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VOL. 42 | NO. 26 | Friday, June 29, 2018

Knoxville lands a really big one

‘Super Bowl of bass fishing’ will have huge economic impact on area in spring

By Tom Wood

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The Super Bowl is coming to Knoxville! Actually, it’s “the Super Bowl of Bass Fishing” – an important distinction, to be sure. But the widely accepted comparison aptly describes the impact that next spring’s bass fishing national championship is expected to have on the area.

The 49th GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods will be held March 15-17 on the Tennessee River, including Fort Loudoun and Tellico lakes and the Holston and French Broad Rivers. Competitors will take off daily from Volunteer Landing downtown, and weigh-in ceremonies will be held inside UT’s mammoth Thompson-Boling Arena.

Additionally, the fan-friendly Bassmaster Classic Outdoor Expo will be held each day in the Knoxville Convention Center and the newly renovated World’s Fair Exhibition Hall.

“It’s a huge get for the Knoxville area, the region and the state,” says Chad Culver, senior director of the Visit Knoxville Sports Commission, which recently hosted USA Cycling Professional Road, Individual Time Trial and Criterium National Championships.

“Bass fishing is really popular in Knoxville and East Tennessee, and Knoxville has always been a great sports town.”

And that great sports reputation was just one of the lures that drew B.A.S.S. to Knoxville. It will mark the third time the national championship has been held on Tennessee waters, but the first time since 1986.

“Knoxville meets and exceeds all the requirements we have for the Bassmaster Classic – great fishing on the Tennessee River, first-class facilities to accommodate crowds of fishing fans, a vibrant city with plenty to see and do and a corps of state and local tourism professionals who will ensure its success,” explains Bruce Akin, chief executive officer of B.A.S.S.

“Bass fishing is hugely popular in this part of the country. In fact, 10 of our 109 Bassmaster Elite Series pros are from the Volunteer State, and most live in East Tennessee. This is going to be a very exciting Classic.”

‘One of a kind’

Veteran angler Ott DeFoe of Blaine has competed in seven Classics and hopes to qualify for the Knoxville event, joining two-time defending champion Jordan Lee in the 50-man field. The winner will take home $300,000 out of the $1 million purse.

Ott

For DeFoe and fellow Knoxville hopefuls like Brandon Coulter and Brandon Card, as well as Wesley Strader of Spring City, it would be like wetting a line in their favorite home fishing hole.

“Having it close to home is exciting,” DeFoe says, “but I’ve got to get there first. The last few years have been good, and I hope to have another good one that would let me sleep in my own bed.”

If you’ve never been to a fishing tournament, DeFoe explains it’s a treat – one that’s akin to being at the Super Bowl or the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500 or the Daytona 500, the Masters or any other iconic sporting event.

“It’s a unique event, one of a kind. That’s the best way to put it. It’s pretty spectacular,” DeFoe adds. “There’ll be a lot of boats out on the water. As an angler, you have to take that into account if you’ve got a lot of people following you.”

Michael Mulone, the director of event and tourism partnerships for B.A.S.S., calls the Classic comparison to the NFL’s Super Bowl a fair one.

“The actual fishing tournament, which by winning, will change the life of an angler, is the pinnacle title in all of the outdoors. As an individual sport, it’s our Masters, our Wimbledon,” he says.

The Classic is billed as a catch-and-release event, with a 99.7 percent survival rate among the bass weighed in at the 2018 tourney.

“Anglers can expect to catch good numbers of bass in Fort Loudoun and have the potential of catching some above-average smallmouth,” explains Bart Carter, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Region 4 fisheries manager. “Largemouth will be the go-to fish for both reservoirs.”

Kim Bumpas, president of Visit Knoxville, hails the Tennessee River as “the perfect setting for this competition, and anglers and spectators alike will enjoy the beauty that surrounds our city.”

Economic, intrinsic values

The Bassmaster Classic’s worth to Knoxville comes in many forms – an immediate economic boost of well above $20 million, national television exposure and a boost in tourism that could pay dividends for years to come.

In March of this year, the Classic was held on Lake Hartwell near Greenville, South Carolina, and drew a record 143,000 fans to that area for a three-day weekend. Houston did similar numbers in 2017.

“That’s what we’d love to see – to be bigger than the year before,” Culver says. “Not much compares to a University of Tennessee football weekend, but it’s going to be pretty dang close.

“Our goal is to get people to Knoxville, show them a good time, and three or four months later, they bring their family to Knoxville for the weekend. You can’t replace the media value of the region being talked about on ESPN or ESPN2, whichever channel that carries it.

“We want people to remember Knoxville as a vibrant destination.”

Mulone notes the Classic’s value to a city has short- and long-term benefits.

“Other cities have reported between $22 million and $29 million in economic impact, with a realistic average of $24 million for tournament week,” Mulone adds. “We will book nearly 4,000 hotel room nights and that doesn’t include exhibitors or fans. The city will get about 10,000 to 11,000 hotel rooms utilized.

