The harsh reality of winter has now settled in through much of the country’s northern range. In my home state of Michigan, snow is severe, and excessively low temperatures have reached levels where local news stations are using a skull and crossbones in the forecast. Bass fishing seems light years away.
I did catch a 4-pounder through the ice a few days ago. While it made my heart flutter a touch when I first saw it on the Aqua-Vu, disappointment quickly set in once the fish was hooked, as largemouth fight like snagged garbage bags through the ice.
For many, however, January signals a time of renewed life, both in fishing and spiritual terms. Each New Year, the FLW Tour embarks on another campaign, followed closely by Bassmaster Classic. Things start off in southern Florida, where FLW will hold a couple BFLs and a Rayovac (formerly EverStart) event, before opening up the big shop there in February.
The fact that FLW starts each season on Okeechobee just adds to the mystique; I can picture the anticipation of all the young up-and-comers. Imagine being some kid from Ohio or Oklahoma; places so removed from the everglade environment of the Big O, where it seems a bass could be anywhere. I remember my first trip to Florida. It was like I was dreaming or had entered another world. I recently shared a plane ride with Ott DeFoe and he told stories of his experiences there as a youngster on family vacation. Just as mystified, you’d think he was in the boat with me. But that’s another story.
Right now, it’s back to business for the bass pros. A few might stay in Florida, competing in the triple-A Rayovac, then holding out for the Tour. That would equate to a month of living on $5 foot-longs, but I’m sure a few will try. One can’t help but remember when Shinichi Fukae practiced for 3 weeks leading up to a win on Okeechobee. It’s one of the few fisheries in America where such a method can actually work.
Perhaps this season, we might actually see more touring pros contemplating such a plan, as the current direction of the tours seems to place more emphasis on engaging professional anglers into the “entry-level pro” circuits like the Bassmaster Opens and Rayovacs. We delved into that at length in the last installment, and I wanted to finish up the topic here this week.
One thing I felt strongly about pointing out is that this is simply not a viable option for the big names of the game, as the smaller circuits, though worthwhile for part-time pros and those wishing to test the waters, simply cannot be profitable for the full-time guys. I’m sure by now you’re all tired of me reiterating that, but that’s the point, in a way.
FLW was quick to point out that it is doing all it can to increase the profitability of its Rayovac circuit, most prominently by adding a championship event and limiting the number of regular season events to, effectively, curb costs. Make no mistake, however. While overall travel costs may be reduced by 25 percent when moving from four to three tournaments, overall entry fees have actually increased for a year on the circuit.
My idea was to simply increase the number of pro events. That seemed to go nowhere when I was educated on the sponsorship complications that went along with such a proposal. I dug more, and FLW’s Trisha Blake, the president of marketing, chimed in:
“There is a balance between angler demand and sponsor demand that makes pro-level events possible," she said. "Take either one out of the equation, and the tournaments just don't work. Based on the incredible number of Walmart FLW Tour entries we've already received for 2014, it is clear that significant demand exists. The next step would be for a title sponsor to sign on in order to justify the 173-percent payback a circuit or division must offer to be on a par with the FLW Tour. We are an event-driven company. Nobody runs better tournaments than FLW, and we would like nothing more than to offer more tournaments tomorrow than we do today.
“To that end, our marketing team works diligently to secure sponsors and structure deals that provide significant return on a sponsor's investment. Sponsorship deals are secured and driven by a number of factors based upon the goals and objectives of the individual sponsor company-events, sponsored angler exposure/impressions, media, retail opportunities, etc. We create custom programs to meet each sponsor's specific needs, and our current offerings provide the elements to deliver the value our sponsors seek.”
So I guess we blame the marketing team? No, seriously, I can understand how difficult it must be to convince companies to come off their wallet in order to support fishing. Anyone on the inside of the industry has heard the talk: Fishing is bigger than golf and tennis combined. Fishing is one of the Top 3 most-participated sports in America. If fishing were a company, it would be in the Fortune 500.
Yet, for some reason, corporate America has a hard time buying it. We’ve heard the opinions and reasoning: a lack of appeal for television, dominated by certain rural demographics, and no participation or interest from youth.
I’m not sure I have an answer, but I do have a prediction: If the major tours continue to cap at six or eight events each, more pros will attempt to fish both tours. Whereas just a few pulled off such a feat in 2013, I think we’ll see more and more in the upcoming years.
I also feel that a time may come when the big circuits begin to again feel a nagging tug from regional-based events. The Southeast once had a very successful team trail that had more participants than the big tours. Out West, it’s always been a regional thing, but with national-level prizes. And as a teenager in Ohio, I remember the best game in town being the OBTC and MTOC trails, drawing far bigger crowds than the day’s Red Man circuit.
Heck, the biggest tournament in today’s age each year in the Buckeye State is the annual Central Basin Bass event, which drew over 230 participants last October. Sponsors start to notice these things.
Is this the end for the big shows? Of course not. However, each seems to be very concerned with the overall interest in its competitors, and their association with the brand. By that, I mean we all know which circuits VanDam and Clausen fish, right? But I remember, not too far in the distant past, when VanDam wore a Chevy jersey, void of all other sponsor logos, across the FLW stage, and when Clausen wore the Classic king’s crown. If each circuit wants to keep its best employees, it better make sure they have work.
The grass often looks a lot greener when the bank account’s in the red.
(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.)