The Bassmaster Classic is just a fishing tournament, one of thousands each year around the country. Anglers practice for a few days, compete for a few more days, and gain fame, fortune or ruin at the final weigh-in. Yes, you could call the Bassmaster Classic just another fishing tournament, or you could call it something else … you could call it what the competitors themselves describe it as: psychological warfare.
The reality of the Bassmaster Classic is far from an average fishing tournament. It’s been described as the Super Bowl of bass fishing and the Wrestlemania of the bass world. And each year, around this time, the event begins to take on a life of its own. “It will throw you off of your routine,” says Bassmaster Elite Series pro Russ Lane, who’s competing in his sixth Classic this week in Tulsa. “The media, the fans, fishing an hour or more from weigh-in, it’s just different than any other event. You’ve got to be really mentally strong to compete.”
But the anglers aren’t the only ones competing at the Classic. In reality, the 55 anglers on the water are the tip of an iceberg that reaches down to hundreds of marine and tackle brands, thousands of fans in the stands and hundreds of thousands of consumers who will watch the tournament later on ESPN2. And the stakes are much higher than the $300,000 check the winner takes home, or the estimated $1 million in sponsorship deals that could follow or even the $29 million in economic impact the tournament is expected to have on the Tulsa economy.
A win at the Bassmaster Classic can kickstart a new lure or product in a recreational fishing industry worth billions of dollars—or can it? To find out, we asked manufacturers, retailers and a few key media members how the mother of all bass tournaments impacts their business.
A springboard for manufacturers
“The eyes of the entire sport are on this one event,” says Humminbird Brand Manager Jeff Kolodzinksi. “When a competitor has a good result that can be legitimately tied to a product, it helps the product gain confidence with the consumer, and that means more sales.”
Those sales can further entrench a market leader, like Humminbird, or breathe new life into a time-tested product like Rat-L-Trap, where company president Wes Higgins says a strong performance in early March is more valuable than a multi-line marketing budget. “The Classic can provide loads of press coverage, and I’ll take that over bought ads every time,” Higgins says. “Not just because of the cost savings, but I like it better because it translates to the customer with more authenticity. It’s not just another ad saying buy this.”
Higgins would know. Rat-L-Trap sales skyrocketed after Boyd Duckett won the 2007 event on the famous lure. But new product splashes at the Classic aren’t strictly limited to tournament winning lures (though they are often the most remembered products). Browsing the isles of the Bassmaster Classic Expo—which typically spins the turnstiles to numbers over 100,000—can lead you to a bevy of new products, including startups and future stars.
“We exhibited for the first time at the 2015 Classic,” says president of Fatsack Outdoors Nick Rubio, a rising star in the fishing app market that burst onto the scene last year. “You couldn’t have asked for a better stage to launch a product; in my hometown, at my church with 100,000 fishermen.” One year later, Fatsack has expanded their presence at the Classic by not only exhibiting at the Expo, but also by sponsoring their first angler in the field, Jordan Lee.
An intense media spotlight
Buried under the swarm of manufacturers and products, further still towards the depths of the iceberg, you’ll find an army of media assembled in droves on the water, at the Expo and elbowing together in the media pit that sits at the epicenter of the BOK Center’s weigh-in. It’s an international affair that draws credentials from around the fishing universe and drives web traffic to the event like no other each year.
“Classic week is the most important week of the year for Bassmaster.com,” says Bassmaster Vice President of Digital Jim Sexton. “It’s huge for a couple of reasons. Fans come to the site in droves and they return often to keep up with the tournament. We have to upsize our hosting capacity to handle the size of the audience. And the passion of the audience has pushed us to do even more live coverage. This year we’ll have six hours of the Bassmaster Classic LIVE Show during each competition day (7:30 to 1:30), whereas last year we had four hours of LIVE each day. And each year we’ve increased our tournament coverage in the Live Blog, BASSCams, and BASSTrakk. This is also the time of year when our sponsors most want to reach the fishing audience. For Classic week the most prominent advertising positions on the site sell out quickly (months ago). More and more manufacturers release new products this week, and they want to showcase them on Bassmaster.com, and in our magazines and TV shows. So a ton of business takes place this week as well.”
So, during Classic Week, web traffic is off the charts. And advertising is booming—but is anything as valuable for a company as hoisting the elusive world championship trophy?
FTR Managing Editor Ken Duke, a longtime bass writer and the veteran of many Classics, isn’t sure. “I think winning the Bassmaster Classic can definitely help sales of a lure, rod, reel, line, electronics and more, but I think that impact is quite a bit less now than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago,” says Duke. “Today’s angler is a lot more savvy than he was then. He realizes that there are no ‘magic lures.’ Classic winners win because they find fish that are just a little bit bigger than everyone else’s and they make the right presentations. The gear is part of it, but the angler is a bigger part, and consumers know that now.”
Todd Ceisner, who edits the ultra-popular Bassfan.com says a Classic win is still a boost for a lure’s profile. “Historically, a lure that carries someone to a win at the Classic can carry a company to new heights at the retail level, provided it’s marketed effectively and is easy for everyday anglers to use.”
The real retail impact
As the debate rages between media and manufacturers on the monetary impact of bassin’s biggest tournament, retailers in the heart of bass country have the final say. They’re the ones making the sales and meeting everyday anglers face-to-face. Down in Leesburg, Florida, Natalie Brooker of Brooker’s Bait & Tackle says Higgins is right.
“If they’re using a lot of Rat-L-Trap’s, for example, I’m sold out. Honestly, I do think it affects sales because if customers are watching it and they see somebody fishing with a lure, or they talk about a lure, I am going to sell it. When we first opened and KVD won the Classic with that chartreuse and black 2.5-inch square bill, I couldn’t keep up. I was ordering 24 or 30 at a time, and I couldn’t keep them on the shelves.”
Kevin Van Dam won the 2011 Louisiana Delta Bassmaster Classic on the lure. Strike King says the KVD HC Square Bill Silent Crankbait remains a strong seller for the company.
775 miles north of Brooker’s shop, Bobby Fowler’s Exit Store in western Tennessee also sees sales spike after the Bassmaster Classic. “Once a lure has been used to successfully win a tournament,” Fowler says, “anglers immediately start to ask about it. Everybody wants to put their eyes on one.”
But Fowler says there’s a limit to what his customers—mostly bass anglers fishing lakes on or near the Tennessee River—will pay. “If it’s a $24.95 lure, then it is a ‘wow, look at that’ thing. On the other side, if a lure sells for perhaps $6.95 to $12.95, they just have to have it. They will buy the tournament winning color and other colors if the lure attracts them. My customers trust the pros and keep up with the Bassmaster Classic, along with other tournaments. The Bassmaster Classic is followed by almost all of our customers. Each person wants their favorite angler to win, and they also want to know what all the other pros are using.”
What the pros are using—that’s what the Bassmaster Classic ultimately boils down to. This iceberg is a massive, floating platform for product promotion, from the anglers on the water to the gear in their storage boxes and merchandise on the shelves. It’s a psychological battle for $300,000 at the top, and the minds and wallets of an entire industry below the waterline.
And, it’s a battle whose winner still reaps a very real retail reward.