By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

If the 2019 Elite Series season were to start tomorrow, it’d likely be a 42-man field and include just two anglers with a Bassmaster Classic and/or Angler of the Year title to their names (Rick Clunn and David Fritts have both). Six of those 42, including Clunn, have won full-field Elite Series tournaments.

While 42 may seem like a workable number for a specialty event – the Elite 50s and Majors each had 50-man fields when they were around in the mid-2000s – it’s likely not enough to put on a meaningful national tournament series worthy of the B.A.S.S. name, nor does it seem like it’d be big enough to excite marketing managers to the point of wanting to use the Elite Series as a means to reach the Bassmaster audience.

Bottom line: B.A.S.S. needs to replenish the Elite Series field – and fast.

Before diving into what the future may hold for the Elite Series, here’s a rundown of who’s projected to return to the water for the 2019 season (listed in alphabetical order):

> Drew Benton
> Stetson Blaylock
> Brandon Card
> Tyler Carriere
> Hank Cherry
> Rick Clunn
> Keith Combs
> John Crews
> Seth Feider
> Micah Frazier
> David Fritts
> Chris Groh
> Skylar Hamilton
> Ray Hanselman
> Jamie Hartman
> Matt Herren
> Kelley Jaye
> Steve Kennedy
> Robbie Latuso
> Brandon Lester
> Bill Lowen
> Mark Menendez
> Kyle Monti
> Rick Morris
> Brock Mosley
> Paul Mueller
> David Mullins
> Darrell Ocamica
> Chad Pipkens
> Clifford Pirch
> Cliff Prince
> Scott Rook
> Bernie Schultz
> Hunter Shryock
> Brian Snowden
> Randy Sullivan
> Caleb Sumrall
> Jesse Tacoronte
> Bill Weidler
> Jake Whitaker
> Jason Williamson
> Chris Zaldain

The Elite Series roster, which has fluctuated in size between 93 and 113 anglers since 2006, started the 2018 season with 110 names on it. In recent weeks, it took a massive blow when 68 anglers bolted for the new Bass Pro Tour, which will launch in 2019 as part of an expansion of Major League Fishing. Legends, household names and rising stars were among the departures, including every Classic winner since 2003 and every B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year since 2004.

In response to Elite Series anglers receiving invitations to the BPT, B.A.S.S. took steps to modify its entry fee/payout structure to make it more angler-friendly and to possibly stem the tide of departures. Six anglers ultimately declined the invitation and opted to return to the Elite Series. The revamped system B.A.S.S. rolled out was based around an 80-angler field, but with such a significant number of losses, getting there from a 40-man roster could pose some challenges.

The 2018 Bassmaster Opens rules allow for the winner of the upcoming Bassmaster Opens Championship, along with the top 5 finishers in points from each of the two Open divisions (after the Championship), to receive invitations to the 2019 Elite Series. The winner of the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship also receives an invitation, so that could bring the field up to 52 if every invite is accepted.

The major questions that remain are how big B.A.S.S. wants the Elite Series field to be ultimately and how it will reach that number. Rather than shoot for 80, a more realistic outcome could be between 60 and 75. Either way, the Elite Series 2.0 will have a much different look in 2019 than in past seasons.

A B.A.S.S. communications official told BassFan via email the organization is still deliberating on its options.

There’s plenty of experience and talent among the 42 known returnees. Six have been Elite Series competitors since the circuit debuted in 2006 – Clunn, Crews, Kennedy, Lowen, Snowden and Schultz – and two others started in 2006 but have missed parts of or whole seasons since then (Menendez and Morris). After ranking the 2018 Elite Series field by average career finish in the AOY standings (minimum two seasons), eight of the top 40 (20 percent) are among the group coming back next year. Combs (16.875) has the highest average finish in the AOY standings among the returning anglers.

The average number of years of Elite Series experience among the 42 anglers is 5.5 seasons. Sixteen of them have spent three or fewer years with the Elite Series, among them Blaylock, who arrived in 2017 after eight seasons on the FLW Tour.

How B.A.S.S. goes about restocking the Elite Series will be watched closely. It has prided itself on the qualification criteria it has had in place for the Elite Series as a means to reward consistency, but to also allow for new prospects to join the ranks from the Opens and B.A.S.S. Nation. It also prevents anglers with few to no tournament credentials from getting into the field.

The options for growing the field could include some or a combination of the following measures:

> B.A.S.S. could expand its reach into the Opens and offer invitations to more anglers than previously planned once the Open Championship wraps up at Table Rock Lake next weekend. It could do the same with eligible B.A.S.S. Nation competitors following the Nation Championship, slated for Nov. 8-10 at Pickwick Lake. It would behoove B.A.S.S. to let its new 2019 guidelines be known as soon as possible to allow anglers, especially at the Open and Nation level, to begin lining up the necessary financial support.

> It could target anglers with previous Elite Series experience who competed on the FLW Tour in 2018, of which there were 30.

> There is also the Legends exemption that B.A.S.S. crafted several years ago. It created an avenue into the Elite Series for former Classic winners or AOY champions and a way for current Elite Series competitors to remain eligible. Anglers are ranked based on the combined number of Classics and AOY titles they have with career earnings serving as the primary tiebreaker. David Fritts put it to use before the 2017 season when he made the move from the FLW Tour. The most intriguing names high enough on the list who are still active tournament anglers are Roland Martin (nine-time B.A.S.S. AOY), Larry Nixon (1980 and ’82 AOY, 1983 Classic champ) and Jay Yelas (2002 Classic champ, 2003 AOY). Nixon has already publicly stated his intention to compete on the FLW Tour in 2019.

> Beyond that, B.A.S.S. could also go the BPT route and extend invitations to FLW Tour anglers it feels could help bolster its brand. Who they would be would be subject to whatever criteria B.A.S.S. wants to put forth.