Buying Into B.A.S.S.

It was a little over a month after the 2010 Bassmaster Classic that Jerry McKinnis received official word from George Bodenheimer, the president of ESPN, through Traug Keller, Senior Vice President of production and business divisions at ESPN.

Rumors of ESPN selling B.A.S.S. had been swirling for several months, but Bodenheimer told McKinnis not to worry. If ESPN was selling B.A.S.S., he would hear it from them. "They contacted me and said, 'It's true, we're going to sell it,' and I was disappointed," McKinnis said. "But then he said, 'The thing about it is, we want you to buy it.'

And closely behind that came, 'We have another gentleman we've been close to who we think you should buy it with.'" An agreement in principle was announced in August, but on Monday, Nov. 1, McKinnis, Don Logan and Jim Copeland officially became the new owners and operators of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society. The organization founded by Ray Scott in 1968 will be on its fourth set of owners. In 1986, Scott sold B.A.S.S. to a group of investors headed by Helen Sevier, who sold it to ESPN in 2001.

The new owners

This wasn't the first time Logan had been interested in buying BASS. When the organization changed hands from a group of investors to ESPN in 2001, Logan told his friend Bodenheimer that ESPN had "stolen the magazine and the business I really wanted to do." "I've been interested in Bassmaster and the business for a long time, from all the way back when it was based out of Montgomery," said Logan, who grew up in Hartselle, Alabama. "I always told them if they were ever interested in selling to let me know. I am an avid bass fisherman and thought it would be fun and an interesting business to be involved in."

When ESPN bought B.A.S.S., Logan was wading through America Online's purchase of Time Warner. He had spent the previous decade as the CEO and chairman of Time, Inc., which was the largest publishing company in the United States. In 2002, Logan was promoted to chairman of AOL Time Warner's Media and Communications Group, overseeing America Online, Time Inc., and Time Warner Cable. He retired in 2005.

"I knew after I worked in New York for all those years, when I came back home to Alabama I wanted to stay busy and stay involved in businesses, and I wanted to match those businesses up with my passion and things I like to do," Logan said. "But I also wanted these things to be good businesses. It's not just a hobby or a play thing. It's a real business, but I wanted to intersect it with my passions so that it's hard to tell when you're working and when you're having fun."

Logan met Copeland through their wives while they were both working in New York. Logan said they were "both southerners who were on a sojourn to the big city" -- Logan with Time, Inc., and Copeland as the CEO of the financial services company Deloitte. They soon became fishing buddies. "We've been to Brazil and Mexico and a lot of lakes in the states," Logan said. "He has a fishing pond and so do I, so we spend a lot of time fishing together." Copeland, who grew up in Georgia, led Deloitte through a period of the greatest revenue growth in the organization's history, overseeing its move from the fifth to the second-largest professional services organization in the world. He retired in 2003 with same plan as Logan: move south, build a pond and fish for bass, among other things.

"This was an opportunity to do an investment with something I was interested in from a recreational standpoint," said Copeland, who still serves on the board of numerous companies. "I'm a bass fisherman. This was right in my wheelhouse as far as interest is concerned."

Logan was introduced to McKinnis through Bodenheimer, who fulfilled promises to keep both informed on the sale process. Unlike Logan and Copeland, who have lived lives of business with the hobby of bass fishing, McKinnis has lived a life of bass fishing with the hobby of business. "I could go get right in the middle of a group of anglers right now, at any level, and get lost," McKinnis said. "But I can then walk out of that group, come back to this situation and take care of business."

McKinnis was a minor league baseball player turned bass fishing television host, who connected with ESPN in 1979 when the company was in its earliest stages. McKinnis' show, "The Fishin' Hole", aired on ESPN from 1981 to 2007. McKinnis' company, JM Associates (now CSE), has produced all kinds of outdoor programming for ESPN, including the B.A.S.S. television shows, for three decades. Despite his close ties with all the players involved, McKinnis said he had no aspirations of buying B.A.S.S. until the idea was presented to him by ESPN. His first thought, he said, was "I can't afford that," but after a few meetings with Logan, McKinnis was ready to commit his money and his legacy to the project.

"George Bodenheimer has done an awful lot of things for me over the years, but the best thing he's ever done for me is introduce me to Don Logan," McKinnis said. "I guess this is my legacy. I always thought 'The Fishin' Hole' was it, but now I look at the show and realize it taught me a lot about television, got me closely associated with ESPN and made a lot of fishermen out there -- who I need now -- it made them my friend. This is by far the biggest thing I've ever done."

With Logan's experience in publishing, Copeland's experience in finance and McKinnis' experience with the bass fishing community, they believe they bring complimenting strengths to the group ownership. "Jerry knows a lot of the areas of B.A.S.S. that I don't have a lot of experience with on the television side and the tournament side," Logan said. "I understand those parts of the business, but he has the hands-on experience that makes us -- along with Jim Copeland, who has a lot of background in the financial community and seen a lot of businesses work and is also a passionate fisherman -- a good team."

While they have their areas of expertise, each stressed that they won't be staying in or out of a particular area of the organization. "You can't separate this organization up," McKinnis said. "Everything B.A.S.S. does is tied up with everything else. There isn't one thing that we can let fail that won't affect another part of the organization." The future of B.A.S.S. McKinnis kicked back in his chair in his Little Rock office and smiled at the question: What's the first thing you're going to do as owner? "I get asked that almost every day," he said. "And it changes almost every day. I wrote a list not long ago, just for myself. I listed six or seven things and get a title sponsor came up on the list three times. It was first, fourth and seventh."

Success with this endeavor, from the mouth of all three owners, was two-fold, but one was not exclusive of the other. B.A.S.S. needs to do a better job serving its membership/anglers, and it needs to do a better job obtaining and serving its sponsors.

"I've been through this several times with businesses that are having some trouble and you always take the same approach," Logan said. "The solutions aren't always the same because the problems aren't the same, but B.A.S.S. has a tremendous brand. They are the strongest brand in the fishing industry and lots and lots of people out there care about bass fishing. "Some of them -- not all of them and not enough of them -- care about the businesses that include B.A.S.S. That includes the membership, tournaments, the magazine and all the other elements of the organization."

Copeland said getting major sponsors, especially non-endemic sponsors, can only be accomplished by taking better care of the assets B.A.S.S. already has in place. McKinnis, despite the title sponsor to-do list, said he's spent a lot of time thinking about how to make B.A.S.S. a better work environment for the anglers.

"My goal is to have a group of professional anglers on the Elite Series that don't pay entry fees," he said. "And I think that will change everything because it will make those guys so secure and strong, and in a place where nobody's ever been yet. "If you do that, then all the steps below them -- like the Opens -- will get stronger because that's the only way you can get to the highest level. It's going to be difficult for that to happen, but it is possible. In my way of thinking, that would be the perfect world. If that were in place, the rest of it would blow up."

McKinnis talked about better serving the members and bringing a sense of pride back into the organization. He said he feels the expectations being put on him by the bass fishing community, and he is embracing them. Logan said their plan for B.A.S.S. can only be accomplished by getting back to business fundamentals and delivering on the promises B.A.S.S. has made. "If everybody is getting the value we hope they can get out of it," he said, "then we'll have a good business."

There was a lot of optimism among the new owners about where they feel the organization can go and what it can mean to the bass fishing community, but they said there was one thing they'll need from everyone involved to succeed: patience. "It's going to take some time," Logan said. "Patience is not always a virtue shared by all of us, but we will be patient and we'll go through everything carefully, making sure that we're making the right decisions. But we're definitely anxious to get started."