As we settle into fall across much of the country, many die-hard bass fishermen climb into treestands or duck blinds and take a break from it all. For many touring pros, autumn offers a little time away, to get caught up on chores around the house and spend time with family and friends. Some grind on, sandwiching in MLF tournaments, local events or even saltwater derbies.
One thing we can also count on each fall is the release of tournament schedules for each of the major tours, and any associated rule changes. This year, the schedules served the same purpose as any year: excitement for some, disappointment for others. I, for one, am baffled by the various “northern tour” choices of venues in the heart of Dixie, but that’s another column for another time. What’s really the hot topic are rule changes and payout restructuring.
Without question, the biggest rule change was the implementation of a “no umbrella rig” rule on the FLW Tour. Many Tour fishermen were adamantly against “the rig”, and it looks like they’ve finally had their say. We talked about this a little prior, and it will be interesting to see how it will affect catch rates across the board.
What I fear most is Tour pros being beat down by local spectators-turned-fishermen once the pros head to weigh-in. I’m sure many pros are relieved to get the rig out of their boat, but how will it change things on lakes where thousands of fishermen still sling the monster for 8 hours a day? Should prove interesting.
The other big news around town is the reduction of the bottom-tier payout to at Elite Series events, with the opposite change occurring on the FLW Tour.
Evidently B.A.S.S. released a handbook to its anglers outlining some major changes in 2014. While much is still unknown about the proposed BASSfest, angler seminars, and pro-am events, one thing B.A.S.S. has commented on is its decision to reduce check sizes for anglers finishing 41st hrough 50th in Elite events (based on a now proposed 105-boat full field) from $10,000 to $5,000.
In contrast, earlier this fall FLW released changes that detailed a payout of $10,000 for anglers finishing in 21st through 60th place in its regular-season events. Prior to this change, 21st through 25th received a little more money (in this case $11,500 each), while 51st through 60th received less ($4,000 each).
While it may seem like B.A.S.S. is short-siding its anglers, it has drastically increased its payout in the year-end Angler of the Year awards, with a purse now totaling $900,000, and payouts down through the ranks. FLW, on the other hand, keeps its Angler of the Year award a single prize of $100,000.
All of this brings up a good point of conversation as to which system is better. And, while anyone who follows the major tours can argue drastic differences in entry-fee costs, team fishermen, contingency awards, etc., let's just key on the payout brackets and the business model, rather than nitpicking exact numbers.
Both tours offer awards considerably higher than the collected entry fees. Both are very much reliant on sponsor dollars that dwarf the checks written by competitors. And both run successful businesses in their own way, and do it very well. What we’re concerned about here is the guy trying to scratch checks and make a living as a bass pro.
While there has been major restructuring several times on both tours, suffice to say payouts have been fairly constant, especially “last check” payouts in the range of $10,000. In fact, during periods of larger field sizes, those checks were awarded, at times, to 100th place. But today we’re worried about 50th place, based on current field sizes of pro events.
B.A.S.S. CEO Bruce Akin recently summed it up, commenting that a $10,000 check “seems to be kind of the magic number." With a $4,000 to $5,000 entry, hotel, fuel and equipment costs, this magic number makes most guys a couple thousand dollars, tops, for the event. You see, these guys aren’t just grabbing their golf clubs and getting on a plane; there’s often thousands of dollars in unforeseen expenses that are the result of traveling thousands of miles across the country. Last-place checks, even at $10,000, sometimes just stop the bleeding.
I was surprised to see Akin’s further comments that “If you’re shooting for 41st through 50th place in a tournament, it's possible your goals might not be high enough”. Yet, for years, we’ve been led to believe that just qualifying for the Elite tour is a life-changing accomplishment, a resumé-builder that lasts a career. Those words seem a little harsh to his patrons.
Either way, it’s a well-known fact that most sporting competitions are paid out top-heavy to attract the crowds. The richest payouts in professional sports offer life-changing prizes that help attract headlines. The winner of the World Series of Poker is virtually guaranteed a prize in excess of $8 million. Yet, as we compared before, a poker pro, or one in tennis or golf for that matter, has little to worry about when traveling other than frequent-flyer miles. There are no $250 stops at Flying J. In order to fish for a living, the drastic expenses must be taken into account across the board, for competitors well down the leaderboard.
So the argument still exists that pro fishing is different. In our case, I think the best thing that could happen would be to actually skim from the top a little more and make it up at the bottom.
Granted, nothing attracts attention like a suitcase full of money (remember when David Fritts won such an award, and asked if he could keep the case)? But we’re really not dealing with sports superstars here, in most cases. Under Armour and Nike aren’t giving these guys Knicks tickets.
Maybe it’s time to admit that the best thing for the sport of pro fishing is what’s best for the athletes, not the media.
In fact, I think both tours are right, partially. In the case of FLW, awarding more money in the rear of the ranks helps touring pros survive. And, in the case of B.A.S.S., offering more for AOY payout allows the best fishermen on tour to win the most money.
That can’t be overstated. We hear it over and over again: Angler of the Year is one of the most prestigious awards a fisherman can win. And, even though the biggest prize in pro fishing is awarded for a single tournament win, I’m a firm believer that consistency should be rewarded more than anything.
I suppose the goal of any pro is to win enough money to survive, and then win enough titles to attract sponsors. Only one time in history do I vividly remember an “awe factor” associated with the dollar amount awarded at a major championship. Championship trophies become resumé-builders regardless of the dollars associated with each.
Believe me, there’s a whole bunch of guys worried about what 41st through 50th pays, and they make up a large percentage of the customer base on both pro tours. Remember, these events aren’t bursting at the seams with entries. They often fish less than a full field.
To consider everyone involved, pro fishing must consider the die-hard gypsies who have supported their organizations for the last 40 years. It must take into account that, no matter how much hype it produces, there’s still a very delicate balance of anglers willing and able to take the plunge. And it must do everything in their power to keep those guys fishing.
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)