It’s been called the “Test of the Best” bass anglers, the “Super Bowl of Bass Fishing” and the “World Championship of Fishing.” By any name, the Bassmaster Classic became the salvation of Ray Scott’s Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.) when the tournament was launched 47 years ago.
Now known as the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods, the annual bass tournament began modestly with just 24 competitors in October 1971. Arkansas angler Bobby Murray won the inaugural Classic, held on Lake Mead, Nevada.
Scott recalls that the lakeside weigh-ins attracted only a handful of spectators. More important than crowds, however, were the two-dozen outdoor writers who attended at Scott’s invitation. Their articles in major publications across the United States lent legitimacy to the fledgling, mainly southern, sport of tournament bass fishing.
Founded 50 years ago, B.A.S.S. struggled for attention in the beginning. The B.A.S.S. Tournament Trail — the first national fishing circuit — was popular among bass anglers but lacked broader exposure until Scott and then-Bassmaster Magazine editor Bob Cobb concocted the season-ending championship.
“It was the turning point,” said former tournament director Harold Sharp, now deceased. “It’s become the thing everybody points to. It’s as high as an angler can go.” B.A.S.S. membership grew rapidly after that first Classic, and the event itself quickly became the most important event in sportfishing. Many industry insiders consider the birth of B.A.S.S. and its tournament circuits to mark the beginning of the modern era of bass fishing and the spark that ignited an economic boom in sportfishing.
When the 48th Classic takes place March 16-18 on Lake Hartwell at Anderson, S.C., it will be unrecognizable compared to its meager beginnings. From 24 outdoor writers who were paired with the pros in 1971, the Classic press corps has grown to more than 200 credentialed media representatives from throughout the United States, as well as Canada, Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom.
The prize for claiming the first Classic crown was $10,000, winner take all. The event today pays out $1 million to the 52 qualifiers, including $300,000 to the champion.
Weigh-ins for the first 10 Bassmaster Classics were held at lakeside, but as crowds grew, Scott decided to move weigh-ins indoors, beginning in his hometown of Montgomery, Ala., in 1981. A boat and tackle show was added that year.
“The Classic Outdoors Expo presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods has become a highlight of Classic Week for thousands of fans,” said B.A.S.S. CEO Bruce Akin, who noted that the combined attendance at Classic venues has averaged more than 100,000 for the past six years.
“It has become the biggest and most important consumer tackle show in the nation,” Akin added, “and numerous manufacturers have chosen the Outdoors Expo to debut new lures, rods, reels, boats and motors for the coming season.”
The Expo will be held March 16-18 and cover 250,000 square feet of floor space in the TD Convention Center in Greenville, S.C. Weigh-ins will be in the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in downtown Greenville those days. Attendance at weigh-ins in 2015, the last time the Classic was held in Greenville and Anderson, exceeded 10,000 on weekend afternoons.
Early morning takeoffs, when the pro anglers head out for a day of fishing, have become popular activities for fans, as well. More than 2,000 braved the 10-degree temperature to witness the opening takeoff at Green Pond Landing at Anderson on Hartwell in February 2015.
One of the biggest developments in the evolution of the Classic has been its impact on local economies. Las Vegas barely noticed that 60 or so people were in town for a three-day tournament in 1971. In Greenville next month, more than 4,000 room nights have already been booked just for anglers, expo exhibitors, B.A.S.S. staff and others associated with the event.
Fans traveling from throughout the nation will bring that total to 11,000 room nights, according to Michael Mulone, director of Event and Tourism Partnerships for B.A.S.S. Altogether, Mulone said, economic impact for the Greenville/Anderson area is expected to exceed $24 million.