A pretzel, the old saying goes, is a breadstick made by a committee.
Get too many hands involved in anything, or try to please too many different groups, and by necessity your task becomes complicated. That’s the conundrum facing the folks who produce The Bassmasters television show. They’re trying to serve at least five different masters all at once:
· They have to tell the story of a tournament a week or more after it occurs, yet make the outcome seem suspenseful
· They have to please their sponsors and advertisers
· They have to make it educational, so that the viewers learn something about the sport
· They have to give the winner ample time on camera, to celebrate what might be a career-defining accomplishment
· They have to give those who didn’t win, but who somehow played a role in the outcome, their fair share of face time
And they have to do it all in approximately 44 minutes of airtime, while covering over a hundred anglers spread out over tens of thousands of acres of water, typically in less-than-ideal weather.
That’s not easy. Go to any message board or forum where bassheads congregate, and week-in, week-out you’ll hear the same old gripes. The producers could have hit four out of five prongs squarely on the head and you’ll still have someone complaining that the 12th place finisher didn’t get adequate coverage, or that the winner’s special dropshot rigging wasn’t fully explained, or that there was too much breakdancing.
Invariably, there’s also the guy checking his Swatch watch through rose colored 1980s glasses and talking about how much better things were in the Bob Cobb era.
I like the old shows as much as anyone. Those initial chords of the theme song get me pumped up more than “Eye of the Tiger” ever motivated Rocky. The scene of Larry Nixon jumping a Megabucks mule still gives me goosebumps and I half-laugh, half-cringe every time David Fritts falls out of the boat. Anyone who claims that the show was perfect, though, is severely delusional. Compare it to today’s occasionally maligned product and I’ll take the newer product just about every time. Over the past two years, it has gotten even better. Not only are they maximizing the coverage of the five markers listed above, but for the first time they’re consistently treating competitive bass fishing like a real sport, warts and all.
Last year at the Sabine, Alton Jones and Dean Rojas got into a little tiff over water and the cameras rolled as some pretty pointed words were spoken.
Do you remember anything like that in the past? Tales of punches thrown in Sam Rayburn parking lots never made the coverage. Nor did the on the water scuffles. Nor did the injuries, some of them fatal, that accompanied those tournaments in times when equipment wasn’t near as safe as it is today. It’s not quite unfiltered coverage yet, but we’re making strides.
During the televised coverage of the BASSfest on Chickamauga, a scene reminiscent of the Rojas-Jones dispute unfolded. Per the edited footage, Kevin VanDam and Mike Iaconelli appeared to get into a disagreement over whether it was ethical for Ike to fish a particular spot. They went back and forth, no vulgarity or threats of violence or even raised voices, but some pretty direct conversation, and then Kevin told his cameraman: “Mike and I don’t have the best relationship, if you haven’t figured it out.”
That’s pretty tame stuff. For all we know, the film might’ve been edited to make the conflict milder or worse than it was. After the fact, Mike and Kevin might’ve been livid that the footage made it to the air at all. Still, by bass fishing standards, it was nearly the nuclear option, especially for Kevin, the face of the sport, who is rightfully fiercely protective of his image. They shouldn’t be worried, though. This type of stuff, so long as it’s genuine, will eventually put money in both of their pockets. The kumbaya-we’re-all-best-friends farce that’s been perpetrated on us fans to date has held them back and it’s high time that the sport take that step forward.
At the 2005 Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburgh, George Cochran got into a dispute over water with another angler, just a few months after Cochran had been in a televised disagreement for similar reasons. At the Classic, then-announcer Keith Alan asked Cochran why he seemed to be involved in so many such altercations. Subsequently, when the “Super Six” came out of the backdrop, they turned out to be a “Satisfactory Five” – Cochran, offended, was nowhere to be found. Perhaps Alan’s timing was off, or the forum wasn’t right for the question, but the question itself was completely fair game, within the bounds of reasonableness. Still, people treated Alan as if he’d asked Cochran a no-win deal like “When did you stop beating your wife?”
Clearly major sports survive in spite of (or in some cases because of) certain untoward extracurricular activities. If you think Magic and Jordan and Bird weren’t jabbering about each others’ wives, mothers and sisters under the boards, you’ve got another thing coming. If you think there aren’t fans who attend hockey games just for the fights, or head to NASCAR races hoping for a crash, you’re completely naïve. The purists may scoff and say that the sport should stand alone, but these are symptomatic of the elements that contribute to making it compelling. If it just came down to who can make the most free throws, we’d be snoring by halftime, but when you see a 98 percent shooter get psyched out and brick two gimmes, that adds a human element. That’s why they play the games. It’s no different in professional bass fishing – every pro has tools in his arsenal aimed at gaining a mental advantage over the competition, and just about every one of them has a tale of faltering because he got punked. The bass geeks like you and me value these vignettes because it’s a deeper window into our world. The uninitiated will appreciate them because it will help them to realize that this is a sport rather than just a skills contest.
I don’t know how the decision to air the mini-spat between Mike and Kevin went down at the JM Studios. Perhaps it went into the final cut without any debate. Maybe it was unanimous from the get go that this was an important part of the BASSfest story, but I’d like to believe that there was a difference of opinion in the editorial suite that led to a spirited discussion about whether this footage was needed and/or appropriate and that in the end those in favor of revealing our world, including its seamier sides, won in a knockout.