Last year B.A.S.S. debuted the slogan Big Bass. Big Stage. Big Dreams.
Like many of you, I thought that it applied only to the anglers who were putting it all on the line out on tour. They dreamed of sponsorship deals and top finishes and Classic berths and trophies. They dreamed of their names becoming known nationwide, of signature baits and television appearances.
Texas pro Lee Livesay was one of those who seemed to be living the dream. The 34 year-old Lake Fork guide started his 2019 rookie season strong at the St. Johns, then pushed through to finish 15th in the Angler of the Year race. He’ll fish the first of what likely will be many Bassmaster Classics next week. Like Scott Canterbury, the Johnston brothers, Drew Cook and a host of others among the reconstituted Elite Series field, the dream seemed to be going according to plan. In this seemingly most individual of sports — where the scale measures your personal worth each day — they were getting it done.
Except it wasn’t just them.
Each one of them has a support team. It could be family members, sponsors, mentors or road partners, but I guarantee you that no matter how much he’d like to be, no man is an island in this game. We recently saw that even the great Rick Clunn leans on youngsters like newly-minted dreamer Cody Huff to improve his game.
It’s not that they’re puppets with strings being pulled from behind the curtain, but rather that everyone needs the occasional recalibration of effort, the perfectly-timed “attaboy” or scolding to get back on track.
Lee Livesay has found that support system in the most unlikely of places. One member of the team is Jim Wells, who lives in the town of Fruitland, Idaho, population about 5,000. But for the emergence of some kid named Palaniuk less than a decade ago, many hard-core bass anglers wouldn’t even know that Idaho has bass, let alone that someone could make a living in a bass-adjacent business up there, but that’s what Wells is doing.
Wells' startup Ballistic Boats has produced just over two dozen vessels, and from all of the possible anglers across multiple tours, he picked Livesay to be his ambassador to the world at large. It’s a calculated risk. Despite the common refrain that the role of a startup is to “move fast and break things,” the reality is that for every Snapchat, Uber or YouTube, there are dozens if not hundreds of startups that go belly up either before they earn the first dollar or after they blow through tons of investor cash. The line between long term success and abject failure is a thin one – just as it is in professional bass fishing – and the decision to make a particular spokesman the face of your company is not one to be taken lightly.
Right now, it seems, Wells has pushed his chips to the center of the table on Livesay. He’s betting on the man, but also on the tour he fishes. The Classic arena is where Ballistic needs to be to be seen by the masses.
“I’ve dreamed of making the Classic myself,” Wells said. “It’s almost bigger to have someone in it in our boat. If Lee won, it would pretty much be a dream come true for my whole family.” That’s not just a figure of speech — Wells includes his son, daughter, uncle and nephew among those integral to Ballistic’s growth.
As for Livesay, he welcomes the responsibility. The fact that he doesn’t have a cookie cutter boat makes him a magnet for attention at every gas station and boat ramp he visits.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “People come up to me and ask, ‘What is that?’ I saw on the internet the other day people were arguing about how fast it’ll go. I love having something that the other guys don’t.”
Indeed, his sponsorship portfolio is full of non-traditional partnerships, including the Union Sportsman Alliance and Heart of the Heart Whitetails, a thousand acre trophy whitetail ranch. “It was started by a guy that I knew growing up back in the day,” Livesay said of the ranch. That friend followed his own business dream, made his fortune, and then sought to fulfill the next big dream on the list. When he saw what Livesay was doing, he said, “I want to be a part of that.”
Indeed, one dream begets another.
Other dreamers in Livesay’s orbit include the band Whiskey Myers from Palestine, Texas. As with his friend at the ranch, Livesay knew them “back when” and has followed their ride along the way.
“They knew me when I started guiding out of a Skeeter SS140 with an old Mercury Tower of Power outboard and they were just guys living out of an Astro van,” Livesay recalled. “They were making $800 a weekend, and they said, ‘If we ever make it big, we’ll sponsor you.'” A little over a decade later, they’re selling out shows, making 40,000 bucks a night and ascending Billboard’s country charts. They were also featured onscreen on the popular TV series Yellowstone, which may not be The Bassmasters, but to most of the world it’s still kind of a big deal.
Like Wells and Heart of the Heart and the Union Sportsman Alliance, the crew from Whiskey Myers wanted to be aligned with Livesay because they saw in him not only a fellow dreamer who’d been grinding all the way up the ladder, but someone with the talent and drive to make those dreams happen, if not now, then somewhere down the road. “First and foremost, it’s just relationships,” Livesay said. “I’m definitely the same guy I was back then, and I’m fortunate that I have all of these people who want to be a part of it.”
Read into that what you will, but I see that they want to be a part of Livesay’s success, they want to be at B.A.S.S. and they see the benefit of an association with this sport and their greater goals.
So when Mercer announces those final weights, steps aside and the confetti falls, there will be one man holding the trophy, but he won’t bear its weight alone. It might be Livesay this time, or his turn may come later, or not at all, but on each contender’s shoulders there’s a legion of dreamers, all of whom have earned their spot on the big stage.