By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor and
Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

Major League Fishing's acquisition of FLW – a rumor that's made the rounds in the bass fishing industry for most of 2019 – has finally become a reality.

MLF, which is jointly owned by Kroenke Sports and Entertainment and a group of angler/investors, has purchased the 23-year-old tournament organization that was started by the late Irwin Jacobs and was responsible for a significant infusion of money into the industry in the late 1990s when it rose up as a competitor to the long-established Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.).

Financial terms of the deal, which was announced today, were not disclosed.

The acquisition provides MLF a feeder system for its top-level Bass Pro Tour and the infrastructure for grassroots-level competition to utilize the MLF format (all scoreable bass count, real-time standings available to all competitors at all times, catch-weigh-immediate release, etc.).

FLW, which was operated by the Jacobs family since its founding in July 1996, has approximately 50,000 fee-paying members from 11 countries and will have sanctioned more than 300 tournaments across seven categories (FLW Tour, FLW Series, Bass Fishing League, College, High School, International and Charity) in 2019 by the time the calendar year is complete.

The move to acquire FLW is another bold step by MLF to fortify its position in the bass fishing tournament business. Launched in 2011 as a made-for-TV competition, MLF expanded its footprint a year ago by unveiling the BPT and attracting 80 of the world's top anglers from the Bassmaster Elite Series and FLW Tour. Now, it’s positioned to serve tournament anglers from the youth level up through the pro ranks.

"This acquisition gives us a great opportunity to achieve all of our long-term dreams in one fell swoop,” MLF co-founder Boyd Duckett said in a conference call with BassFan.

Tour to be Rebranded

The acquisition will trigger significant changes for the 2020 FLW Tour, which will be rebranded as the FLW Pro Circuit and will slot in beneath the BPT in the new hierarchy. The season will consist of seven regular-season events and a championship. The FLW Cup and its $300,000 top prize will be replaced by an Angler of the Year finale along the lines of the one conducted annually on the Bassmaster Elite Series. All of the Pro Circuit events will be six days long and the format will be a hybrid mix of the traditional five-fish-per-day tournament format and the MLF mode.

A full field of 150 anglers will fish the first two days for cumulative weights (combined maximum of 10 fish), then a cut to the top 75 will occur with weights zeroed. Day 3 will mirror a BPT Elimination Round (cut to 40) and days 4 and 5 will be Knockout Rounds that each feature half of the remaining field to achieve a cut to 10 for the final day.

The top 50 will each receive a check for at least $10,000 and the next 25 competitors will collect $5,000. Details on entry fees and payouts at the top of the field have not yet been released.

The modifications made to the FLW Tour for 2020 will pave the way for MLF fully integrating it with its top circuit the following year. Starting in 2021, plans call for the top 10 from the FLW Pro Circuit points list to gain berths on the BPT for the following season, with the bottom 10 BPT anglers (based on their average points finish for the 2019-21 seasons) dropping out.

Departures to both the BPT and Bassmaster Elite Series over the past year had put a considerable dent in the depth of the FLW Tour field, but standouts such as this year's FLW Cup winner and two-time Angler of the Year Bryan Thrift, four-time AOY and former Cup winner David Dudley, former AOY and Cup winner Scott Martin and 2016 Cup champion and multiple-time Tour winner John Cox were still on board in 2019.

"The FLW Pro Circuit will be a great opportunity for those guys," Duckett said. "The media coverage we have planned will be greater than they've ever seen by multiples and they'll have the opportunity to move into the BPT, (which is) a high-paying, no-entry-fee format."

The Pro Circuit will receive expanded media coverage across the Kroenke family of outdoors-centered networks (Outdoor Channel, Sportsman Channel and World Fishing Network).

The MLF format will also eventually be offered to the lower-level trails (FLW Series and BFLs) based on customer demand, Duckett said. Meanwhile, the Series will expand from five geographic divisions to eight and entry fees will be lowered at both levels – $1,700 for a Series boater ($200 reduction from this year) and $550 for a Series co-angler ($100 reduction). BFL fees will be $200 and $100, respectively.

Schedules for those levels will be released soon and the entry process for the Series and BFLs is expected to get under way in November. There may or may not be changes to the Tour schedule that was announced in August at the 2019 FLW Cup.

"FLW is a great organization like it is – in our opinion, it's by far the strongest there is in grassroots and it also has a phenomenal top end with the Tour," Duckett said. "Everything that you see will continue. Over time, as to questions about the MLF format and when everything's going to transition, I don't know that I know how to answer that. What I mean by that is we have thousands of people that we get emails from or that I see in person or on Facebook asking when they can be a part of MLF and when can they get involved in that format.

