Welcome to our Classic Countdown! Between now and the first day of the 2009 Bassmaster Classic, Feb. 20, we're going to run through the numbers that help to tell the story of the 39th Classic. It's part trivia quiz, part history lesson and, hopefully, all in good fun.
We start with 39 (we're 39 days out from the Classic) because, after all, it's the 39th annual Bassmaster Classic, the 39th consecutive year that the state of Arkansas has sent a representative to the Classic (no other state can say that) and the 39th time that the bass fishing world has focused its collective eyes on one place to see a new champion crowned on fishing's biggest and most important stage.
Looking for more 39s? Well, you should know that Skeet Reese, the 2007 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year, and Steve Kennedy, the 2006 Toyota Bassmaster Rookie of the Year, two of the most talented anglers in the world, are both 39 years old and serious threats to win this year's championship.
When the Classic began back in 1971, it was a far cry from what it is today. Then 24 anglers with day jobs boarded a private plane in Atlanta with absolutely no idea where they were headed, where they would fish or whether the gear they packed would suit the conditions they would face once they got there.
That plane landed in fabulous Las Vegas, Nev., and started a series that will continue in Shreveport, La., in a little more than a month.
How different was that first Classic from the one that will take place on the Red River next month? Well, for starters, the winner of the 1971 Classic (Bobby Murray) took home all of the prize money. There was no prize for second or third or any other place; it was winner-take-all and would stay that way until 1976.
For another, Murray's check was for a rather modest $10,000, a far cry from the $500,000 that the winner of the 2009 Classic will pocket. What's more, with total Classic prize money at better than $1 million today, the entire field will earn at least what Murray won in 1971.
The lament surrounding the first few Classics was that none of the "big" names in those early days (Bill Dance, Roland Martin, Tom Mann) ever won the championship. That tide turned in 1976 and 1977 when Rick Clunn won back-to-back Classics and established that the championship would create its own stars rather than simply rely on others.
Classic fields were much smaller in the early days. Between 1971 and 1980, the Classic field never exceeded 30. But since 1980 it's never been smaller than 40, and it reached an all-time high in 2003 with 61 anglers. The 2009 Classic will feature 51 anglers — 50 men and, for the first time ever, one woman.
Back in the earliest days of the Classic, women were not allowed to fish BASS events. The gender barrier was broken in 1991. Perhaps no other change will be as obvious or dramatic in 2009 as millions of fans watch to learn if the first woman in the championship can truly compete with the men.
As the Classic grew in reputation and media coverage, the "mystery lake" concept (not revealing the location until the competitors were airborne) gave way to plenty of advance notice. Today's Classic competitors know where the tournament will be held more than a year prior to launch, and hundreds of members of the media make plans to attend and cover the stories that develop there.
The fans come, too. At the first Classic, the weigh-in audience consisted of the competitors and a handful of passersby who just happened to be in the area. Today, tens of thousands of raucous fans fill auditoriums to cheer on their favorite anglers and watch as a champion is crowned.
One thing about the Classic hasn't changed. For the angler talented and fortunate enough to win it, it's a life-changing event. From that day forward he will always find himself introduced as a Bassmaster Classic champion.
Who will it be in 2009? We'll know in just 39 days.