Remember Fish Fishburne? I do. I worked with the guy back in the BASS/ESPN days and, despite my growing concern at the time about the direction of professional bass fishing, I took solace that at least one part of the formula was in capable hands.
Don’t get me wrong; Fish is a handful. His public persona is not some manufactured façade that only emerges when the red light clicks on. Off-camera, he’s the same funny, goofy and amped ginger who trades quips onstage with the pros. Not before and certainly not since has anyone approached his complete mastery of weigh-in emceeing.
Face it, on the boredom scale, weigh-ins can be right up there with a daylong visit to the DMV. The comments of most emcees are lacking in anything approaching real humor or insight. They’re often repetitive and trite, falling back into the safety net of a few tired adjectives roared to the crowd as if the loudness of their voice somehow creates excitement. In a word, they blow.
When Fishburne left BASS/ESPN in 2004, Earl Bentz and Triton was the incoming boat sponsor, creating a conflict for all parties involved. Fish allegedly refused to sever his ties with Skeeter and, just like that, he was gone. In the great recycling bin that is professional bass fishing, the man who had the duty of dropping the guillotine blade was Don Rucks, the current commissioner of Major League Fishing.
Whether this hurdle was insurmountable or not – for reasons of contract, sponsorship or ego - the response from BASS and the boys in Bristol was pure lunacy. Dipping into their corporate stable of X-Game voices, they decided that Keith Alan, screaming out BMX catchphrases to crowds of tweens and teens, was a perfect fit for bass fishing. If nothing else, it was a frightening glimpse into the distorted thought process of the ESPN suits. Like the drug-addled band members of Spinal Tap, it was obvious they wanted the BASS amplifiers to go all the way to 11.
What was or should have been obvious to any bass fisherman of the day was this: Fish Fishburne knew his sport, upside down and sideways. He knew the players, the game and the pressures. What he also knew was how to make all of this fun. He could be poignant, understanding, snarky or just plain wacky. Best of all, he was never boring.
Even the most non-communicative, monosyllabic bubba had a good time on stage. Like Johnny Carson when a monologue went bad, Fishburne was at his best. If a competitor had nothing to weigh in, especially a big-name guy, I stopped what I was writing in the BassMaster trailer and listened. This was the moment for pure Fishburne gold.
Unfortunately, Fish was – forgive me – a fish out of water. BASS, with or without the ESPN influence, was - and probably still is - a buttoned-down collar, urban camouflage kind of operation, and a place where zany doesn’t compute. Anyone, even a degree left of center, is held at arm’s length. They may laugh at those corporate New Yorkers, but it has nothing to do with their tightness of ass. Trust me, there is an Alabama version tighter than any found in the Hamptons. If any of us could have gauged the rare stupidity of BASS/ESPN, we would have seen it – Fish Fishburne was a dead man walking.
In fact, I kind of saw it coming. My best memories of Fishburne were in the half hours before the weigh-ins. Often, he would be in the trailer as I was preparing my little world for the hours ahead. Sometimes, not always, this was a more thoughtful, introspect version of the Fish Fishburne everyone knows.
One day, he walks in, wearing a very cool ESPN ball cap.
“What the hell is that?” I asked, feeling my writer’s ego bubble to the surface.
“The ESPN cap, dumbshit. I’m a senior writer and I get nothing. That sucks!”
If I remember correctly, Fish slumped down into a chair and said, “I bought it.”
“What do you mean? They made you pay for it?”
“No, I mean I went down to Sears and bought it.”
At the time, Sears had an ESPN section with logoed merchandise.
My brain was exploding.
“Let me get this straight, Fish Fishburne, the emcee of BASS/ESPN went into a Sears store and bought an ESPN cap, one that probably every cameraman or cable puller owns by the dozens, but you, the on-air talent, has to buy one?”
Fish responded in the affirmative. If I had to pick any moment when I should have known that bass fishing would be changed forever, this would have been it. These network fools were screwing with the best thing they had going.
Now, I am well aware that Fishburne’s post-emcee career has been less than stellar. I call it the “pizza factor”. I love pepperoni pizza. But, the more I eat pepperoni pizza, the less I appreciate it. Same with Fishburne. A little of Fish goes a long way, precisely the reason why he made a great emcee for live events. We love him in the moment, just as we love the boisterous goofball at the local bar. Funny at the time, but let’s not invite him over for next weekend’s family barbecue.
From the start, Fish found his niche, but has since tried to duplicate that success in other formats. It has been a classic case of the square peg in the round hole. Without question, Fish is an emcee, a boredom killing force of nature who should return to his roots. Why no major tournament circuit has gone there should be pretty obvious: In spite of financial woes or participation concerns, these organizations are not run by big thinkers. For the most part, they are me-too people – getting their inspiration from the perspiration of others. Somehow, they can’t grasp this concept: Bass fishermen - the real guys out there who go fishing - want someone who shares their passion and makes their sport what it’s supposed to be – fun.
Simple, right? Apparently, not.
In essence, ESPN was handed the formula by none other than Fish Fishburne. Fun, irreverent and serious, all at the same time. The dunces of Bristol and the enablers from Alabama took from this example and, after who knows how many high-level meetings, gave back a loud, vacant noise. Jerry McKinnis and crew encouraged the screaming and the volume, content and fun be damned.
The only personality to emerge since the Fishburne days has been Mark Zona, someone very capable of handling the longer format of episodic television and quick enough on his feet to roll with live broadcasts. However, his colleague, Dave Mercer, is just the latest example of how fast talking and on-air experience doesn’t necessarily translate into success. Even Zona, I’m guessing, would admit that Fishburne has always owned the emcee spot.
Beginning in August, the Pursuit Channel will be featuring Fishburne in their new commercial campaign “We Deliver the Outdoors”. Let’s hope, it’s the beginning of a long second act. That is, of course, if anyone out there is listening.