is a major consideration.”
Yuck. Maybe punk rock is dead. Maybe YouTube has replaced Megabucks and the only thing important anymore is fans and followers. Or maybe JT’s pocketful of honesty paints a clearer picture.
“I still get to go to the tournaments and make good money. I just don’t have to stand out in the rain anymore.”
(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.)