(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., heís 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 Ė 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.
ďThis sport is a very complicated sport," he said. "You can put the other team sports out there Ė football and whatever else Ė and if you put bass fishing in there, bass fishing might be the most complicated out of the whole group. Itís so hard to explain it to lots of people and I think thatís one of the reasons why we canít sell it as well as we need to, although weíre getting there.
"It just takes a lot of explanation and thereís 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 theyíre lucky. Thatís the thing that gets me more than anything Ė the fact that they donít 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: Thereís 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 youíre 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. Thatís just my opinion. There might be some other opinions and other people who donít agree with that, but thereís 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 thatís just me. Itís taken 100 years for other sports to get where they're at. Our sport still isnít but 40 or 45 years old and maybe Iím just a little impatient.
When you say that, ďIt needs changing really bad,Ē is there anything specifically that comes to mind?
Thatís a really hot subject and one that B.A.S.S. is trying to really look closely into. I donít 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. Iím not sure, but I think most of them are wondering what theyíre going to do about their next tournament entry fee. I donít think thatís how itís supposed to be. I donít 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. Theyíre always concerned about that obviously. They always want to know where we think weíre going to fish next year as I would imagine that would be on high on everyoneís list. Other things like, ĎCan we use the Alabama Rig next year?í I canít 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. Theyíre 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 didnít 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 isnít set up to do that kind of stuff. I think thatís the area where thereís been an awful big change right now. I know, myself, Iím 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 weíll be right in the middle of it fighting and trying to make it better. Thatís probably a big difference from ESPN and when I say that I want to emphasize that Iím 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). Itís been pretty hard. Weíre going into our third year, and thatís not very long, but it just feels like weíre struggling so hard. I'll talk with Don Logan and Iíll be down in the dumps because weíre just not getting anywhere and heíll say, ĎJerry, take a piece of paper and write down the things that we have done so far.í Okay. We hired Noreen Clough back. We did this over here and put this in place over there. Finally, Iíll look at my list and I think, ĎDang, we have been really busy.í We are getting somewhere, but sometimes it just doesnít feel that way.
Throughout this conversation, you will not hear me badmouth the economy. There are a lot of people that think itís a bad economy, but thereís 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. Itís just the times. I just donít do that. If I donít get the job done or get this thing to the point Iíd really like to get it, itíll be absolutely my fault. Thatís my attitude. We have a long road to go. We have some hills to climb, but by gosh weíre getting there.
Since weíve been here, and weíre going into our third year, we havenít lost a sponsor. There could be a guy who used to buy an ad in the magazine whoís not buying that ad anymore, but Iím talking about our major folks. We havenít 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 theyíve never been before. Thatís a big help. If weíd 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 wouldíve been trouble. It gives you the idea that everybody thinks weíre in here really battling this thing and doing some good stuff.
Places where weíve 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 theyíre 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 theyíve been struggling for years, too, and weíre 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 itís 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 itís such a shame. Itís obvious that the two together could do the work of four where now all weíre doing is trying to go along and butting heads at times. Thatís 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.?
Weíve got some growth down there. Weíve been working awful hard at college and man, has that grown. The same with high school. I donít know if itís us or whether itís just the times, but these youngsters want to bass fish and weíre going to help them. That oneís been easy to grow because thereís 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 wasnít there. We should really be proud of that.
Itíll be no time before those college kids are fishing in a B.A.S.S. club or the Opens. Heck, they already are. Theyíre obviously going to become members of B.A.S.S. and be a big part of helping us grow this thing. As much as itís grown with the high school and college kids, I still think weíve 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. Theyíre good. Theyíre not beginner fishermen Ė theyíre 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 itís being covered right now, myself and my group pretty much started the way itís being covered right now. That was a tremendous jump at the time. It wasnít really that good until that time. That was 20 years ago and in many instances, weíre still doing it the same way. Weíre going to make some changes there and weíre 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 ESPNís ratings are down. Ours actually arenít as down as other sports, but across the board, not just EPSN, all of the networks, theyíre all down. I donít 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?
Thatís the third question that people ask me! We are working on it right now. Weíre really working on trying to get some Opens out there. Weíve loved going out west for our Elite events. There have always been big crowds and great fishing. Itís 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 weíre always in contact with. Weíre trying. Be patient with us. We know we need to be out there. Thatís not the first thing on our priority list, but itís in there. When we put the list up, you can see that one pretty clearly. During 2013, youíre going to start hearing some plans. It may be small, but itíll 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, itís a competitor to B.A.S.S. If Iím in the lobby of a client that Iím trying to sell B.A.S.S. to and I bump into one of their sales people, then darn right theyíre a competitor of ours. Itís kind of painful to me. You have to realize how hard Iím working to try to make something good for these guys and then to be competing against them Ö I donít want to say anything out of line because I love these guys. The biggest reason Iím in it is because of them. Thatís a tough one to figure out.
> Coming up in Part 2: Questions about the Elite Series and Bassmaster Classic.