Welcome 2021. Good riddance 2020, sort of.
It was terrible year, yet it was terrific for B.A.S.S.
The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has sadly taken almost 2 million lives and disrupted almost everyone on Earth, yet the year saw B.A.S.S. hold a full and succesful season then sign a historic network television contract.
A chat with sage Bassmaster TV host Tommy Sanders centered on Charles Dickens’ famed opening from A Tale of Two Cities — “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” — and he offered the following take.
“It was the season of darkness for sports. The NCAA Tournament was canceled the weekend after the Bassmaster Classic and, one by one, most of the major sports in the country suspended operations. It was the season of light for fishing. Quickly Americans took to the water, discovering the most effective and pleasurable version of social distancing around.
“It was the worst of times for sports on TV. Suddenly, no games as pro and college baseball, basketball and football scratched their heads and tried to formulate a workaround for the new health concerns. It was the best of times for fishing on TV. ESPN stepped up to fill the sports void with live Bassmaster Elite Series programming.”
Bassmaster, which scrambled to reschedule and miraculously held all its events, had almost 100 hours of LIVE air on ESPN2 with an audience/reach of more than 20 million. That helped B.A.S.S. land a historic TV deal with FOX Sports.
“We changed our sport forever,” Mike McKinnis, executive producer of Bassmaster TV and VP of digital media at B.A.S.S., said of the landmark deal. “We were getting the attention of everybody, new fans, sponsors and networks were paying attention.”
The B.A.S.S. contract with FOX runs four years and should elevate the sport.
“It’s simple. It’s straightforward. It’s consistent,” McKinnis said. “Bass fishing is taking another really giant, giant step here, with LIVE becoming the norm for linear television.”
Bassmaster LIVE will air Saturday and Sunday mornings on FOX Sports 1 from 8-11 a.m. ET for all nine Elite tournaments, and the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk will air on the main FOX channel on Day 2 and FS1 for Championship Sunday.
Bassmaster LIVE, which first aired at the 2015 Classic, puts cameramen on competitors’ boats, allowing viewers to see all the catches and misses and get inside the pros’ techniques and thought processes. In 2021, there will be 234 hours of LIVE and 60 exclusively on FOX networks, which draw 100 million viewers each weekend.
When not on the network, LIVE will be available on FOX online platforms and Bassmaster.com. Also, the LIVE Mix on Bassmaster.com is being retooled to include hosts, guests and more fan interaction. It will air simultaneously with the network shows.
Anglers, thrilled to appear on ESPN2, are just as excited for the opportunity to strut their stuff on FOX. Many made names for themselves during the revamped schedule after the shutdown.
The 2020 Elite season began ominously with high winds knocking out the first two days of the St. Johns River event and shrinking it to a three-day derby. Connecticut’s Paul Mueller, who was just hoping for a decent finish as Florida fishing is contrary to his style, won his second Elite title.
Chickamauga Lake was the next scheduled tournament but high waters postponed it. In early March, as the coronavirus threat came into the public’s conscience, the 50th Classic was held on Lake Guntersville. Behind 29 pounds, 3 ounces on Day 1, Hank Cherry won the world championship, easing his pain from seven years earlier when the potential winning fish came off at Grand Lake.
Then the world shut down. B.A.S.S. officials scrambled to reset events, working with local officials to set new dates and safely hold events. “It changes about every day, or every hour, but we’re working on it,” B.A.S.S. CEO Bruce Akin said at the time. “What we had last week might not be next week.”
Lake Eufaula, which had a tornado hit when originally scheduled, was the first event back, and Buddy Gross produced a firestorm when he rallied from 10th place with a monster final day. As few others sports were competing, ESPN2 aired 19.5 hours of Bassmaster LIVE that drew 2.8 million viewers and more minutes viewed than all of the previous season online.
With strict social distancing protocols and no attendance, the Northern Swing began on New York’s St. Lawrence River in July. While Chris Johnston came up 2 pounds, 8 ounces from becoming the first to earn a Century Belt with smallmouth, the Canadian made history as the first from across the border to win a blue trophy.
The following week on Lake Champlain, Brandon Palaniuk, back from a year with MLF, won his fourth Elite title to prove he’s still “The Prodigy.” With 43 hours of LIVE aired and more fans tuning in, the winners and B.A.S.S. left The Empire State thinking “I love New York.”
In late August on Lake St. Clair, Bill Weidler surprised himself when the Alabama angler became another first-time winner, sweating out a tight leaderboard.
After another month off, the flip-flopped season resumed for a Southern Swing at fisheries that had 100-pound potential on their original spring dates. The fall transition proved stingier, but Texan Frank Talley relied on his gut, and a little help from his friends, to win on Lake Guntersville with 64-3 in a tournament that surprisingly did not see a 20-pound bag.
Months before the October tournament on Santee Cooper Lakes, Palaniuk said new fisheries at new times offer great opportunities to win. Palaniuk did just that with a big Day 4 in his first time fishing the famed lakes. His second title of the season gave him five total, moving him into a second-place tie for victories among active anglers.
In completing back-to-back-to-back events, Texas’ Lee Livesay won his first Elite on Chickamauga, staying close to Dayton, Tenn., and throwing a frog. “I got lucky,” he said to Talley’s query. “Somebody always get on that deal, and it was finally my turn.” Only Livesay and Jake Whitaker (third) had limits each day on Chick, as the transition time was trying for most. Out of 220 chances, there were only 59 limits caught on Chickamauga after 135 on Guntersville and 143 on Santee Cooper.
Things were similarly tough for most on Texas’ Lake Fork in the season finale. Not for Patrick Walters. The South Carolina angler lapped the field with 104-12, winning by the largest margin ever while scoring the 31st B.A.S.S. Century Belt ever awarded. Five months earlier, Walters offered some weirdly accurate foreshadowing. The win, along with a Basspro.com Opens titles a month earlier, triple qualified him for the Classic, adding two Elites to the Classic field.
Minnesota’s Austin Felix went into the final event with a chance to sweep the season-long point races. He couldn’t figure out Fork, but his strong fall run landed him Rookie of the Year honors. Second-year Elite Clark Wendlandt pulled off a fantastic finish to take the Angler of the Year title, which added to his three AOY crowns in FLW competition.
The Opens were possibly the most hotly contested ever, with throngs of anglers vying for the 12 invitations to the Elites. Former Elites Jason Christie and Greg Hackney joined the incoming group that includes stalwarts like Justin Atkins and Scott Martin, who has the goal of putting the family name on a Classic trophy.
While many rushed to usher out 2020 and its continual gut punches, B.A.S.S. might fondly look back at the year as the beginning of bass fishing’s climb into broader national prominence.