KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The final curtain has closed on the 2019 Bassmaster Classic. But while hometown hero Ott DeFoe is drawing headlines as the new world champion of bass fishing, we’ll take some time to talk about the Classic’s other highlight—the annual Bassmaster Classic Expo.
Located inside World’s Fair Park and the Knoxville Convention Center, the Classic Expo drew thousands upon thousands of fishing fans that wandered in with curiosity and out with handfuls of rods, reels, and lures. It’s my sixth year in attendance for FTR, and I’m coming in hot with a scoresheet for 2019.
The first day of the Bassmaster Classic Expo saw strong crowds; but by the second and third days walking through the main hall at the Knoxville Convention Center was nearly impossible. The crowd was that thick.
Some of this could be due to the particular layout of the convention center, which had sufficient space in the exhibit areas but required crowds to navigate some narrow corridors into and out of those. Either way, lines wrapping around the block were commonplace by the weekend; and that’s not counting the hordes at the weigh-in.
According to B.A.S.S., fishing fans in Knoxville broke a take-off attendance record at Friday’s Day One launch with over 5,500 people in attendance. Unofficial figures put that number even higher on the weekend. In retrospect, this should not come as a surprise. East Tennessee regularly puts over 100,000 people in Neyland Stadium for Vols football every fall. This, despite the fact that the Vols haven’t been particularly relevant on the national stage in over a decade.
Knoxville is also in close proximity to bass fishing fan bases in Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, and the Carolinas. The turnout for the Classic is even more impressive when you consider the theoretically competing SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament in Nashville, where the hometown Vols made a run to the finals, knocking off arch-rival Kentucky in the midst of a historically great season.
B.A.S.S. says that a record 153,000 people attended Classic festivities in Knoxville—it doesn’t get much better than that.
Convention Center: C
It’s apparent that the Knoxville Convention Center has undergone relatively recent renovations. While the building is not on par with a convention-first city like Orlando, the facility itself was fine. However… the venue was a bit small for the massive Classic Expo crowds. Exhibitors were placed in a hodgepodge of exhibit halls that spanned two buildings. One hall in particular was located in the apparent basement of a hotel, which may have impacted the turnout for some key vendors.
Despite a beautiful setting, the convention center left room for improvement in both layout and size.
Supporting Facilities: A
It’s hard to ask for anything more from a host city. Parking is the only mark keeping Knoxville from scoring an A+ here.
World’s Fair Park is located in the heart of downtown, within walking distance of a seemingly endless array of restaurants. Far from a meat and potatoes town, Knoxville offered up asian and southern fusion, middle eastern plate lunches, an inspired selection of tacos, and sushi not far from the Expo. Local food trucks took up the slack for those who were too busy to walk away from the event.
A 20 minute walk in the opposite direction placed Expo visitors at the weigh-in. The route itself was a win-win proposition between a riverside walk on a greenway or a stroll through a surprisingly quiet University of Tennessee campus.
New Product Launches: B+
As FTR chronicled in a prior post, the Bassmaster Classic has become a mini-ICAST focused towards bass fishing. Dozens of manufacturers released new products for the show, including two flagship bait casting reels from Shimano and Daiwa. When a new Antares or Steez drops, it’s a big deal. I’m holding back a few points for product launches based on two factors: presentation and media access. These factors are largely out of the manufacturer’s control. They’re a byproduct of launches at a crowded consumer show.
Unlike ICAST, fighting through the throngs at the Classic Expo makes cataloguing every new release a practical impossibility. A lack, or underutilization, of dedicated space for press conferences also dims the new product spotlight a bit. That said, the majority of media at the Classic is here to cover the actual tournament. There’s not much manufacturer’s can do about that.
My well of experience at the Classic Expo is not as extensive as our managing editor, Ken Duke. You’ll have to check on his annual Classic Report Card for his take. However, I have attended Classic Expo’s in Birmingham, Tulsa, Houston, and Greenville (twice.) In my view, Knoxville ranks right up there with Houston—a tremendous coup for a city that’s just a fraction of the size.
Savvy readers know that I am a homegrown Tennessean; but before you accuse me of homerism, note that I am from Memphis, Tennessee. The two cities are located more than six hour away by car, and they’re as different as Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley. Their citizens disagree on virtually everything. We are rivals in sports, state funding battles, and culture. Memphis is such a Volunteer State pariah that we promptly ran the NFL’s Tennessee Titans out of town after just a few home games. And in a state with a rich college football tradition, Memphis Tiger fans outnumber Vols fans in the city at least two to one, despite owning just a 1-22 record all-time against the Big Orange.
That said, after the 2019 Bassmaster Classic, I’m looking at Knoxville with new eyes.
Knoxville is walkable, beautiful, historic, and filled with bass fishing fans. It is a worthy small city in its own right. Classic anglers had to drive just minutes from the launch ramp to the weigh-in, as opposed to an hour or more as is typical. The fishing may not have been the best on the planet, but the host city scored high marks for nearly every other factor involved in hosting the event.
Rocky Top should absolutely be in consideration to host another Bassmaster Classic in the future. A little more Expo room would make a return to the Marble City a home run.