Full circle to Knoxville

During the moments just after the final-day weigh-in for the 2019 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic in Knoxville, with confetti still flying, I bumped into Tim Price, pro staff manager for Johnson Outdoors and one of the most-respected people in the fishing industry.

When I asked what he thought of the Classic, he didn’t hesitate.

“Best Classic ever,” he said. “And they’re just going to keep getting better.”

It was a bold statement from every conceivable angle. 

The Classic has been the Super Bowl of Bass Fishing for more than 50 years. So labeling one the “best ever” was more than a mouthful. But the then-record crowd of 153,809 fans made it hard to argue the point.

What seemed even bolder, however, was Price’s assessment that the best was yet to come.

There was tremendous upheaval in the fishing industry that year, with dozens of veteran pros opting to leave the Bassmaster Elite Series for what they believed were greener pastures. Many said their goodbyes to B.A.S.S. on stage — and some people believed B.A.S.S. wasn’t long for this world.

Four years later, with the Classic back in Knoxville on March 24-26, not only has B.A.S.S. not crumbled, the organization has gotten stronger every year — and just as Price predicted, so have the Classics.

The 2020 event in Birmingham will go down as one of the best Classics ever simply because it happened. That year’s event literally went down days before we all became too familiar with the word “pandemic.” 

B.A.S.S. managed to hold its biggest event just before the world shut down and then actually managed to finish a full season when other major trails were forced to sit on the sidelines.

The pandemic pushed the 2021 Classic from March to June. But the Texas heat didn’t seem to bother fans, as a crowd of 147,197 — the largest crowd ever for a Texas Classic ­— attended a week’s worth of events that led up to North Carolina pro Hank Cherry claiming his second-straight Classic title. 

In 2022, the record was broken again when 154,932 people attended the fourth Classic ever held on South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell.

Price’s gutsy assessment, which was made in the heat of the moment on the floor of Thompson-Boling Arena, has come true — and now, we’re about to come full circle, back to Rocky Top.

It’s amazing how much has changed since then, and how much still looks exactly the same.

Many of the stars who bid farewell to B.A.S.S. during that 2019 Classic have found their way back to the Bassmaster Elite Series, and they came home to find a long list of major improvements — not the least of which is live television coverage on FS1.

New stars have also emerged, making those returning veterans work hard for every penny they’ve earned.

The five-bass limit that B.A.S.S. established years ago has now been cemented as the tournament standard throughout the industry.

So, to make it a perfect full-circle event, the rabid sports fans in Knoxville need only to join with those from around the country to set yet another Classic attendance record.

One man’s prediction suggests they’ll do just that.