(Editor's note: Randy Blaukat competed on the Bassmaster Tour for 20 years and the FLW Tour for 13, fishing more than 300 tournaments with BASS and FLW Outdoors combined. He's been with FLW exclusively for the past 4 years, but has decided not to compete on the Tour in 2010. In the BassFan Opinion piece that follows, he shares his thoughts on what the organizations need to do to ensure a stable future for pro fishing.)
My desire to become a professional bass angler was born during the late 1970s while reading Bassmaster Magazine as a young teen. I followed the exploits of Roland Martin, Rick Clunn and Basil Bacon with great interest, like other kids followed football or baseball stars.
It became my passion and I committed myself to having a career as a pro angler. Not coming from a wealthy background, it took me 5 years of working odd jobs to save up enough money to compete one season on the Bassmaster Tournament Trail, which I did in 1986.
Through one of the mysteries of the universe, I qualified for the Bassmaster Classic my rookie year, which gave me the springboard to have a career spanning almost 25 years in the sport. I've been one of the fortunate ones, doing what I love for a living, qualifying for a combined 17 Bassmaster Classics and Forrest Wood Cups, winning several BASS Top 150 events and earning around $1.5 million on the Bassmaster and FLW Tours.
That has all changed, as I am taking an indefinite leave of absence from the two major circuits. Without going into details of my own personal situation – it's not important in the overall scheme of things – I will say it's due to a combination of sponsor cuts and frustration with the tournament organizations.
With that said, I'd like to give my thoughts on the past, present and future of the sport.
The bad news is that the BASS and FLW models of tour-level pro fishing are not working. The good news is they can have a great future if they choose to see the challenges that are upon them as an opportunity to improve.
I say it's not working because the current model they both use is unsustainable in the long term. There is no protection for the anglers, who are their customers. It is simply too expensive to compete.
There are no long-term efforts by the organizations to lobby for the concerns of the anglers, who have been on the edge of revolt for years. Both organizations have given them just enough – and no more – to keep their frustration from boiling over.
Whether it's low payouts, sponsorship injustices, scheduling, rules or whatever, BASS and FLW lack the transparency needed at the management level and choose to run their businesses cloaked in secrecy. That alienates the anglers, sponsors and fans.
Both organizations have been presented opportunities to become clear front-runners; to establish a much-needed leader in the sport and make a positive change, but neither have taken advantage of those chances.
The first opportunity was presented to FLW in the late 1990s. At that time, FLW events were being telecast on ESPN. They had the good fortune of having Jerry McKinnis and his company, JM Production Group, producing the FLW events for ESPN.
In my opinion, Jerry McKinnis was the best thing that ever happened to professional fishing. He and his people knew the sport and the anglers, and had the best interest of the anglers in mind.
The inability of FLW to continue a relationship with JM and ESPN was the beginning of its downfall. Walmart held out for several years and kept the payouts decent, but that loss of ESPN as a television vehicle caused the organization to lose credibility in the eyes of the fans, sponsors, and anglers. This diminished the value of the FLW pros.
Eventually, previously unheard-of Bassmaster Elite Series pros were becoming more well-known than FLW standouts like Larry Nixon and Guido Hibdon, simply because BASS had the power of ESPN and FLW was on a different obscure cable network every other month. I know because I've spoken to the sponsors, fans, and anglers about it. If FLW would have continued with JM and ESPN, I doubt that the Elite Series would exist today as we know it.
The second blown opportunity came to BASS in 2004, during the inaugural Bassmaster Elite 50 event on Lake Dardanelle. This was the most awesome event I have ever participated in. The energy was incredible – you had to be there to believe it.
Again, Jerry McKinnis, Angie Thompson and the rest of the JM Production Group played a big part. It was almost like they had been given free reign in creativity, and it showed.
In my opinion, this event was the high-water mark in the history of professional fishing. Many of us had big, non-endemic sponsorship deals. Everyone was excited about the future. JM had successfully elevated the sport to a new level, and there was no better time to be a professional angler.
All of that energy quickly dissipated the following year. BASS imposed signage requirements that forced FLW anglers to choose sides between BASS and FLW. FLW already had signage requirements that limited anglers' ability to promote themselves.
Then the big blow came with the creation of the Bassmaster Elite Series. Packing an entry fee and traveling expenses totaling over $100,000 per year, it quickly became known as the Financial Elite Series. FLW soon followed suit with comparable fees and expenses, which effectively put professional fishing in what can clearly be classified as an elitist sport.
BASS followed by marketing a tiny, select group of anglers who were good at drawing attention to themselves, while the rest of the field was forced to fight over the few remaining crumbs of the sponsorship pie. Likewise, FLW's strict sponsorship guidelines were fine as long as you were on a sponsored team. Once those opportunities started fading for most, the ability to retain sponsorship by self-marketing became nearly impossible – as it is today.
As a result, most young anglers who pop up in BASS and FLW today are funded by their families. After all, how many 21-year-old anglers have saved up over $100,000 for a boat, truck and fishing tackle, and another $100,000 for a year's worth of tournament expenses? I don't know of any.