“This doesn’t include the media value of being on the Bassmaster, ESPN and other media platforms. Plus, the residual tourism benefits go on for years. As an example, if a city hosts a basketball tournament, the wood court inside the arena is filmed.

“We broadcast the natural resources of the destination. It is an incredible advertisement which pays dividends for years to come.”

The UT connection

Bringing the Classic to Knoxville was truly a partnership between B.A.S.S., Visit Knoxville and several other entities, but getting the University of Tennessee on board was perhaps the key component.

“The university, when we were approached with this opportunity for Knoxville, was told that without the use of Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville would not have been a player in the bid process,” says Tim Reese, director of operations for UT’s Thompson-Boling Arena.

“It’s a big plus for the community. Historically, that is what we’re supposed to be doing with the building. It will help the Knoxville economy.”

Adds Culver: “We couldn’t have done this without the support of the Tennessee administration and the athletics administration. Our event takes place in the middle of basketball season, so some adjustments had to be made.

“They want the same thing we want – to do what’s best for Knoxville.”

But it wasn’t as simple a decision as that for UT. There were other players involved as the dominoes fell into place.

The UT men’s basketball team will be in Nashville that week for the Southeastern Conference tournament (March 13-17), but Thompson-Boling Arena had a long-term tenant – the Church of God, headquartered in Cleveland – already penciled in for that weekend.

“First, you have to look at the schedule and work around existing events. The weekend for doing the Bassmasters Classic is the same weekend as the SEC men’s tournament, so the team would be out of town anyway,” Reese adds.

“But we have hosted the Church of God Winterfest (a youth conference) on that weekend since forever. It’s a large event, too, attended by 10,000 to 15,000 over three days of activity. We’ve had a long relationship with the Church of God folks, and we asked them to move back a week to (March 8-10), and that got into basketball season.”

The UT basketball schedule won’t be released until August, but one thing is certain. The Vols will play their last regular-season game – possibly two games – on the road.

“(March 9) is the last day of SEC (regular-season) play, so we had to sacrifice the last Saturday for a possible home game in order to accommodate them. You never know how the schedule will work, of course, but we had to notify the league office (of unavailable dates),” Reese continues.

“We realize the impact of both of these events and were willing to make the change, but the Church of God had to accommodate the plan as well. There were a lot of components, and it’s worked out well for everybody. I give the Church of God a lot of credit for saying ‘we’ll move around a bit to help you.’ They’re great guys to work with.”

And the end result should be a win-win-win for everybody.

B.A.S.S. will host its showcase event in a bass anglers’ paradise.

Knoxville will reap a double financial windfall from back-to-back major weekend events – the Church of God Winterfest followed by the Bassmasters Classic.

And if the UT basketball team is as good as very early predictions indicate (No. 3 by CBS, No. 8 by ESPN and Sporting News) Rick Barnes and the Vols could be playing for the SEC championship in Nashville on the final day of the Classic.

Weigh-ins will wow

The daily weigh-ins are expected to draw between 12,000 and 15,000 to Thompson-Boling. If you’ve never been to the Classic ceremonies or the Expo, here’s an idea of what to expect.

First, it promises to be three days full of thrills, chills – and hopefully no spills of the day’s catch.

Picture a rock concert at the arena when the lights go down, the stage is bathed in spotlights, and the music cranks up.

There are elements of a Monster Truck Jam as trucks pull the boats into the arena with the contestants and their catches.

And it’s a little like WrestleMania, when the announcer pumps up the crowd to cheer for their favorite anglers, combined with aspects of the traveling circus coming to town, bringing the big show to the big top.

“Many major sporting events have similar components. The Bassmaster Classic is the premier event in the outdoors,” Mulone says. “It’s a free consumer expo with all of the new equipment for the year.

“I’ve been to a few golf majors and while they have merchandise tents, the Classic Expo is merchandise, boats, Toyota trucks, tackle, auto after market — everything that we call the bed-to-boat experience.

“The weigh-in show feels like a rock concert, with the fanfare, lights and music, plus the drama of the competition. It’ll take us a week to set up the weigh-in venue at Thompson-Boling and the Expo at the Knoxville Convention Center.

“Knoxville is honored to welcome the Bassmaster Classic to Knoxville in 2019. We hosted the Bassmaster Elite in 2017 [held on nearby Cherokee Lake], which was a great success. We anticipate the 2019 Classic to really showcase the partnership between B.A.S.S., our own Visit Knoxville Sports Commission, the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, and both Knox County and the City of Knoxville.”

“The Expo’s a lot of fun, too,” DeFoe says. “Save your money all year, because you’ll spend it all there. Then there will be huge crowds at the weigh-ins at Thompson-Boling Arena. So, it’s just a big event, a lot of fun that people in Knoxville are going to enjoy.”