Classic has earned its name

Four weeks from now, when the air inside the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center is acrid with the burnt-sulfur smell of pyrotechnics, and the sound of loudspeakers and thousands of screaming fans ricochets, and anglers brandish lunkers for a television audience of millions — when all that's going down, remember that what BASS founder Ray Scott wanted for that first Bassmaster Classic 36 years ago was complete lockdown secrecy, all in the name of publicity.

 And yes, it sounded odd even at the time.

 "Most people don't appreciate Christopher Columbus," Scott says. "He was half drunk when he made the decision to find out if the world was really flat. And I was somewhat in that state when I had the idea for a bass fishing competition to honor and identify the best of the best."

 In 1970, with BASS in its infancy, Scott realized that bass fishing needed an event — a "supertournament," he says now — to define a champion each year, to attract attention and even to define it as a sport.

 In those days, pro fishing "was not a respected profession," says angler Roland Martin. "The average public didn't consider professional fishing or winning a classic or winning anything a big deal."

 The inaugural tournament in 1971 was held on Lake Mead in Nevada — but, to build intrigue, none of the anglers nor the press knew that until they were on the plane from Atlanta to Las Vegas.

 Even the truck drivers delivering the boats cross-country had to receive their directions in segments, from pay phones along a convoluted route.

 Looking back, it was insane on the one hand," Scott says. "But it was also very interesting."

 One batch of boats was stuck in the snow before the practice day, so rather than send out each competitor with a writer, Scott doubled up the anglers and dragged the scribes to the bar to kill time with whiskeys.

 "I didn't hear one word of objection or resistance," he says. After Bobby Murray won that first title, Scott says, "we got published out the goo-goo."

 From February 23-25 on Lay Lake in Alabama, the fishing world will once again get a glimpse of how the sport has expanded in the intervening decades.

 The Classic began as a $10,000 first-place tournament at which Scott poured booze into the press men to ensure a smooth event and an angler declined his invitation so as not to waste his vacation time.

 Today it's a career-defining spectacle fit for (and in fact, owned by) cable television, with first-place money 50-fold higher.

 "The Classic is basically the history of the sport, no different than the Super Bowl is for football," says Denny Brauer, who won the 1998 Classic. "Every sport has to have its marquee event."

 People call it the "Super Bowl of fishing," but a more apt comparison might be if NASCAR held a race in which the top drivers met on a different track each year with a handful of amateurs for a purse five times richer than a normal race's.

 But outside of fishing and hypotheticals, perhaps no single event truly compares.

 The practice of springing the locale on the anglers at the last minute was working too well, Scott eventually realized, because it didn't give his potential audience notice, either. He began announcing sites, and in another crowd-friendly move, staged the weigh-ins inside, beginning in 1981.

 "[Scott] was a visionary who probably painted a better picture than he should have," Martin says. "But he wasn't far off, when you look at present-day tournaments. Everybody laughed at him, said he's a Looney Tune. But it did happen."

 Television helped. The Nashville Network began airing "Bassmaster" in 1985, and although it wasn't aired live, package coverage of the Classic provided sponsors with precious exposure, which has continued to balloon since ESPN2 picked up the show 15 years later.

 With ESPN's purchase of BASS in 2001, purses, production and dedicated television time have continued to expand. The event that began as a trip into the literal unknown is now an apex in its sport.

 As Brauer says: "You're there for a lot of other reasons other than winning the event. You're trying to justify your existence to your sponsors, to your fans."

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