"Eventually we want to make that available to all. That doesn't mean that the five-fish tournaments that we all grew up doing aren't also a great program because a lot of people like participating in that. As time goes on and we get our feet on the ground, you'll see us offer MLF-style events, which I believe are much more exciting. I personally believe that for weekend anglers, once they get a chance to compete under our format and with our technology, it's going to be a game-changer permanently, but we're not going to force anything on anybody. We'll have that available and you'll see us add it as requested.”

A Year In The Making

Duckett said that conversations with FLW regarding a possible purchase began more than a year ago – right around the time that MLF was building its angler roster for the inaugural season of the BPT. His initial conversation was with Kathy Fennel, FLW's president of operations, but formal negotiations began last November.

"Irwin was getting some age on him and I knew that FLW potentially had some interest in selling," he said. "I guess it really got going (during) last winter – I remember on my first couple of trips to Minneapolis (site of FLW headquarters) there was snow on the ground."

Major League Fishing
Photo: Major League Fishing

Boyd Duckett believes the acquisition of FLW will give MLF the opportunity to fulfill all of its long-term goals.

The 77-year-old Jacobs was involved in negotiations on the FLW side prior to his death in April in a murder-suicide event also involving his wife, Alexandra. In her first public comments since her father’s passing, Trish Blake, Jacobs’ daughter and FLW’s president of marketing, said the deal had Jacobs’ blessing.

“It wasn’t a case of my father passed away and now we’re selling the company. It’s quite the contrary. He was very much a part of these discussions," Blake said. “Obviously, FLW was one of his babies, too. This all came from a blank sheet of paper. I don’t think it was a secret that FLW was very near and dear to my father.”

That’s why, even in the days following Jacobs’ death, Blake made sure talks didn’t stagnate.

“My father was involved in the early discussions and obviously April came around and he passed away. I will tell you, just because I was dealing with what I was dealing with here, I called Kathy the day after my parents passed away because we had a meeting planned with Boyd to solidify this at that time," Blake said. “I insisted that the meeting continue on even though I was dealing with everything. This is what my dad and I had planned. This is what we had wanted. I didn’t let any grass grow. It was the day after my parents passed away and I told Kathy to get ahold of MLF and tell them they still needed to come up here and we’re doing this.”

According to both Duckett and Blake, the parameters of the deal were mostly in place by the time Jacobs died.

"It was hard, basically on the (FLW) employees and his family and it definitely put a time crunch in there," Duckett said. “We all had tremendous respect for Irwin and what he'd done in the fishing business. Dealing with his estate added some complications, but that's just one of the things you have to go through in business."

Blake praised the MLF leadership team for its patience and professionalism during a difficult time for her family.

“The amount of time and effort that’s been dedicated to getting this deal to the finish line has been (huge),” she added. “To try and take two entities like this and make it work in a way that we’re looking out for as many parties – the anglers, the sponsors, the fans, the employees – it’s a lot as you can imagine.

“As time went on, the conversations got to be more real and serious. Here, they’re starting out the Bass Pro Tour and pioneering that as well. I know how busy my schedule is. There was no lack of effort on anybody’s part here to figure out how we could get these two together in a fashion that was going to give us significant strength in the sport and in the industry.”

Duckett said he believes Jacobs felt as if FLW would be in good hands with MLF.

"Irwin loved bass fishing and he loved FLW and the anglers. He was in that position where he could sort of pick someone to continue that legacy and provide a good future for those anglers, and we're a pretty good match for that.

"We're an angler-driven league, which makes us very unique when it comes to respecting and having passion for making things better for anglers. I believe that was a key element in why this thing went in our direction, although the business side was obviously important as well."

Fennel will remain in her position overseeing all aspects of FLW competition and Bill Taylor will be retained as the top-level tournament director. FLW currently has 56 full-time employees, mostly based in Benton, Ky., and 74 part-timers spread across the country.

"The management staff will be status quo – they're one of the key assets we're so excited about acquiring," Duckett said. "We need all of them and some more."

Added Blake, “A lot of what they saw in FLW was our human capital and our experience in the industry. I don’t know what more you could ask for than that kind of value (being placed on) your employees. What does that say?”

Duckett said the plan is to create a two-hour TV show for each FLW Pro Circuit event to be broadcast on a network still to be determined.

As for the grassroots-level events, Duckett said some technological advancements are in the works that will allow weekend anglers to compete in MLF-style tournaments without the need for an official in every boat.

"There's a project that we're actively pursuing that will create the security so there's no funny business and nobody will be able to pull any punches, so to speak, and we'll offer that to everybody at every level,” he said. “I can't talk a lot about that technology because we still have another competitor in the space (B.A.S.S.), but we do have a plan so that everybody can fish under the MLF format and I think a lot of people are going to be excited to hear about it when it's available."