By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

The decision made by Bill Lowen to decline an invitation to the Bass Pro Tour for 2019 went far beyond his feelings about the promises of dollars and cents and hours of airtime put forth in the proposal made to anglers last month.

It was a deeply personal decision that, in part, was rooted in a promise he made years ago to the family of a fishing and hunting buddy.

Lowen and Billy Backman met on the waters of the Ohio River in the mid 1990s. They were members of the OutKast Bass Club. Billy’s dad – also named Bill, but he was known to friends as Bax – was in it, too. Through the competition and camaraderie of fishing tournaments, a friendship developed. Lowen and the younger Backman eventually fished some team events together and went on duck-hunting outings.

They both aspired to join the Bassmaster Tour one day and compete against the pros they grew up watching on television.

“It’s all we ever talked about,” Lowen said.

As time wore on, though, Lowen, seven years older than Backman, noticed changes in his pal’s behavior. They didn’t fish together as much. Backman declined invites to go on hunting trips. Lowen sensed something was amiss but didn’t know what. Turns out Backman had fallen in with the wrong crowd and began using drugs. An overdose on ecstasy ultimately claimed his life in 2001.

As Backman’s family sorted through the tragedy, they remained connected to Lowen.

“A couple years later, I got together with his family and they said to me, ‘It was your dream and our son’s dream to fish or win the (Bassmaster) Classic and we think you have the ability to make it,’” Lowen recalled.

The Backmans saw a way to preserve their son’s hopes and dreams in Lowen. For the 2004 season, they helped Lowen pay his entry fees for the Midwest Division of FLW’s EverStart Series (now the Costa FLW Series). Lowen finished 42nd in points, missing out on qualifying for the FLW Tour. The following year, Lowen signed up for the Midwest EverStarts and the Northern Bassmaster Opens. The Backmans pitched in again.

Lowen finished 6th in points in the EverStarts and 27th in points in the Opens. He had his choice of either the FLW Tour or the new Bassmaster Elite Series, set to debut in 2006. His (and Billy’s) dream was starting to come true.

“They gave me my shot at it,” Lowen said. “I was at the point where I was stalled out and needed to get over the hump.”

When it came down to deciding between which circuit to compete on, the Blackmans said they’d support Lowen either way.

“Our whole dream was always to go to the Classic so it was a no-brainer,” Lowen said. “But here I am, ‘Holy crap, it’s a massive entry fee.’ To have that family cover my entry fees for my first year was just incredible. How do you ever repay someone for that?”

You qualify for the Classic – that’s how. You make their son’s (and your) boyhood fantasy a reality. Lowen finished 26th in points as a rookie, earning a spot in the ’07 Classic at Lay Lake, which was won by Boyd Duckett, the co-founder of the Major League Fishing and by extension the BPT. While on stage in Birmingham, Lowen thanked the Backmans, who were in the crowd, for their unwavering support and told his story to a captive audience.

“They got to live Billy’s dream through me,” Lowen said. “Would I give it all up for him to still be here? Absolutely.”

So for Lowen, the process of choosing between the BPT and the Elite Series cut deeper than the contents of any PowerPoint presentation. It boiled down to a promise he made more than a decade ago to some people who put their everlasting faith in him.

“That was weighing heavy on me,” he said. “We made a commitment for my buddy and his family to be at the Elite Series and fish the Classic and potentially win the Classic. I wasn’t going to give that up.”

Lot To Process

Lowen was among the anglers who attended the BPT presentation in Atlanta on Sept. 15. He and his wife had planned to leave their home in Indiana mid-afternoon on the 14th, attend the meeting, then continue on to the Angler of the Year Championship. An unplanned trip to the emergency room with their daughter, who’d broken her arm, pushed off their departure until the wee hours of the 15th.

Once at the meeting, Lowen said the vibe in the room was one of excitement, especially for those with ties to MLF, who seemed to “already know what was going on,” he said.

“You could also see the looks of uncertainty on people’s faces,” he added.

He was more curious than uncertain.

“Going into the meeting, I just wanted to listen,” he said. “It never hurts to listen because nobody knew what it was going to be. Nobody knew the format, payouts, entry fees. I figured let’s just go and see what happens.”

As the presentation moved along, it dawned on Lowen he could be facing a life- and career-changing decision.

“They’re asking you to take your career that B.A.S.S. has made for us and take a chance,” he said. “What was proposed and what was exposed was all butterflies and rainbows and that it was going to be amazing.”

Lowen said some details that weren’t spelled out made him uneasy, such as the long-range forecast beyond the initial three-year commitment the BPT was asking anglers to make and the qualifying criteria to stay in and get in down the road.

