With outdoors being the only live beat in the sports world right now, ESPN has gone fishing.
Beginning today with the Bassmaster Elite Series tournament on the St. Lawrence River at Clayton, N.Y., ESPN will air all 26 hours of the event on ESPN2, said Mike McKinnis, vice-president of media content for BASS and JM Associates.
Founded by the late Jerry McKinnis, JM Associates is a production company based in Little Rock that has refined the art of producing bass tournament coverage for television, first for FLW and most prominently for BASS. In fact, McKinnis was a principal owner in BASS for several years.
Like Arkansas, New York State is promoting outdoors recreation, especially fishing, as a way to be active while being socially distant. ESPN, meanwhile, is hungry for live programming. The intersection proved an ideal opportunity for Bassmaster Live, which JM Associates unveiled in 2015.
"When the pandemic hit, all live sports shut down, but we're still going," McKinnis said. "We're still live, but we've always been on ESPN3 live. They looked at that and said, 'We need live sports.'"
The maiden voyage occurred in June with an Elite Series event in Alabama which featured 19 hours of live coverage.
New York, an early covid-19 hotbed, is an exacting test because of its rigorous requirements for public events. On the other hand, New York has long been a prime stop for marquee bass tournaments. The state understands the sport, but it also has an established relationship with BASS and JM Associates.
"New York is a tough place go right now," McKinnis said. "They've got a lot of sports league regs in place that we have to abide by. Our entire list of competitors had to be there Saturday, and they all had to get tested. All of them had to pass or they would have been quarantined or sent home."
JM's crew arrived Tuesday and had to be screened, as well.
Spectators are not allowed at covid-era bass tournaments, and there is no fishing expo to showcase Bassmaster's sponsors' products. Weigh-in crowds are energetic and loud, but they have no bearing on the competition, which occurs on the water and largely out of sight. BASS and JM Associates learned how to involve the fans from a distance years ago with live on-the-water coverage. BASSTrack is another feature that allows fans to follow anglers in real time in terms of how many fish they've caught, when they caught them and how big the fish are. For those reasons, bass tournaments are maybe the only major sporting events that don't need fans to create a compelling viewing experience.
"It's taken years and years to get to this point where we're able to follow anglers to see what they're doing on the water," McKinnis said. "Our cameras use cell towers to transmit video back to our studio in Little Rock, where our on-camera talent analyzes live footage. The show is then uplinked to ESPN in Bristol (CT)."
Fans in boats follow the most popular anglers on the water at Elite Series tournaments. McKinnis said that the lack of attended weigh-ins might prompt more fans to follow anglers on the water.
"Certainly the hard-core anglers that have boats will be on the water," McKinnis said. "They'll probably stay longer because they won't have to worry about getting back to the expo. As long as we're social distancing, we're abiding by the rules. It's hard to get within that boat to boat. I definitely think there could be more fans on the water."
With its lean, efficient organization, JM Associates has been rehearsing for this moment for nearly 25 years. In the world's most dismal era for sports, professional bass tournaments are the lone programming port in the storm.
"I think it's interesting that we've got a little crew of TV production people in Little Rock that has perfected live coverage of bass tournaments," McKinnis said. "The amount of production we do with the small amount of people we have would blow Major League Baseball and football broadcast crews away, and we do a good enough job for ESPN to showcase it as featured programming.
"My dad would have been to the moon with pride on this opportunity."