Last week, I alluded to a predicament in pro fishing that’s influencing nearly all of the top players: Number of events, or a lack of them. My eureka moment thought process concluded the easy solution: Have more pro events.
Well, it appears it’s not quite that easy, as I’m sure most of you are well aware. This week, I'll take an inside look at what it takes to pull off pro fishing tournaments, and what the logical progression is for touring pros looking to work more.
I’m well aware that this topic may not seem to directly interest all BassFans, as not everyone is traveling the country in search of stardom. But as the changes at the top percolate down through the ranks, it will likely impact all sanctioned circuits, from national to local, especially in qualifying aspects.
I'll also delve a little further into what, I believe, is the direction that the pro tours are taking, and why it can’t be accepted by professional anglers.
Starting with last week’s theme: What about expansion of the tours themselves, offering multiple divisions of each? For conversation's sake, let’s say three divisions, featuring four events apiece.
Each division would have a number of slots reserved for the championship events – let’s just say 15. There would be some double- and triple-qualifiers for sure – but using this method and a few “bonus” qualifiers gets a field of around 40 to 50 guys to the big show. A guy like me, or the thousands of others who want to “fish pro” without “going pro," can fish one division and still make it to the office before anyone knows they're gone, while the full-time gypsies could fish all three and stay busy. Sounds easy, right?
I posed this very predicament to B.A.S.S. and FLW, as I alluded to earlier. The former FLW Series, taking the very direction we mention here, but later eliminated, immediately came to mind. I had to know what happened there because it seemed ideal.
FLW’s president of operations Kathy Fennel, probably sick of my rants by now, replied in her typical kind, professional manner.
“The idea of having multiple pro-level divisions does have merit, and you are correct, it is the premise behind what was the FLW Series,” Fennel wrote in an email.
“It gives pro anglers who want to fish more than six events the flexibility to do so while not hindering those who desire fewer tournaments. It’s the best of both worlds, so long as there is a sponsor willing to fund it in exchange for the tremendous exposure such a sponsorship provides.”
In other words, it sounds like FLW is all for it, provided it can find a title sponsor to fund it. One thing we have to consider here in the world of pro bass is that the top-level events – we’re talking the FLW Tour, B.A.S.S. Elite and TTBC – payout in excess of 100 percent.
What that means, in layman’s terms, is that the tournament trails are deriving income far greater than that of entry fees from the anglers. Far, far greater. In order to operate these businesses and pay more than they take in, the sponsor support needs to not only kick in for angler payouts, but pay all of the bills to run and support the events, their people, and the organizations. That’s a pretty hefty tab at the end of the year.
Fennel went further into the details.
“Without a significant title sponsor, however, it’s not possible to maintain the large payouts or television coverage that pro anglers enjoy in such events,” she wrote.
In other words, from what I gather, FLW isn’t interested in just throwing together an event where the money goes in a hat and back to the fishermen at the end of the day. They feel the need to encompass the entire spectrum of true pro fishing, including TV and magazine exposure. This allows all the events to be recognized pro tournaments.
I can agree with that, to some extent. But it sounds like the potential hang-up may be producing all of the exposure to go along with the events themselves. Other pro sports are getting it done, it appears. I can watch a baseball game every day.
Maybe an alternative would be Internet production, like FLW's new Circuit Breaker show. Maybe all the events don’t have to have the confetti falling from the sky, the storybook-like ending or the life-changing scripts. Maybe these guys just need to fish more. Remember, lots of sports fans just watch the playoffs.
It appears the current direction is for the pro tours to put more emphasis on their triple-A leagues, the EverStart and Open trails. I’m starting to get the feeling that, by increasing entry fees to levels in excess of $1,000 per event, and offering a large first prize, they somehow feel it justifies these circuits as another pro tour. However, scrutinizing the payouts at these events show this to be far from the truth for one glaring reason: Professionals in any business cannot make a habit of losing money. Short of being a professional slot-machine player or Caribbean treasure hunter, successful businesses must come out ahead more often than behind.
When we review the payback for the entry-level pro events, it’s common to see fishermen in the Top 10 actually losing money for the week. With entry fees and expenses, most of these events require an investment pushing $3,000 each. Sure, there is value in the recognition of doing well, especially to a sponsored pro, but that recognition is nothing like it is for the top tours.