I find this disturbing, since the reason I got into the sport years ago was because you could do it on your own. The sport didn't discriminate, and that's why I fell in love with it. Anglers today who are in the financial situation that I started out in are not as fortunate. They don't have a chance.
Many anglers have outside sources of income that fund their fishing. The days of the angler, like myself, who can rely on nothing other than what we win or earn from sponsorships are fading rapidly.
The tournament organizations know this, but have unwisely chosen to ignore it. Instead, they have tried to increase the status of pro fishing by offering huge purses to 1st place, which has not worked in attracting new sponsors or fans. If that 1st-place money was broken up and paid down to 100th place in all events, it would allow many to stay in the sport. Fans don't care how much 1st place is worth, they want to see talent. They want to attend an event that showcases that talent.
Unfortunately, the best talent is not what they are getting.
Like a lot of other pros, I know anglers locally who would be superstars in professional fishing, but their financial situation will not let them pursue it. That's why bass fishing is not a true professional sport – talented anglers are being replaced by less-talented ones who are financially independent. That trend is unsustainable and disturbing, but it is the reality of our sport now.
And that goes back to the sponsorship issue. Attaining non-endemic sponsorships on the tour level has never been fair. Promotional ability and fishing performance often take a back seat to who you know – especially with the large, non-endemic sponsorships. While that's reality, the approach undermines the credibility of the sport as a whole. The definition of a "pro" becomes clouded, and makes attaining sponsorship more difficult for the group in general.
Tournament organizations have a responsibility that goes beyond running events and making a profit. That responsibility includes the anglers' well-being and environmental issues tied to the sport. They have done a poor job with both.
The environment is the No. 1 sustainability issue for the future of professional fishing. For most, it's a topic of little interest that takes a back seat to the latest hot lure. Many anglers are uneducated about the real environmental issues that are confronting our planet. They don't want to be bothered by it and assume someone else is taking care of it.
Without a healthy, vibrant ecosystem, our sport is done. Period.
While BASS and FLW have both done things to undermine their own short and long-term agendas, none is as disturbing to me as their subtle-yet-obvious endorsements of certain political candidates over the years who have voted time and again for legislation that weakens our air- and water-quality standards.
I am probably one of the few anglers who monitor the House and Senate voting records of candidates I have seen BASS and FLW gravitate toward. I think if most of the anglers knew how these candidates were robbing our grandchildren's future rights to clean air and water, they would be appalled. Many of these candidates proclaim to be on the side of sportsmen's rights, but their environmental stances (formed mostly to protect special-interest groups) are undermining the future of the very fishing venues that allow FLW, BASS and the anglers to make a living.
Whether it's climate-change, mercury contamination caused from coal plants or easing emissions standards for polluters nationwide, I am deeply concerned about the apathy that the bass fishing community in general has about the long-term effects of these environmental challenges.
Again, it is all about sustainability. Whether it's FLW, BASS or the PAA, one of these organizations has to step up and have the courage to do the right thing. The direction of the sport must change dramatically, and soon. A complete paradigm shift has to occur on both the tournament and manufacturing level.
I would like to see BASS, FLW and the PAA work together for the overall good of the sport. That is my hope, but the very nature of for-profit businesses like BASS and FLW makes that reality a huge challenge. They are too resistant to change, and are motivated by interests other than the well-being of the professional participants.
Given this, I feel the PAA holds the greatest potential for long-term success. That is where I plan to compete.
The model of the PAA not only puts the best interests of the anglers first, but it offers sponsors the best value and the fans the most talented anglers. Most pros, including myself, feel the endemic manufacturing sector of our industry will benefit the most by having the PAA take over the leadership role in professional bass fishing. There is just an inherent respect by the fans and sponsors that comes with the PAA being "by the anglers and for the anglers," with no ulterior motives.
I do consider myself truly fortunate. I have made a living doing what I love for over 20 years. I have experienced some incredibly exciting moments and seen a lot of the natural world from coast to coast. The friends I have met over the years are like my family. And I met my awesome wife Susanne when she was working at Zebco and I was on the company's pro staff.
The things I have seen and experienced on the water during my career have been incredible. Tournament fishing on this level, for as long as I've been doing it, forces a person to deal with all levels of human emotion. You learn so much about yourself.
I recently listened to an interview with Andre Agassi about his retirement. He made the comment that he loves tennis, but hates tennis at the same time. I totally understand what he means.
I love the excitement of running back to weigh-in with a livewell full of fish that will earn me tens of thousands of dollars. I love the thrill of finding fish in practice and catching those same fish in the tournament. I love the detail of preparing tackle for an upcoming tournament and the peace that comes from spending so much time in nature.
But I don't like the petty politics of the sport. Or the year-to-year stress of obtaining and maintaining sponsorships. Or the emotional ups and downs.
My hope for the future of the sport is for the individuals who are in position to make change, from the tournament to the manufacturing level, to put their egos aside, put their dead and dying concepts of what this sport is aside, and create a positive change that will lead to a vibrant, sustainable future.