Since I started covering bass tournaments back in the 1970’s, someone with quiver in his voice has continued to stammer, “Bass fishing is getting b-b-b-bigger than ever.” But while the game has had its moments since Ray Scott first collected $100 entries and tournaments moved from magazines to cable TV and jumpsuits to jerseys–it still ain’t a real sport–certainly not a major one.

And yet, I continue to see complaints about the job ESPN did, trying to present “fishing” as if it were legitimate. NASCAR may not have been an ideal model, but the game attempt to display highlights and utilize talking heads (short video clips and sound bites with third party analysis) really wasn’t for the benefit of the guys already out on the water. It was about getting new people to view–but in a format those “outsiders” were accustomed.

Was it particularly effective? Well, more people on the street got a glimpse of the game, heard the “names” and jargon of angling competition. So ESPN did not exactly fail in its effort. But don’t look for things to change with the recent B.A.S.S. purchase of JM Productions, despite its hopeful message. Why? Because it’s not folksy hosts, star players, boat wraps or cool, TV post-production that makes a sport legitimate. It’s money.

Kevin Van Dam, arguably the best competitive pro in 40 plus years is right at $5 million in winnings over his 20-year professional career. That’s a tidy quarter of a million dollars per season. But he’s the top guy, the face of the game. Last year, alone, the 95th place guy in professional golf made $1.1 million. Heck, the top professional tennis player as of March of this year–has made $3.2 million.

Fishing has way more participants than either golf or tennis, and I’m pretty sure you can get clubs or rackets and a nice sporty wardrobe for a lot less than a fully rigged aluminum boat. So it’s pretty obvious, there must me a heck of a lot more corporate sponsorship (with income based on a far broader, possibly global customer base) to make golf or tennis dramatically more lucrative–make that legitimate.

Now of course, there is some market for bass tournaments and we all watch one on TV from time to time. But I don’t care if B.A.S.S. or FLW buys NBC. Networks cancel shows for low ratings because sponsors need viewership. And if you take all the viewers of all the fishing shows in a month they won’t add up to one day’s viewing of the Masters in golf or the tennis U.S. Open.

And worse yet, in the depths of the psyche of the sports-viewing public, there is the feeling that angling skills are not legitimately difficult; that they do not compare with hitting a golf ball or returning a 100 mph serve in tennis. And where could they ever get such a notion?

Oh, that’s right. In 1993, Brian Kershal, a fry cook and Federated club amateur was allowed in the back door and won the Bassmasters Classic–the World Championship. It was a warm and fuzzy story. And the image of professional bass fishing has been paying for it ever since.

 




14 Responses to “Bass tournaments still not a legitimate sport”


Well gk, I have to say you have a pretty good synopsis going here but I think your hypothesis is a tad off. Here’s where I agree with you and disagree with you:

Agree:

1) Readers, please don’t assail me with your stock of one-ton jigs but I feel ESPN did a good job “trying” to market bass fishing to the general public and sponsors. Remember, ESPN bought BASS (if I’m not mistaken, it didn’t have the periods at that time) to make money and the only way for them to make money was to sell more ads. Sell more ads and hopefully they could find a title sponsor that would give them enough money to where they could feature no-entry events for the top anglers in the world. Unfortunately, fishing shows appeal only to a small portion of the viewing public and, double unfortunately, ESPN put those shows on at the exact time ANY fisherman would be on the water or heading to the lake. This is obviously an over-simplified thought but I don’t have time to go into my full opinion of what I think their business plan was.

Disagree:

1) I honestly don’t think money makes a sport legit. A sport is legit when you have an ample number of people playing and competing in it. The problem with bass fishing is it’s difficult to market because of the logistics and the fact people like to see one-on-one or team-on-team play where they know the score instantly as they watch. No matter how much editing any of the crews that produce Bassmaster or FLW do, the shows drag on for the “uneducated” viewer. The BassTrak deal I think tried to move the sport in that direction but the powers that be want the suspense of the final weigh-in.

2) Lastly, I don’t believe Kerchal winning the Classic had anything to do with the failure of people thinking bass fishing is easy (and for some reason gk, I think you put that in to stir the pot). That would be akin to saying Fernando Valenzuela proved to MLB fans that any poor kid from a third-world country can pitch against the best in the Majors.

Terry

I agree with your arguments on ESPN efforts to build up BASS Fishing. But I disagree with your taking a shot at Amateurs in the “World Championship”.

