By Todd Ceisner
For Drew Benton, there were too many unanswered questions. In Seth Feider’s case, loyalty and familiarity outweighed all else.
Both Benton and Feider, considered to be among the top young (under 35) pro anglers in the sport, were among the first 80 anglers asked to join the new Bass Pro Tour, which will debut in 2019 as an expansion of Major League Fishing. Ultimately, they declined the invitation, opting to return to the Bassmaster Elite Series for 2019. Four other pros – Stetson Blaylock, Bill Lowen, Steve Kennedy and Chris Zaldain – have publicly stated they also declined BPT invites.
The BPT subsequently reached out to additional anglers in an effort to hit its target field size of 80. As of late Tuesday night, there were 79 known commitments.
Benton, who spent three seasons on the FLW Tour before joining the Elite Series in 2016, made his intentions known – as many anglers did over the past week – through a post across his social media channels. Same with Feider, who created a parody video of a scene from The Wolf of Wall Street film to announce he’d be coming back to the Elite Series.
Both anglers said they were grateful for the invitation – the BPT's launch created an unprecedented situation where many of the sport’s biggest names were given a choice of circuits to fish – but their decisions to remain with the Elite Series were rooted in what they felt was best for their careers at this time.
Too Risky for Benton
Benton attended the third in a series of BPT meetings on Sept. 15 in Atlanta. Representatives of MLF, including co-founder Boyd Duckett, laid out the framework for the new circuit, including details about payouts, potential tournament formats and the extensive online and television exposure the events (both BPT and MLF Cups) will receive.
“Initially, I was sold on the concept,” said Benton, who has an FLW Tour win to go with the Elite Series Texas Fest victory he collected this season at Lake Travis. “It was going to be good for everybody. The coverage numbers were outstanding.”
The more he mulled it over, though, the more questions arose.
“I probably over analyzed it more than anybody,” he said. “My sponsors looked at the angler deck [information packet] and determined it wasn’t beneficial for them.
“If I can’t promote and get out there the brands that get me down the road equal to or better than the names that sponsor the trail, we’re going backwards in professional fishing.”
With entry fees potentially as high as $48,375 and only the top 40 getting paid at the BPT events – all Cup competitors will get paid – Benton weighed the risk involved and opted for the Elite Series model, which provided at least a $20,000 incentive for re-signing and also will pay the last-place finisher $2,500 based on an 80-man field.
“With both organizations, you’re fishing for an organization to make money,” he said. “The difference with MLF is some of those owners are guys you’re competing against. There’s nothing in (writing) to protect you for not being an owner. You don’t have anything invested like they do. They told us we’d have a seat at the table as far as how the payouts go, but we don’t have a seat at the table if you make one of those guys mad. I’m sure there will be run-ins on the water. Will you handle a situation differently because it’s up against one of those guys? There were a lot of questions they couldn’t answer.”
That, coupled with the unknowns that come with a still-to-launch tournament trail, left Benton uneasy about committing to the BPT.
“It seems like a lot of promises are being made based on a 40-man field, which they’ve had success with in the past,” he said. “The promises based on an 80-man field is a totally different scenario. It’s all unproven. There’s a lot of money behind it and big names, but the whole model is unproven.
“I know it’s produced more positive changes in this industry than ever. I’m a fan and I want it to work, but I didn’t want to risk everything.”
Benton said the lack of a weigh-in event or something similar at a BPT seems to run counter to its commitment to engaging new fans of the sport.
“Another question I had was how do you replicate that moment when you pull in the arena with all those fans and a sack of fish and that moment that hooks kids on the sport,” he said. “You can’t replicate it on TV or doing it on live. Nobody wants to come to an event and just meet guys and not see a weigh-in. That was a big thing for me.”
Benton said he asked if there was an option to change the format for the BPT events where only an angler’s five best fish for the day count as opposed to every scorable bass.
Seth Feider thinks B.A.S.S. will bounce back from losing the majority of the Elite Series field to the BPT.
“The answer was absolutely not,” he said. “That completely changes everything I’ve done in terms of tournament bass fishing. You have to change your whole mindset of going for five big ones to just getting bites. I couldn’t take that risk. Say I go do this for three years. Worst case, it doesn’t work out so then I’m stuck requalifying for the Elites or the FLW Tour. If I can’t seal the deal there, I’m possibly looking at the end of my career because you can’t keep sponsors fishing the Opens or Costas. I had to do what’s best for my family.
“You’ll have guys who regret going over there, but no guys regretting staying at B.A.S.S. Three years from now, I’m going to be able to qualify for the (BPT) if I want to, so my outlook was to stay where I’m at for three years and if I’m good enough to fish over there, I’ll make it.”
Family Feel Key for Feider
Feider just wrapped up his fourth season on the Elite Series and qualified for his second straight Bassmaster Classic. The Minnesota native said the BPT proposal was in depth and detailed, but he felt the timeline given to make a possibly career-altering decision was too short for his liking.
“It was a lot of info at once and I felt rushed to make a big decision,” he said. “I wanted more time and wasn’t granted it.”
Feider said he asked MLF officials to have until the end of October to weigh his options, but his request was denied. Each angler in the first round of invites had two weeks to make a decision.
“At the end of the day, B.A.S.S. was the best place for me to be me,” he added. “I’m not the squeaky-clean-everything’s-perfect kind of guy. B.A.S.S. is kind of a family to me and I didn’t want to turn my back on them just because something else came along. I’m a nothing, broke bass fisherman and am just starting a family and I feel like B.A.S.S. provided me that opportunity. I’m not going to do something just because other guys are. I feel like some guys did and I’m not one to do that.”
Above all else, Feider didn’t want to turn his back on an organization that has helped him build a career in fishing.
“B.A.S.S. has never done me wrong,” he said. “If you saw where I used to live and where I live now, you’d understand my decision. I was sleeping on a couch in the basement of my buddy’s run-down house.”
Feider said it was tempting to follow all the top-end competitors who were departing the Elite Series for the BPT – “That was the biggest plus for me to go,” he said – but it wasn’t enough to sway him in the end.
“If they had invited the top 80 in the world, I’d have gone, but I don’t feel like they invited the top 80,” he added.
Like Benton, the every-fish-counts format that will be employed in BPT competition didn’t appeal to Feider.
“I grew up on catching five big ones and that’s how I want to fish,” he said. “I don’t want to do that all-you-can-catch deal.”
He’s also confident B.A.S.S. can weather the changes it’s going through.
“B.A.S.S. isn’t going anywhere,” he said. “B.A.S.S. makes stars. That whole list of people going, if it weren’t for Bassmaster, we wouldn’t know who they were. There are hundreds of young anglers out there now who will be household names in a few years.”