“I had a lot of questions that weren’t getting answered,” he said.

Lowen said he didn’t follow up with BPT officials in the wake of the meeting “because I didn’t want to get told something they wanted me to hear, which is easy to do.”

“There was not much in the way of details,” he added. “Everybody was awestruck at the numbers being thrown around. We were being told it was the best thing to ever happen to the sport and everybody was hung up on that.”

After close to 5 hours, Lowen walked out with a sense that the BPT was almost too good to turn down.

“I was almost thinking how can you not do this because everybody’s going to go,” he said. “Then it’s the angel and the devil on your shoulders. The devil’s saying you have to go and the angel is like, ‘I’m not so sure everything is being laid out.’”

Followed His Heart

Lowen went into the AOY tournament 37th in points. A Classic berth hung in the balance – or worst case, a berth in the Classic Bracket – at Lake Chatuge. He had a lot on his mind. He was not alone.

“I didn’t sleep for a week,” he said. “It was the worst time ever for that (BPT) deal to have gone down.”

With all the lingering questions in his mind, he was not 100 percent convinced the BPT was the best landing spot for him and his sponsors, some of which had no affiliation with MLF.

“I spoke with my sponsors and told them I was thinking about this and asked them all what they thought,” Lowen said. “They all said, ‘Do what’s right for you and your family.’ I never had a single one say, ‘Stay at B.A.S.S. or fish MLF.’ Everyone was like, do what’s right for you.”

And then came more thought and soul-searching.

“The more I thought about it and dug into it – I’m always a guy that follows my heart and gut,” he said. “Same thing on the water. If my gut tells me to go flip that tree over there, 99 percent of the time that works for me. Rarely my gut feeling doesn’t work.

“So my heart and gut were telling me that my sponsors don’t line up for MLF – Xpress Boats, Yamaha, Lure Parts Online. The more I thought about getting in a competing boat with a competing motor in a different jersey (if I made the Cups) goes against everything I believe in. If I couldn’t promote 100 percent of my sponsors all the time, it’s probably not the right decision. I know every night I lay my head on my pillow, I’m not leaving my sponsors on the sideline.”

Ultimately, Lowen notified MLF officials that he appreciated the BPT invite, but he was declining. At the same time, B.A.S.S. was making sweeping changes to the Elite Series financial model to benefit the anglers coming back in 2019. Lowen was encouraged by what he heard and saw.

“The changes that B.A.S.S. made were phenomenal,” he said. “A lot of people said, ‘All of this only happened because of what MLF did.’ Is MLF responsible for some of that? Probably so, but I think there are a lot of people out there that probably don’t know B.A.S.S. has new owners in the Anderson family. To their defense, they basically took over in the fall of last year and never had the opportunity to make it better and listen to the anglers.”

Lowen said he’s willing to give Chase Anderson the chance to steer B.A.S.S. toward a brighter future.

“I’m not going to turn my back on this guy,” he said. “If it wasn’t for B.A.S.S., I wouldn’t be doing this interview. I don’t care if all the stars are gone. We compete every day. There are anglers out there who haven’t had the opportunities we’ve had. Bassmaster has the platform to let those guys chase those dreams. MLF doesn’t have that in place They say they will in two, three, four or five years, but we don’t know for sure.”

Lowen is sure of one thing – he’s committed to B.A.S.S. and the Elite Series and helping it bounce back. The organization and the anglers who’ve committed to fish in 2019 have been in discussions about how to fill out the field and where to cap the field. B.A.S.S. had based its revamped financials on an 80-boat roster, but with roughly 40 names left from 2018 it’ll take some creativity to hit that number.

“We don’t just want to throw invites out there,” Lowen said. “B.A.S.S. always been the organization with strong qualifying criteria. We’ve been put in a big, bad, hard spot. It was like a plan to take B.A.S.S. down. Maybe not, but it sure looks like it. We’re stuck in a hard spot trying to figure out how to fill the field and still be the tour you qualify for.”

At Chatuge, the gravity of the moment and the sense that the sport was about to go through some significant upheaval was not lost on Lowen.

“I’m out in the crowd watching other guys go up on stage and it dawns on you that that could be the last time showing off a fish on stage,” he said. “To think about how I got here …”

Lowen’s thoughts shifted back to his friend Billy Backman and the promises made – and promises kept.

“When I started this 12 or 13 years ago, never one time did I ever say or want to be the best in the world,” he said. “It was never my goal. I never said I’d be the best in the world. My goal was never to be rich. My goal was and has always been to be the best ambassador for the sport and support my family doing what I love at end of the day. You can’t put a dollar amount on that.”