As Bassmaster Elite angler Clifford Pirch navigated his Phoenix bass boat along the Tennessee River toward the launch site at the Bassmaster Classic on a dark, chilly March morning, the city’s lights began to illuminate thousands of spectators crowding docks and bridges.
Since I was Pirch’s marshal that day — the person who logs each anglers’ catches on a BASSTrakk app so fans can follow along — I got a water view of 5,500 fans, faces aglow from screens as they snapped photos of the 52 competitors arriving. “I had no idea there would be this many people here,” I said, raising my voice above announcer Dave Mercer, who was interviewing anglers on loudspeakers.
“The Classic is unique that way,” said Pirch. “A lot of people come to the takeoff, as uncomfortable as it is at 5:30 in the morning.”
As dawn crept in, everybody stood for the National Anthem, and the boats began peeling off one by one. Pirch was No. 10, and after waving at fans, he shot off at about 75 mph to a fishing hole he’d staked out during practice.
A Growing Sport
More anglers target bass than any other fish, and the sport is seeing renewed enthusiasm with more opportunities to fish competitively at the high school and college levels. Robust boat and gear sales mean companies have more sponsorship dollars to allocate, and social media has helped familiarize bass fishing to new audiences.
“Not only are we seeing the fan base and fan interaction grow, but also participation,” says Elite Bassmaster angler Chris Zaldain, who is on his eighth Elite tour. “We’re seeing huge growth in participation because B.A.S.S. is the only organization that has a platform for every skill level and every age, from high school to college to teen circuits to Opens, and then the Elite series. I think that coinciding with the of explosion of social media, it’s become cool to become an outdoorsman.”
Freshwater fishing contributes $41.9 billion to the U.S. GDP, which is more than the economic contribution of the transit and ground passenger industry. The Classic events — launches, daily weigh-ins, and an enormous Expo that spanned two venues and spilled into hallways and outside — drew a record-setting 153,800 visitors March 15-17 and generated $32.2 million for the city, the largest economic impact in the Classic’s 49-year history. Attendees coming from almost every state and countries as far away as Australia and Japan paid for 29,232 room nights in local hotels, according to Visit Knoxville.
“Knoxville’s always a really good tournament venue,” says Pirch. “There are so many outdoorsmen in this part of the country. The Bible belt is the bass-fishing belt, really.”
Another huge draw for fans and sponsors is the Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods, where traffic exceeds the Miami International Boat Show. This year’s Expo attracted 92,819 attendees at the Knoxville Convention Center and World’s Fair Exhibition Hall. By contrast, MIBS drew 91,518.
Pro anglers have more opportunities to win bigger purses than any other time in history with two established tournament series, Fishing League Worldwide and B.A.S.S, as well as a new Bass Pro Tour run by Major League Fishing that has raised the stakes. That helps offset the $80,000 anglers pony up to travel, enter and fish the Classic.
“The power for payout has gone up dramatically,” says Dave Precht, Bassmaster Magazine’s vice president of editorial and communications.
B.A.S.S. college clubs alone have more than tripled from 71 in 2012 to 180 today. There’s been a 300 to 400 percent increase in high school clubs, which now have more than 10,000 members versus 800 members six years ago.
That is giving young anglers a path to professional fishing; out of the 75 in the 2019 Elite Series, 15 of them, or 20 percent, were college standouts.
“It also gives women and girls an opportunity to come in on equal footing,” says Precht. “There are quite a number of co-ed teams in college, and a few all-female teams. It’s hard to break in for a female who doesn’t have that background, but I think we’re going to see more female pros coming in because of all the experience in high school and college.”
As Pirch and I made our way to the launch, it took him four takes before he finally settled on a clip to post to Instagram. It doesn’t necessarily come as easy for him as some, but that cost him some good sponsors, so he keeps up on it now.
Anglers have to be increasingly sophisticated to navigate the growing social media presence and marketing component that’s required of them today — so much so that it’s become a cottage industry, says Precht.
“Nowadays it’s important to get an education because with all the social media and marketing you have to do, a good education helps cement that,” says Zaldain, who has over 52,000 followers on Instagram. “But you’ve still gotta catch fish.”
It’s still the grassroots following from Bassmaster’s 510,000 fans that sponsors love most, says Martin Peters with Yamaha Outboards.
The Expo is the largest consumer-facing fishing sale in the country with 250 exhibitors at the sold-out event, according to James Hall, editor for Bassmaster Magazine. Some exhibitors say they saw triple or quadruple the number of attendees clamoring for their favorite fisherman’s latest lure or rod.
“This is our biggest marketing event outside the Miami Boat Show,” said Yamaha service manager Billy Matthews from the booth.
Admission to all Classic events, including staged weigh-ins in front of packed arenas and the Expo, is free to everyone and essentially make fans an interactive part of the tournament.
“We see so many beginner rods and reels sold here,” said Hunter Cole, media and public relations manager at Abu Garcia. “You can’t go to a local boat show without paying an admission fee, but because of the hard work of B.A.S.S., this event is free.”
Lines snaked around both venues as attendees waited for hours for doors to open. Inside the Expo halls later, families stood in more long lines waiting to enter for a giveaway or have hats signed by professional anglers.
The Expo hall showcased a makeshift newsroom in the center, giving attendees yet another inside look at the events.
“Four years ago we came up with live commentators, and we livestream that during the event,” said Hall. “It changed how people consumed the sport.”
They went from one camera in 2015 to 20 this year, and another four inside the Expo, where announcers analyze the footage and discuss standings.
“We put Go Pros on every boat, so we have every single moment on film,” said Hall. “The availability of content has improved because of Go Pros, FaceTime, Facebook live — it all allows for opportunities to spend one extra moment with the pros. However they want to consume the content, it’s all there.”
The sport is increasing its international appeal also. Web traffic to bassmaster.com during the Classic came from 179 countries, including the Sudan.
The world’s first bass angler from Europe qualified this year as well; Italian Jacopo Gellelli learned English so he could address the mostly American crowd at weigh-ins each afternoon.
The volume of hardcore bass anglers at an Expo hall means many fishing and tackle companies unveil new products at the Expo, months ahead of ICAST.
“If you have a bass-centric product, there is no better place to introduce it,” says Jesse Simpkins, director of marketing at Wisconsin-based St. Croix Rods.
Not only are you targeting your specific audience, you get invaluable feedback from hardcore bass anglers, says Simpkins.
“There’s no better litmus test,” says Simpkins. “We introduced two technique-specific rods and they sold out in two days. There are such hardcore anglers here we couldn’t keep it in stock. In our product meetings, we think about what we’re going to do at ICAST and then we back it up six months, because this is the best place to launch a product.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.