This is What It’s Like to be at the Bassmaster Classic Expo

[dropcap size=small]I[/dropcap]t’s the largest consumer trade show of the year. For independent tackle shop owners, that means it’s also one of the best places to gauge consumer interest before Spring. It is the Bassmaster Classic Expo, and this is what it’s like to experience the show first-hand.

Overwhelming. At first the Classic Expo is overwhelming. This is the second Expo I’ve been involved with since joining FTR, and this year the 280,000-square foot TD Convention Center in Greenville is popping at the seems with fishing fanatics. The venue is a solid 60,000 square feet larger than last year’s Expo in Birmingham, and it feels dizzying.

That affect has less to do with the size of the structure as it does with the shear number of exhibitors (over 200) and the volume of foot traffic moving in and out of the building. Products are everywhere. People are everywhere. Announcements beat over speakers and thump you in the head. A live broadcast of the competition from Lake Hartwell streams at some of the larger booths.

It is overwhelming; it is also impressive.

Anything a bass angler could ever dream of is inside of this building and at this expo. New lures, of course, abound. As do dazzling new boats, marine electronics, sunglasses, rods, hats, shirts, shorts, socks, and a few things—like a USB charger that plugs into your boat’s light socket—that a fisherman might not ever think of.

And unlike ICAST, which is an industry-only event, consumers are out in droves buying things.

Everybody has a deal. Almost everybody has a shopping bag with something in it. And navigating the isles is a crash course in patience and agility as you dodge fishing rod eyelets trying to keep your own vision intact.

It really is a marvel to behold.

The Bassmaster Classic Expo stays like this for most of the day until weigh-in time nears. Then, sometime around 4:00 p.m., thousands of the show’s patrons head over to the arena to see their favorite pro bass fishermen hop on the gilded stage of ESPN.

This is the main event. You’ve likely seen it before.

Anglers come in fresh off the water with fish still in the live-wells. They are announced on a booming PA, drive their fully-wrapped trucks and boats into the arena filled with thousands of fans. Their bass are then brought out of the live well, weighed and tallied right there on a stage that wouldn’t be out of place on WWE RAW.

Dreams are made and broken on that stage. And with hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money and sponsorships on the line, tensions can be high.

There, under these lights, every angler is a star—every angler is a professional athlete in his prime. The thousands in the crowd, the anglers at the expo and the millions who will watch the weigh-in live online or in early March on ESPN are as inspired by these fishermen as any young kid holding a basketball with dreams of becoming Lebron James.

But at the Bassmaster Classic, the professional athletes break the stigma so often associated (rightly or wrongly) with players from traditional sports. The glittering lights are not home for them. They are from places you’ve never heard of: Petal, Mississippi; Port St. Joe, Florida; Naugatuck, Connecticut. Occasionally, they confess to being amazed by their own spectacle.

Sure, they talk about the same things any athlete does under the camera—they thank God, they thank their sponsors, they thank their families—but here it’s easy to see through the jersey and back to the kids inside who are still fishing in their grandpa’s boat. Some of the boats, in fact, still have dirt on their trailer.

That is one of the allures of this event. During the weigh-in, you begin to understand that. At the Bassmaster Classic, grown men are making a living doing what kids dream about. And at the Bassmaster Classic Expo, they’re selling the tools for everyone else to do the same.