Ken DukeWritten by

Ken’s Classic Report Card

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The 49th Bassmaster Classic on the Tennessee River, and the 2019 Classic Outdoor Expo in Knoxville, Tennessee, are now in the books. They were historic in several respects — some good and some not so good.

Here’s a report card for the Classic and Expo experiences.

Facilities: C

This year’s Expo was held at the Knoxville Convention Center and another building a block or so away. The weigh-in was at Thompson-Boling Arena — where the University of Tennessee plays basketball.

You could argue that the venues are within walking distance (about a mile apart), but Knoxville is far from flat, and if the path is downhill one way, it’s uphill the other. Walking was not a popular option, and parking was a serious challenge in the city.

Knoxville and BASS tried to take off the rough edges with free shuttle buses between the Expo and weigh-in, but crowds were large, and lines were long. That means hundreds of consumers standing around doing nothing rather than spending money.

The nearby Market Square area was popular with attendees and offered several great dining experiences, including Myrtle’s Chicken and Beer. Another Knoxville standout was the barbecue at Calhoun’s on the River.

The anglers who fished the Classic were housed at Hotel Knoxville (and so was I). It’s easily the worst hotel B.A.S.S. has used for the Classic qualifiers in many, many years. The lobby was a construction zone, and though the staff was extremely friendly and helpful, they couldn’t overcome the shortcomings of their facilities.

On the plus side — and it’s a huge one — B.A.S.S. claimed attendance of more than 153,000 at the Expo, weigh-ins and launch. That’s a new Classic record, and everyone was impressed with the crowds.

Ultimately, Knoxville is a pretty town with lots to offer, but not an ideal venue for a Bassmaster Classic or Expo.

Expo: B

Strong attendance forgives many sins, and so it was with the 2019 Expo. Despite the split Expo venues, there were great numbers of fans on site. Many exhibitors in the secondary location were unhappy about their position, but crowds looked pretty strong everywhere I went.

And everywhere I looked I saw fans carrying three white rods. Most often they were from Duckett Fishing. Duckett was offering a “buy one, get two free” promotion that was the talk of the show, and it appeared to be very successful.

A personal highlight from the Expo was the presence of longtime Bassmaster Magazine editor, the legendary Bob Cobb, who was in the B.A.S.S. booth to talk with fans and sell his new book, The BASS Story Unplugged. If you didn’t have a chance to buy a copy there, you can get it here. Cobb worked alongside B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott to build the organization. He was also the first host of “The Bassmasters” television program, and his stories and voice helped to define the bass fishing culture.

Competition: C

Let’s be frank. The Classic waters — the Tennessee River, Fort Loudoun and Tellico — are nothing special as bass fisheries go, and anyone who expected fireworks was either dreaming or drinking the tournament hype Kool-Aid. The fishing was pretty lackluster, no significant records were set, and the biggest fish of the tournament were just 6 pounders. The fishing was ho-hum.

What saved the derby from failure was the same thing that made it bittersweet for B.A.S.S.: Ott DeFoe, a popular and worthy angler who was also the local favorite, was the winner. DeFoe would serve the sport well as the world champion, but he won’t receive the usual support and promotion of B.A.S.S. because he left the Bassmaster Elite Series in favor of Major League Fishing and the Bass Pro Tour. I certainly don’t blame B.A.S.S. for not supporting an angler who left (nor do I blame DeFoe for leaving). It’s just an unfortunate lost opportunity.

Speaking of anglers who left B.A.S.S., 36 of the 52-man field are no longer fishing the Bassmaster Elite Series. That means B.A.S.S. had just 16 qualifiers to wave the blue shield. In the end, there were just five Elite Series pros that made the cut to the final 25, and only one who finished in the top 10 — Brandon Lester was sixth.

Impressively, the Tennessee pros in the Classic showed up big! There were four of them, and they all finished in the top seven, including new champ Ott DeFoe (Blaine) and second-place finisher Jacob Wheeler (Harrison).

Another negative that got little or no media attention was the behavior of some fans on the water. I heard from lots of Classic anglers that the boaters following them were the rudest and most obtrusive they’d ever seen. Many reported that they were pushing in to fish alongside the pros, cutting them off and even racing them to fishing spots.

I realize that the pros do not own the water, and Saturday and Sunday are the only chances that most of us casual anglers have to fish. My issue is with those “fans” that will not afford the same courtesy (and perhaps even a little more) to a Classic angler than they would give to an unknown angler in the same circumstance.

Media Experience: B

Last year, I came close to giving the Classic media experience a well-deserved “F.” This year, I’m happy to report, things were much improved. Media Day’s innumerable and uninspired speeches from B.A.S.S. officials (“We’re excited to be here”) and local politicians (“I used to fish when I was a kid”) were tightened up considerably, and B.A.S.S. caught a break when weather allowed everyone outside to interview the anglers at their boats.

My complaints about the parking at last year’s Classic were apparently resolved, though I decided to use Uber this time, just in case. And “Fan Appreciation Day” did not interfere with the media experience because B.A.S.S. did not schedule a fan experience. Good choice … at least from a media perspective.

B.A.S.S. needs to do something about the 10-minute angler appointments at Media Day, and the boats need to be arranged alphabetically so media can find individual anglers, but the overall experience was much better.

Overall Score: B- (but your mileage may vary)

Big attendance, a popular champion and a host region full of outdoors lovers made the 2019 Classic and Expo a good one. Better facilities, weather and fisheries would have taken it over the top and made it one for the ages.

Last year, in this very same “report card,” I surreptitiously revealed the site of this year’s classic in the final sentence, when I wrote “Knowing nothing of X-factors, venue issues, logistics, lobbying efforts….” That spells out K-n-o-x-v-i-l-l-e. This time around, I’m only hearing rumors about the site for 2020, the most reliable of which is that the host city will be Birmingham, Alabama, and I’d guess that the Classic waters will be Lake Guntersville — the best fishery nearby.

Birmingham makes a lot of sense as next year’s venue. It’s the site of B.A.S.S. headquarters, so the company can put on the event at less cost than at other venues. Birmingham hasn’t hosted a Classic since 2014, and fans usually turn out in good numbers there. The Expo and weigh-in venues are also in close proximity, so it’s easy for fans and media to check out both sites.

Guntersville makes sense, too. Though it experiences ups and downs like most fisheries, Guntersville is still one of the nation’s top bass waters. B.A.S.S. would love to see its new batch of pros rewrite the record books and eclipse some of the marks set by the anglers who recently left B.A.S.S. to join Major League Fishing and the Bass Pro Tour. Guntersville gives them the chance to do that.

Next year’s Classic will be B.A.S.S.’s 50th, and they should milk that for all it’s worth. Problem is that most of the top pros have left B.A.S.S., as just noted. Ironically, that creates an interesting balance between the Classic and Expo. The Classic promises to be a shadow of what it’s been historically. To call it the “Super Bowl of bass fishing” will be raw hyperbole, plain and simple. Most of the anglers who will be competing are relative unknowns today.

On the other hand, the Expo should be more star-studded than ever before. Kevin VanDam, Skeet Reese, Mike Iaconelli, Edwin Evers, Aaron Martens and reigning Classic champ Ott DeFoe won’t be fishing; they’ll be working sponsor booths, signing autographs and talking about new gear. So, what hurts the Classic may help the Expo.

Looking ahead to 2021, I have what I believe to be reliable information that the Classic and Expo will be held on Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees out of Tulsa, Oklahoma … but that’s two years away.