As most of you know by now, last week’s Forrest Wood Cup concluded with one of the greatest finishes in the history of pro bass tournament fishing. Hometown hero Anthony Gagliardi narrowly won the event after barely qualifying to fish the tournament in the first place due to a bizarre disqualification at the season opener on Okeechobee.
Darkhorse Steve Kennedy, always capable of inhuman acts with a rod and reel at any time, nearly stole the show thanks to an unheard-of 20-pound bag on the final day. And Scott Canterbury finished the Cup in 2nd for the second time in his career, but this time by a mere ounce. Four hundred and forty grand was separated by an amount of weight only distinguishable by a balance beam. I sure hope everybody culled right ...
This year marked my first trip to the Cup, a fact that seemed to surprise quite a few industry folks. Several times during the tournament and after, friends and cohorts have mentioned that they are anxiously awaiting my impressions of the event. After extended contemplation about what difference that could possibly make, I came up with a few thoughts.
For starters, one thing’s for sure: The Cup is no Bassmaster Classic.
But it’s not trying to be.
The same way that a Ford’s not a Chevy, a Coke’s not a Pepsi and a PC ain’t a Mac, the public consumer needs a choice. And unlike the major sports leagues in the United States, with pro fishing, a choice is still available – for both the competitors and the fans. For that reason, we are all very lucky.
As we’ve discussed here in previous editions, I firmly believe a major difference exists between FLW and B.A.S.S. in their overall business models. Perhaps it’s from me turning 40, or playing the pro fishing game from so many different sides, but I think I’ve finally matured enough to realize that there are several ways to go about this bizarre professional sport and none of them are exclusively correct.
First, to back up a bit, let me attempt to give you an overall feel of this year’s Forrest Wood Cup.
The event was held in Columbia, S.C., the quintessential Southern town that defines the term “hospitality." The people there are so nice, you think they feel sorry for you. Entrance fee to the gorgeous state park on Lake Murray is a whopping $2. Lazy kayakers play along the Broad River right downtown. Food junkies can start the day at the Krispy Kreme doughnut factory, have lunch in restaurants offering the “World’s Best Barbecue” and then make their way to a strip of endless top-shelf, swanky joints for a nightcap.
The Cup was set up in a way that couldn’t have been better. The Expo was an indoor/outdoor affair, allowing a roomy feel for all attendees. The weigh-in was an easy walk away, down blocked-off streets featuring 35 of the best barbecue vendors in the land, all part of this year’s "Bass and BBQ campaign," a sanctioned event of the South Carolina Barbecue Association.
Sunday’s weigh-in also featured a free concert by country music star Rodney Atkins. The crowd was even larger than expected, as additional seating had to be opened up in the arena. Many came thinking the concert would be the highlight of the event. Instead, they got to witness one of the best weigh-ins in history.
The Cup itself is the crown jewel of the FLW Tour. But just like any other FLW event, everyone’s included.
When the FLW Tour says “free coffee and doughnuts for the fans” at blast off, there’s coffee and doughnuts for all of the fans, whether it’s a few dozen on a Thursday or several hundred on a weekend. At Columbia, the fan numbers partially submerged the floating docks.
It’s fishing, it’s family and it’s fun.
If it’s pro interaction those fans wanted, that’s what they got. Fans talked to the anglers right at their boats. They gawked over secret tackle and got a glimpse of the humility these men possess, despite fishing for life-changing sums of money. They witnessed the huge smile of Brent Ehrler, the friendliness of Mark Rose and the no-prisoners stare of David Dudley.
Some took the opportunity to meet and chat with television celebrities. Through it all, weigh-in emcee Chris Jones was elbow to elbow with the fan base, his contagious ear-to-ear grin shining through from his own passion for the sport.
Also, FLW’s incredible attention to the needs of media and sponsors cannot be overstated. I overheard that the entire Mercury booth was moved indoors upon request during set-up, just prior to the show. Remember, this is a booth containing a tractor-trailer. And media is given access everywhere.
It’s just different.
I contemplated this difference with all walks of life while in Columbia, from the first-time fan to the two-tour pro to the top executives of the biggest sponsors in professional fishing. Each had a viewpoint, a discussed set of needs from pro bass tournaments, as well as a prediction for the future. No two were alike.
It’s commonly believed that B.A.S.S. has done more than FLW to elevate its top athletes to superstar status in the eyes of the fans, and I agree. ESPN’s influence can be credited with a great deal of that.
But sometimes we all forget that it’s not just superstar athletes who make this sport tick. As much as I and other bass geeks like me think that the most important thing in fishing is which dropshot hook Aaron Martens may be using, the cash-paying customers aren't too worried about it.
They’re more concerned about enjoying a nice day on the lake, catching more than their buddies in the bass club, keeping the metal-flake shiny despite its age or trying to ensure their kids like fishing more than video games. And believe me, the sponsors who sell them gear, yet also support tournament bass fishing, know the numbers.
The Cup is growing and so is the Classic. Thanks to the foresight of other players, like the country-festival feel originated by the Toyota Texas Bass Classic, all of the organizations are starting to realize what the fan base wants in a bass tournament. Maybe it’s laser shows and fireworks. Maybe it’s pro seminars and cutting-edge tackle vendors. Maybe it’s a Bill Dance autograph. Or maybe it’s a free concert and a slab of ribs in a kid-friendly environment.
No one knows the secret recipe because there isn’t one. But one thing’s for sure: choice is good.
Otherwise we’d all have to drive Fords.
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)