Three of Golf’s Majors allow Amateurs to compete with the big boys. In fact many amateur golfers dream of qualifying for the US Open (arguably the “World Championship” of golf). All they have to do is survive several grueling qualifying tournaments to get in. Sound familiar?

Does the fact that amateur golfers can compete in the US Open reduce the image of that sport? I don’t think so, in fact I think it serves to enhance it.

by George Kramer

Tom: The golf comparison doesn’t work. Bass fishing is much easier than golf and the “sport” gets exposed everytime a guy off the launch ramp is dropped right in the middle where he has a “puncher’s chance” of success. A scratch golfing amateur could surely win a Major. But a far less (relatively) proficient angler, (in fact, lots of them) on a given week, with the right kind of bite to match their skills, could also beat a field of pros. And that very possibility damages the notion of “professional angler.”

by Michael Jones

Terry & Tom,

I was there for the rise and fall of professional bass fishing – on the inside.
Kramer is right on all counts.

Sorry if it bursts your bubble but ESPN screwed it up and Kerchal’s victory was the tipping point.

I don’t need any more room to express my point because that’s what happened. Nuff said.

On the notion that fishing is ‘easier’ then golf. A golf ball doesn’t move around once it’s stopped. A golf ball doesn’t have an appetite or get angry. Golf balls don’t get lock jaw. A golf ball will move, if struck correctly, in predictable ways. Golf balls aren’t affected by moon cycles, tides or barometric changes. Golf clubs don’t backlash and so on. Once I’ve struck a golf ball I can’t screw the process up any further. Once I’ve hooked a fish there are a myriad of ways I can screw up and lose the fish. Saying that fishing is ‘easier’ is kind of funny.

The other thing I point out about this comparison is that, arguably, the sport of golf’s greatest player, Bobby Jones, was an amateur. His domination of the sport certainly didn’t hurt it. There’s never been a time when the masses were fixated on tournament fishing as they are on other sports. People love to fish, just not nearly as much in to watching others do it, professionally or otherwise. It’s not like the world was perched waiting to see a pro win the Classic and some AM won it and, in doing so, pushed everyone away from following the sport. That’s also just funny.

by George Kramer

sTony: Any 5-year old can catch a limit of bass. (My kids have). Not many adults can hit a 7-iron 125 yards to within five feet of the cup–good lie or not–day in and day out.

I think aliens have taken the real George! I agree with most of your statements, but how important is it that a kid can catch five bass (it took me 15 years before I could do that- man was I stoked). Guess that was before I learned drop shotting though!

I still would not waste my money and fish against the pros, or semi’s for that matter, just donating I would be, as well as you would be too, huh?

The average golfer has never shot a 72, let alone a 66. But any club angler has had a limit of 20 lbs.

George, isn’t the Kerchal Classic win about the time B.A.S.S. stopped inviting a certain westcoast writer as a ride along reporter? Was that Jones? Just wanted to make sure the “Sourgrapes” theory has expired. Your still my guy.

by George Kramer

Actually, Rick, I was banned twice from the Classic in my career. Before assailing the Federation, I stopped being invited for saying the media should NOT be allowed to fish during the event. Old-timers didn’t like that. I eventually got back for the Chicago/Soldiers Field Classic weigh-in.
🙂

So, professional bass fishing has been on the decline since 1994? It all started downhill when Kerchal won?

I have a hard time arguing with you Michael, you did live it, but I respectfully disagree with that.

I was doing a little research about amateurs fishing the classic, and after reading both the article and replies I just have a few comments. I started fishing at the age of 3, and regardless of how many tournaments I was successful in, other persons also had success. You could argue that when after four days of golf 4 guys have to have a playoff to win by one stroke. As for the amateur take, I completely disagree with all of you about Bryan Kerchal. I believe the young man would have proven himself many times over, and sadly his death is not what is addressed here, but the fact that an amateur (rookie) whipped some pros. That is usually all the encouragement that young people need is to see a peer having success. Hmm, how many years before tiger dominated golf, how many years before Jordan embarrassed old veterans. And more recently how many kids fresh out of high school are embarrassing many in the sporting world. I believe that all sports are just an outlet for all of us anyway, so shame on us for paying so much to enjoy, and shame on them for charging us so much to see it live. Last time I watched an elite tournament it was free to sit on the water and enjoy the show.

by George Kramer

Scott: A very thoughtful reply. The Kerchal stance here, however, really has nothing to do with Kerchal the person. It’s all about cheapening the game in the eyes of the sports public by letting an “unqualified” player in the title match. And while we mourn his untimely passing, you just can’t assume greatness.