By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

FLW enters the 2013 tournament season a slimmer organization in terms of tournament opportunities. Gone are the FLW Tour Opens, the EverStart Championship, the Walleye Tour and possibly the National Guard from its sponsorship ranks. But according to Kathy Fennel, the company’s president of operations, FLW is better positioned now to focus more attention and efforts on its core bass fishing business.

And if the early returns are any indication, she may be right. Registration numbers are up across the board from the Tour level through the EverStart Series and she’s enthused about the initiatives in place at the grass-roots level – in high school and college.

Last week, BassFan interviewed Fennel about the current state of affairs at FLW and how the company is different now from when she took over her current position a little more than 2 years ago. Below is a summary of the interview in a Q&A format:

BassFan: What are the three topics you hear the most about from anglers when it comes to competition?

Kathy Fennel: From an angler’s standpoint, things that are most important in their minds are, first and foremost, entry fees and payback. That’s always an important part of the sport. We’d all love to see the day where entry fees can be reduced and paybacks get increased. Those are things that we strive for, but it's not always that simple. One way to strive for those things is to continue to expose this sport to as many people as we can because we really feel like once people have an opportunity to get exposed to this sport, a lot of them develop a passion for it, whether it’s from the competitive side or just a fan side or from the fantasy sports side.

Other things that come up from our anglers are opportunities to be able to promote their sponsors because that’s how they’re able to follow their passion and their career. If you look at the changes that we’ve made in the last few years, we’ve made great strides in being able to create opportunities and allow anglers to promote their own sponsors. We’re very protective of our sponsors and we’ll always be that way, but we also recognize the fact that in order for the anglers to be able to compete and have the support they need, they need to be able to have a platform to promote their sponsors as well. We’ve made several changes in the past several years to allow for that.

Co-anglers are a topic that always comes up. Interestingly, there are just as many pros who think we should have co-anglers as there are who feel that we shouldn’t. For FLW, we’ve always felt like co-anglers are a vital part of our sport and we have no plan to eliminate co-anglers from our events.

How important is angler input in terms of understanding how to create a balanced and competitive environment?

It’s extremely important, so much so that for the last few years, at each of our Tour events, we have angler panel meetings. As you know, it’s hard to take a group of 150 anglers and be able to have an intimate meeting. What we’ll do is invite different anglers to participate on these panels at each event so that we can hear from all of our anglers throughout the year. A lot of the changes that we’ve made over the past few years have been a result of the input we’ve received from the anglers. We feel like it’s been a productive and positive step for FLW.

It’s been a little more than 2 years since yourself and marketing division president Trisha Blake moved into your current positions. In your view, how is FLW different now from then?

As far as different, there were some philosophical changes that we’ve made during that time. One of them is opening up opportunities for anglers to promote their own sponsors. We don’t have any restrictions with regards to bait companies. That’s opened up a lot of opportunities for them. Also, on the final days of tournaments, as long as they don’t compete with any of our sponsors, they’re still allowed to promote their own sponsors and wear their own jerseys. That’s something they weren’t allowed to do a few years back.

As far as our stance with regards to rule enforcement, and more so the way we communicate the infractions and penalties, there was a time where we were more closed about that. Now, I feel like we are very transparent when we have issues. We deal with those issues according to our rules and are very transparent and open to what the infraction was and what our logic was for the penalty.

What areas have posed the biggest challenges?

Fuel prices. Certainly, this is an expensive sport to pursue, so when factors like fuel prices go up, that has an impact on our anglers, especially at the BFL level. With that said, I feel like that we have great programs that we offer to the anglers. We do our best to provide the best opportunities out there and provide the best value for the dollars they’re investing with us. Because of that, even with the challenges we’ve faced, be it the economy or fuel costs, that we’ve maintained as far as participation and the people that compete with us.

Next weekend, we’ll be opening up the Southeast EverStart Division with a full field plus a huge waiting list. We’ve had more interest and more entries in the FLW Tour this year than in several years prior. We filled up just within a few weeks of opening for registration. We’ve actually had to turn anglers away.

And then College Fishing, we expanded our fields from 40 to 50 boats per tournament. Within a few hours of opening up registration, we were full for all 20 events. We think those are great indicators and we’re excited about the future of the sport. The fact that there is so much interest, we feel like we’re doing things right.

So entries for the FLW Tour Majors are at levels you haven’t seen in a couple years?

That’s right. We had 164 that entered last year. This year, we have over 175 pros who have entered with entries still coming in. We’re already at a full field at this point.

You’re anticipating full fields for all six Tour events this season?

I do and I think that’s due in part to some of the changes we’ve made this past year. We stepped back and took a hard look at our business and we made some decisions, some of them not extremely popular. Those were hard decisions, like stepping back from walleye, but we felt like what we needed to do, in these current economic times, is focus on our core and stay strong and healthy so we have a great future ahead of us.

With the Opens, we stepped back on the number of events, and even though that disappointed some people, we feel like we put together the right format and the right number for the majority of our anglers. That’s ultimately what the goal has to be.

On the topic of cutbacks, can you elaborate on the reasons behind FLW’s decision to eliminate the Tour Opens, the EverStart Championship and the Walleye Tour in 2013?

