(Editor's note: This is part 1 of a multi-part Q&A with B.A.S.S. co-owner Jerry McKinnis).
By Todd Ceisner
You want fishing stories? Jerry McKinnis has fishing stories.
Recently, though, people have been coming to him more for answers. As one of the co-owners of B.A.S.S., he’s taken on a new role in the reshaping of the organization that breathed life into competitive bass fishing tournaments some 40 years ago.
It's been nearly 3 years since he and partners Don Logan and Jim Copeland purchased B.A.S.S. from ESPN. He says he misses the TV production side and the joys his show, "The Fishin' Hole" brought him for decades. But he has a new labor of love these days – growing B.A.S.S. and facing the everyday challenges that come with being the one charged with coming up with the answers. It's a complex undertaking, he says, but one he's committed to seeing through.
“This sport is a very complicated sport," he said. "You can put the other team sports out there – football and whatever else – and if you put bass fishing in there, bass fishing might be the most complicated out of the whole group. It’s so hard to explain it to lots of people and I think that’s one of the reasons why we can’t sell it as well as we need to, although we’re getting there.
"It just takes a lot of explanation and there’s still a majority of people that still think bass fishing is a bunch of guys in bib overalls fishing off the bank and if they catch some fish, they think they’re lucky. That’s the thing that gets me more than anything – the fact that they don’t realize how talented a really good bass fisherman is and how much more there is to it than figuring out what color your spinnerbait ought to be."
Earlier this week, BassFan interviewed McKinnis on a number of topics related to the fishing industry and the state of tournament fishing, more specifically B.A.S.S. The summary of the interview will be published as a two-part Q&A. Part 1 appears below (part 2 will be published tomorrow):
BassFan: What is your opinion of the current state of pro-level fishing tournaments compared to 20 years ago?
Jerry McKinnis: There’s hardly any comparison to it. Twenty years ago was about the time we started FLW. There are a lot of things that have changed and are changing and I think when you’re sitting right smack-dab in the middle of it, you may not notice the changes. If you get off to the side and get a good overview of it, there have been more changes than you know. With that, I have to say it needs changing bad, really bad. That’s just my opinion. There might be some other opinions and other people who don’t agree with that, but there’s a lot about it that needs changing. For some reason, the bass fishing world sure seems to move slowly and the people around it and the ideas and the development. It just seems to move slowly. Maybe that’s just me. It’s taken 100 years for other sports to get where they're at. Our sport still isn’t but 40 or 45 years old and maybe I’m just a little impatient.
When you say that, “It needs changing really bad,” is there anything specifically that comes to mind?
That’s a really hot subject and one that B.A.S.S. is trying to really look closely into. I don’t want to go too deep into it, but I still want a smaller group of professional anglers with a bona fide career. Right now, we have a little bit too many guys, I think, that have a real career. I’m not sure, but I think most of them are wondering what they’re going to do about their next tournament entry fee. I don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to be. I don’t think we can call ourselves a true sport until we get that worked on and figured out.
What are the three topics you hear about the most from anglers when it comes to tournament competition, good or bad?
One would be the entry fees and payouts. They’re always concerned about that obviously. They always want to know where we think we’re going to fish next year as I would imagine that would be on high on everyone’s list. Other things like, ‘Can we use the Alabama Rig next year?’ I can’t think of a major one that anyone really harps on.
In your view, how is B.A.S.S. different as an organization now than it was before you and Jim and Don purchased it?
First of all, I am a very strong supporter of ESPN. Everybody knows that. I have ESPN blood in me. I was there right from the beginning and they did an awful lot for bass fishing as far as exposing it and making some stars out of it, which is what we need more of. They’re still doing that, but as far as when we started growing the organization, I think it was a different animal than they thought it would be. They didn’t realize you needed to get down to the Federation Nation group level and be speaking to and taking care of those guys, and working on membership. ESPN really isn’t set up to do that kind of stuff. I think that’s the area where there’s been an awful big change right now. I know, myself, I’m totally hands-on and my other partners are as well. You can call us and talk to us about a problem or situation at the drop of a hat and we’ll be right in the middle of it fighting and trying to make it better. That’s probably a big difference from ESPN and when I say that I want to emphasize that I’m not bad-mouthing ESPN. I have a lot of friends there and I owe my career to ESPN.
Has running the organization been more difficult than you thought it would be? What areas present the biggest challenges?
Hell, yeah (laughing). It’s been pretty hard. We’re going into our third year, and that’s not very long, but it just feels like we’re struggling so hard. I'll talk with Don Logan and I’ll be down in the dumps because we’re just not getting anywhere and he’ll say, ‘Jerry, take a piece of paper and write down the things that we have done so far.’ Okay. We hired Noreen Clough back. We did this over here and put this in place over there. Finally, I’ll look at my list and I think, ‘Dang, we have been really busy.’ We are getting somewhere, but sometimes it just doesn’t feel that way.
