The Bassmaster Classic Expo-nential

In less than a month, a lot of us will be at the 50th Bassmaster Classic in Birmingham, Alabama. Since you’re reading this column on, it’s almost a certainty that you’re in the sportfishing industry and not “just” a consumer. As a result, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re more interested in the Classic Expo than in the tournament itself. And that actually puts you in the majority. Far more people will attend the Expo — checking out all the new gear, eyeing the deals and discounts — than will ever see a fish hit the scales or the winner hoist the trophy.

The Classic has changed a lot in its 50-year history. It started in 1971 as a championship tournament for the top anglers at BASS, and it was held on a “mystery lake.” The competitors didn’t know where they’d be fishing until the plane they boarded in Atlanta or New Orleans was 10,000 feet in the air and BASS founder Ray Scott opened an envelope revealing the location.

[KD Note #1: I always laugh when I think of Ray ceremoniously ripping open an envelope to disclose a location he already knew … that he had, in fact, selected and negotiated! I guess the pomp and circumstance is part of what makes Ray the greatest showman, salesman and personality in the history of American sportfishing. Say what you will about the man, but many of us owe our careers to what he built, and he’ll always be a hero to me…. But I digress.]

The mystery lake format was dropped in 1977, as the Classic got bigger, more valuable and more media and fans showed an interest in attending.

The origins of the Bassmaster Classic Expo

It wasn’t until 1981, in BASS’ original hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, that Ray and the brain trust at BASS saw the opportunity to capitalize on the Classic by creating an indoor tackle show. That was 40 years ago, and it’s been mostly growing ever since.

For what it’s worth, Classic attendance fluctuates based on a few factors, most notably location and weather. If it’s near a major metropolitan area or bass fishing hotbed, attendance has a chance to be high. Even more important is whether or not the Classic has been held at that location in the past or how recently it was held there.

The biggest, most vibrant crowd I’ve ever seen at a Classic (and I’ve been to more than a few) was in Shreveport, Louisiana. There was little room to walk at the Expo, and the crowd for the weigh-in wrapped almost completely around that venue.

[KD Note #2: That was in 2009, and I was Senior Editor of BASS Publications at the time. In the morning, I worked in the BASS booth on the Expo floor, but in the afternoon, I had to go to the weigh-in arena and create web content. Because I was often on BASS’ website, some people standing in line recognized me as I cut through to go in the door for credentialed media. They started calling to me.

“Ken, let us in!”

“Ken, take me with you!”

When I tried to politely wave them off and explain that I couldn’t do that, the chant changed.

“Ken, you suck!”

But I digress … again.]

Apart from the creation of the Expo and its growth through the years, I think the biggest change has come from the Classic’s move from a fall event (1971 to 1982) to a summer event (1983 to 2005) and now to a late winter or early spring event (2006 to ???).

The shifts have all been made in an effort to increase attendance or television viewership, but because the Classic is now several months away from the sportfishing industry’s biggest trade show (ICAST), some savvy manufacturers have started to use it as a mini ICAST. After all, lots of the bass fishing media is there, and with as many as 100,000 consumers on site, they can gauge public interest in new items pretty quickly. It’s a trade show and consumer show all wrapped up in one.

If you’re a retailer and can make it to the Classic Expo, it can be a great investment. It’s a chance to see what’s selling and getting attention among the bass crowd. Standing around the checkout line at one of the on-site vendor booths can be a good education as to what might be successful in your store. Plus, there’s the opportunity to visit the manufacturer booths and talk with execs and pro staffers about the products, what kinds of deals you can get and what makes the product special or how you can most effectively market it in your shop.

It’s also a chance to get a head start on your competition. If you have the feeling that Angler X is going to win the tournament, swing by his sponsors’ booths and find out what he’s using. Then place your order before the rest of the world.