It was about focusing on the core business and having the right number of events to accommodate the needs of the majority of our anglers. Even though there were a number of anglers who’d love to have 10 events, currently that’s not what seemed to be the best fit for the majority of our anglers. We feel like we’ve had positive results from the changes we’ve made. That’s not to say that as opportunities come up as far as the future, we look forward to the time when we can expand upon that. We also feel like we need to be serving the current needs of the time.

From a television standpoint, how will the vacancies in the programming schedule be filled, if at all?

We’re looking at some exciting opportunities there, too, as far as doing more original shows or doing something outside of the competition. We think that’s always been something that’s important – for our fan base to be able to relate to the anglers and the best way to do that is to expose them more on a personal level outside of the competition.

Are we talking about a potential FLW reality series then?

(Laughs) There’s every other kind of reality show now, so you can never say never.

How important is college fishing to the future growth of FLW and the sport?

We think it’s very important. So much so that we have taken the next step in conjunction with our partners at TBF with our high school fishing program. We’ve made an effort the last several years at our FLW Expos to create opportunities for youngsters to engage and get some exposure to fishing who might not have otherwise. From there, though, there was really nothing in between so we started with college fishing.

We’ve seen tremendous growth there and it’s been amazing to me. The college anglers are evolving also. Before, we provided the boats for them and gave them opportunities this year to bring their own boats and even more opportunities next year. It’s amazing how many of them want to do that. They’re taking a personal stake in this. Because of the growth there, it was only natural to look at high school.

There are two states currently that sanction fishing as a high school sport – Illinois and Kentucky. We’ve worked with Illinois from the very beginning. We’ll run, in conjunction with our partners at TBF, over 40 state championships this year. Then those championships feed into our national championship that’s held in conjunction with our college fishing national championship. We just feel like that’s a huge opportunity for growth and to be able to expose youths to this sport who might have had that otherwise. Like I said before, I think if we can ever touch people or give them the opportunity or expose them, then it’s amazing how much that sticks.

In what capacity will the National Guard be involved with FLW in 2013?

The National Guard has been a great partner of ours for many years. Currently, we’re talking to them on a daily basis and we hope to be able to continue that relationship for years to come.

As of right now then, nothing has been finalized in the way of a sponsorship deal for 2013?

As of right now, it has not, but we are very optimistic. Obviously, the things that are happening with the Guard (with regards to sponsorship of pro sports) are very public, but we’ve always felt like that we deliver a great value for the Guard. It’s very documentable and because of that we don’t get grouped in with other sports or other sponsorship opportunities they participate in because we feel very strongly about what we do and that we provide great value and it’s a win-win. It’s our hope that we’ll be able to continue that in the future.

Is there a sense from the Guard’s standpoint that with other military branches pulling out of other sports and the potential that this will be an annual issue in Congress, that if they do return to FLW, it would be in a reduced role?

We would welcome the Guard at any level. We love what they’ve been able to do and the partnership we’ve had. Our core values and what we try to do within the sport and reach into communities and youth and conservation and the values of the Guard line up very well.

What can you say to allay angler and fan concern that FLW is struggling financially as a result of reduced participation by the National Guard?

All of our sponsors are very important to us and any time you have changes, you have to adapt to whatever those changes are. We’re focused very optimistically on the future and we’re hopeful the Guard will be a part of that.

Is safe to assume then that the status of the National Guard fishing team is still uncertain for 2013?

That’s correct. That’s something that wouldn’t be decided until negotiations are complete.

With Mark Rose transitioning from the National Guard team to the Walmart team in place of George Cochran, will FLW make efforts to place other members of the Guard team with other FLW-sponsor-supported teams, should the Guard reduce its involvement?

It would certainly be our goal. Our marketing team works very hard to secure sponsors and it would be our goal to be able to place those anglers on other teams.

Does FLW view Major League Fishing as a competitor now that it’s entering its 2nd year?

I think in a sense we would view them as a competitor, but I think competition is not always bad. Competition is what got us to where we are with regard to what we’re able to offer and deliver to anglers today. I don’t think competition is a bad thing. I think a lot of times what that does is keeps us all striving to be better.

Much was made about FLW’s decision to allow umbrella rigs in competition in 2012. In hindsight, are you glad FLW made the decision it did?

Our stance on the umbrella rig is still where we were at initially and that’s to go by the state regulations. What we’ve found is that the umbrella rig certainly has a place and a time, but is it the magic lure everyone thought it would be initially? No, and I think you can look back at the tournament results and see that it certainly is effective at certain times on certain lakes.

We feel like we made the right call there and don’t have any plans to change it. We’ll continue to look to the states for guidance on it.

Schedule-wise, is FLW committed to a 6-event tour schedule going forward, especially with the elimination of the Opens?

I think we made the right decisions and the results have reinforced that those were the right decisions for these current times. Nothing is ever set in stone in this sport, though. As far as the future, we’ll evaluate that from year to year.

Are there plans to have a western swing at any point at the Tour level?

We’ve been running events in the West for 20 years. During that time, we’ve adapted what we offered there based on what we think best fits the current need. We feel like we’ve got the right fit right now, but again it’s one of those things we evaluate on an ongoing basis. If we feel like there’s a need for a different format or level of competition out there, we’ll certainly look at it.