Throughout this conversation, you will not hear me badmouth the economy. There are a lot of people that think it’s a bad economy, but there’s a good excuse for not getting where we need to get and for not advancing and for not being able to do this and that. It’s just the times. I just don’t do that. If I don’t get the job done or get this thing to the point I’d really like to get it, it’ll be absolutely my fault. That’s my attitude. We have a long road to go. We have some hills to climb, but by gosh we’re getting there.
Since we’ve been here, and we’re going into our third year, we haven’t lost a sponsor. There could be a guy who used to buy an ad in the magazine who’s not buying that ad anymore, but I’m talking about our major folks. We haven’t lost a single one and while we battle back and forth over one thing or another at times, we have some great partners who are maybe on board with us like they’ve never been before. That’s a big help. If we’d have come in here and within a year or year and a half we lost 15 or 20 percent of our sponsors, then it sure would’ve been trouble. It gives you the idea that everybody thinks we’re in here really battling this thing and doing some good stuff.
Places where we’ve made incredible advances is on the Internet. Good grief has that grown for us. The spectators at our events have almost doubled in some areas or at worst they’re 30-percent bigger crowds. Something good is happening. I really have a strong desire to make this good. We have an awful lot of good people and they’ve been struggling for years, too, and we’re all in this together. I hope that everybody can really begin to feel some growth.
Re-establishing a tournament presence out west is among McKinnis' top priorities for B.A.S.S.
Part of the reason ESPN sold B.A.S.S. was because it struggled to connect with the grass-roots level anglers. Has growth at the Federation level been a challenge?
I really wish we could make better in-roads with that level of angler. I think it’s one of the stupidest things on earth to have two separate and divided Federation groups. I kind of understand why it happened, which was silly, too, but it’s such a shame. It’s obvious that the two together could do the work of four where now all we’re doing is trying to go along and butting heads at times. That’s a shame. I wish we could straighten that out some day.
What role do you see high school and college fishing playing in the future growth of B.A.S.S.?
We’ve got some growth down there. We’ve been working awful hard at college and man, has that grown. The same with high school. I don’t know if it’s us or whether it’s just the times, but these youngsters want to bass fish and we’re going to help them. That one’s been easy to grow because there’s so much enthusiasm in the youth. Do you realize that 20 years ago, would we have had 300 colleges get out there and compete against each other and thousands of high school clubs? That just wasn’t there. We should really be proud of that.
It’ll be no time before those college kids are fishing in a B.A.S.S. club or the Opens. Heck, they already are. They’re obviously going to become members of B.A.S.S. and be a big part of helping us grow this thing. As much as it’s grown with the high school and college kids, I still think we’ve only just scratched the surface there. If you ever have the chance to be around these college kids at an event, they are so excited and so pumped up and so into doing well. They’re good. They’re not beginner fishermen – they’re darn good. They know their stuff.
As someone who has made a career out of producing outdoors-focused television, is there another frontier out there in the way tournaments and/or the anglers are covered and presented for the viewers?
Absolutely, yes. I think the way that it’s being covered right now, myself and my group pretty much started the way it’s being covered right now. That was a tremendous jump at the time. It wasn’t really that good until that time. That was 20 years ago and in many instances, we’re still doing it the same way. We’re going to make some changes there and we’re going to start covering it a little bit differently. The Internet is changing the way people follow the sport. Our television ratings are down, but ESPN’s ratings are down. Ours actually aren’t as down as other sports, but across the board, not just EPSN, all of the networks, they’re all down. I don’t think that person quit watching it on TV. I think they moved over and started watching it on the Internet. We bring a live feed to it and our intention is to be much more aggressive with that and jump on that wagon.
What scenario needs to exist for B.A.S.S. to revive the Western Opens division?
That’s the third question that people ask me! We are working on it right now. We’re really working on trying to get some Opens out there. We’ve loved going out west for our Elite events. There have always been big crowds and great fishing. It’s just tough right now to send the guys out there. Gas prices are coming down a little bit. We always look at that, especially the folks out there that we’re always in contact with. We’re trying. Be patient with us. We know we need to be out there. That’s not the first thing on our priority list, but it’s in there. When we put the list up, you can see that one pretty clearly. During 2013, you’re going to start hearing some plans. It may be small, but it’ll be a way for us to get something started out there in some way.
Do you still view Major League Fishing as a competitor now that it's been around for a year?
Sure, it’s a competitor to B.A.S.S. If I’m in the lobby of a client that I’m trying to sell B.A.S.S. to and I bump into one of their sales people, then darn right they’re a competitor of ours. It’s kind of painful to me. You have to realize how hard I’m working to try to make something good for these guys and then to be competing against them … I don’t want to say anything out of line because I love these guys. The biggest reason I’m in it is because of them. That’s a tough one to figure out.
> Coming up in Part 2: Questions about the Elite Series and Bassmaster Classic.