Letter from Shreveport — From the April 2013 issue

The Super Bowl! (Of Fishing)

In search of a hero at the Bassmaster Classic

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Larry Hackett, the managing editor of People magazine, looks like a man who wants to look like Anderson Cooper. It’s just a few days before the Academy Awards, and normally Hackett would be in Los Angeles among the celebrities his publication so devotedly covers. But instead he’s here in Shreveport, Louisiana, to give the keynote speech at the 2012 Bassmaster Classic opening gala.

“I can’t tell you the looks on the faces of my staff members when I said that I was leaving,” he tells the audience. “They said, ‘You’re going to the Oscars?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m going to Shreveport.’ ”

Hackett had been invited to speak by his buddy Don Logan, a former executive of Time Warner and one of the three men who in 2010 purchased the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS), which runs the tournament, from ESPN.

For reasons I cannot fathom, the bulk of Hackett’s speech is devoted to analyzing various People photo spreads. A shot of the Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir appears on the screen next to Hackett, who says of Weir’s outfit, “You can dress like Johnny Weir, but I have a feeling that’s not going to go over very well on a bass boat.” The audience is mostly silent. Unfazed, Hackett asks the audience to guess, by way of applause, which celebrity covers translated into the highest newsstand sales. Steve Jobs or Amy Winehouse? Elizabeth Taylor or Whitney Houston? It’s a testament to the graciousness of the fishermen here that Hackett receives even tepid applause as he exits the stage.

Perhaps Hackett meant his speech to be instructive. Coverage of last year’s tournament on ESPN2 drew an average of about 280,000 viewers. People’s readership, he bragged, was 40 million a week, and he suggested that BASS, too, could reach a larger audience by promoting its stars to the masses.

By far the sport’s biggest celebrity is Kevin VanDam, the defending Classic champion, who also takes the stage on opening night. Most of the other anglers are wearing slacks and button-down shirts, and a few are in jeans, but VanDam wears a charcoal suit and scrupulously gelled hair. He’s handsome and gracious and, at forty-four, he’s at the heart of the Classic’s white, middle-aged, mostly male viewer demographic.

VanDam’s brief speech is a kind of pep talk for those fishermen who think that ESPN made the Classic too commercial. Under BASS’s first owners, he admits, there was a greater sense of camaraderie and intimacy among the competitors. “But somewhere along the way, we kind of got away from that.”

ESPN had wanted to make bass fishing the new NASCAR — before NASCAR itself lost its national audience. The new owners are passionate amateur bass fishermen, and VanDam assures the crowd that (Larry Hackett aside) the tournament is returning to its earlier sense of intimacy.

ESPN still has the television rights to the Classic, and for the past few weeks they have run numerous promos for the tournament, almost all of which have featured VanDam. The sport has more electric, even outlandish, personalities, but VanDam’s dominance is undeniable. He’s already tied the record — four — for Classic titles. He’s been crowned BASS’s Angler of the Year seven times. Now he’s trying to win a third Classic in a row — an unprecedented feat that could finally give professional fishing a few minutes in the national spotlight.

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is a California-based journalist and the cofounder of the news aggregator againstdumb.com.

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