Major League Fishing is one of the few sports that has continued to host events as the coronavirus pandemic has largely canceled professional sports nationwide, helping the league continue its uptick in viewership and relevance.
The sport had already seen an increased interest in February, with stages one and two of its second-annual Bass Pro Tour reporting a 72% increase in unique tune-ins year-over-year. The league’s in-house live stream, MLFNOW!, attracted over 886,000 unique viewers over the two events for a total of 30 million watched minutes – an 89% over 2019’s total averages.
The third stage, which was fished on Lake Fork, Texas from March 13-18 with several CDC recommendations in place, saw viewership increase by 20% over the already amplified February numbers. The third stage saw the largest spike in interest of the tour, with over 19 million minutes of competition watched by 500,000 unique visitors.
The Bass Pro Tour found itself trending on both Facebook and Instagram during stage three with a 72% increase in social media impressions compared to stage two. Total social media impressions across all events are also up 15% over 2019.
“We would term our event from last week an extra huge success,” Don Rucks, MLF executive vice president and general manager, said. “The lake we went to is known as a trophy bass lake, and it came through for our events. So that helps our live streaming quite a bit, but also the fact that we are one of the few live events that are going on right now also helped to drive those numbers up.”
The league says the sport’s format inherently allows for social distancing, and without a weigh-in at the end where competitors come into close contact with one another, they were able to broadcast the week safely through their in-house live streaming service, MLFNOW!, without crowds or concern.
Practice rounds for the event began a week before Wednesday’s finale when the sports industry was still evaluating how to best proceed during the pandemic.
“Going into it, we didn’t know what the rest of the world was going to be doing,” Rucks said. “We knew it was going on, but we didn’t know to what extent. But as the week went on, as we began to get our numbers in and we began to hear we were one of the few events out there to happen, we did anticipate better numbers. I don’t think we anticipated the success we had.”
Part of that success, the league says, can be attributed to the tour’s unique catch-weigh-immediately release format. Their three, 150-minute periods of competition contribute to a faster pace of play, and the addition of cumulative, real-time scoring – as opposed to the traditional weigh-ins at the end of a full day – were two of several changes implemented that were designed to increase the sport’s appeal to mainstream sports fans as well as avid anglers.
“After our first season, we made some minor adjustments to our game that we believe resonated well with fans causing the increase in viewership in February,” said Jim Wilburn, MLF president and CEO. “Going into Stage Three last week, we had no idea how much the sports world would change, and we’re hopeful that those who tuned into the Bass Pro Tour found a few hours of respite among an unprecedented reality at work and home.”
According to MRI data provided by the league, 57% of its viewers on the Discovery Channel last year had not fished in the last year.
Founded in 2011, MLF’s 2019 season attracted a total of 270,000 unique visitors across nine events. After the first three stages of the 2020 Bass Pro Tour, the league is averaging 471,698 unique visitors and 48 million minutes streamed, an increase of 75% year-over-year.
The Bass Pro Tour consists of eight stages from February to July, all of which are streamed live by the league and on MOTV, Outdoor TV’s streaming service. The footage is then packaged into a two-hour original show on Discovery, which will air beginning in July.
MLF Cup events, which take the top 30 anglers from every two Bass Pro Tour stages, are filmed for television only. The results are revealed over six weeks on Outdoor Channel.
Other Major League Fishing events have landed on additional linear air time on CBS, CBS Sports Network, World Fishing Network, and Sportsman Channel. While they started as a television only product, the success the league has seen through live streaming and on social media has prompted a focus on those efforts to continue to grow the sport.
“We launched our live streaming a year ago in 2019, and through that season and between our seasons, we just kept refining it,” Rucks said.
MLF has already begun to reap the benefits of those refinements, seeing both younger and more diverse fans tuning into the sport.
“What’s interesting is it’s just happening faster right now because of the limited life sports that are out there,” Tricia Milford, senior director of public relations for MLF, said. “But we believe that our product is something that is attractive when hockey and basketball and football are back.”