This year, Fennel reported that the plans of FLW are to do just that: make the EverStart another outlet for the pros. “For FLW, the alternative for 2014 is to significantly boost the EverStart Series to a level that makes it attractive to Tour-level pros while still serving top regional anglers. It’s a balance between angler and sponsor demand,” she noted.
I’m guessing what this means is that there is not sufficient funding for more Tour events, but FLW feels the need to do something more. I can appreciate that. It's reinstated the EverStart Championship, and that’s a viable way for an angler to get some of his money back. When we do the math, the championship significantly boosts the year-end payout for the EverStarts to numbers not normally seen in the intro leagues.
Even more, those anglers qualifying will most likely have the most invested, as they will fish all the events, and should therefore reap the greatest reward. Look for many of the EverStart Championship players to be the big sticks on Tour, as that will be their best chance to clean up.
Another pathway to consider is the B.A.S.S. Opens. These are great events, no doubt. Every detail is thought through when B.A.S.S. coordinates these tournaments, and their weigh-in and fish care are second to none.
The payout, however, again prohibits consideration as an avenue for a full-time pro. The exception would be the Classic qualification for winning Open anglers. While I’ve been critical in this direction in the past, I can understand some of the Elite anglers' desire to compete in the Opens, in order to have the very best chance at Classic qualification. Mike Iaconelli is a great example, as he sealed the deal this fall and snuck into a Classic that he would have badly missed had he been absent. When your income depends on the logos on your shirt, Classics and Cups need to be frequented annually.
But, in reality, most touring pros fishing the Opens and EverStarts are taking a loss at the end of the year, even with consecutive money finishes. Believe me, I’ve done the math.
In addition, what the tours are effectively telling us it that the return on an investment by a pro to fish a full season in these leagues will hinge on one single performance. That certainly doesn’t sound like a sound business plan to me.
For that reason, these trails simply cannot be considered viable paths for full-time, professional anglers. Besides, guys like me get tired of getting their guts stomped by the Iaconellis of the world.
Another avenue we’re also seeing at this time is more interest from the pros in outside events. The TTBC, which recently aired on TV calling itself the world championship of bass fishing, offers a significant return.
Also, Major League Fishing is really catching on, and allows anglers a big outlet to sell themselves to sponsors.
I wouldn’t be surprised one bit to see either of these campaigns expand, especially the TTBC. Granted, the event coordinators probably can’t even fathom putting together more than one of these a year, complete with the big-name concerts and multi-day festival, but there’s room for it if they did. And it probably won’t be long until some other government agency wises up and figures out that the Texas Parks people, the big beneficiaries of the event, are bringing millions into their economy with their highly improved, world-class fisheries.
Bass fishermen aren’t afraid to travel and spend money, as many popular Texas lakes, seemingly thousands of miles from anywhere, are proof.
So maybe we’ll see some expansion from one, or both, of these camps. Or possibly we’ll see expansion from the big players, now that the economy is reportedly better.
I posed more of my burning questions to both B.A.S.S. and FLW. B.A.S.S. chose to comment with “no comment” which, at first, seemed a little stingy. But I can understand that they might not be too excited to divulge their future business model, so I’ll go along with it. But I bet their fishermen would like to know more about their future.
FLW is taking additional time to get back to me, and I look forward to their response. Specifically, I want to know just what it takes to put these mega-wheels in motion.
For decades now, the tournament trails themselves have held a mysterious cloud over their internal engines. Walmart, ESPN, Wheaties boxes, team deals, business tycoon owners and investors; as fans we hear rumors of these million-dollar contracts and big business influence. But, believe me, running these operations is far from just smiling and collecting money. For the tournament organizations, like everyone else in fishing, every dollar is certainly just as difficult to squeeze out of corporate America.
For some reason, most people are still unaware of just how popular fishing really is. Besides, if sponsors were lined up to support tournament fishing, we’d certainly have more than a couple dozen pro events annually throughout the country.
I’ve got a little holiday break ahead of me until Jan 9, but Fennel has agreed to let me in further on the topic. Be on the lookout for that when I return.
(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.)