Although this time of year brings no competition among the tour-level bass circuits, it’s certainly not without news and excitement. As next year's schedules are announced and tweaked, also included are the coinciding rule and format changes. And, boy, is there a laundry list for 2015!
In many cases, changes are positive. With today’s increased interest in professional bass fishing, both among fans and sponsors, comes growth and the need to adjust accordingly. In the previous week, announcements of several major changes within the pro circuits have made their way across the pages of BassFan. And while some are so sensational they can’t help but stir conversations among nearly all readers, others are equally important but may go unnoticed. I’d like to look at a few to offer, perhaps, another side to the story. I do so in no particular order:
> No more Elite “Win-and-You're-In” for the Classic: Unlike in the previous few years, winners of regular-season Bassmaster Elite Series events will no longer be guaranteed a spot in the Bassmaster Classic. Qualifying will have to be done through the Angler of the Year points program, therefore allowing 36 qualifiers from that list, rather than the previous number of 29.
At first glance, you would think I'd love this change, as I’m a big believer in overall performance of the pros determining Classic berths. But on the contrary, I think the old format offers something that will now be removed from the sport. How many times have we heard a successful angler, usually after winning repeatedly in the same year, say “I swung for the fences because I had the Classic wrapped up already." A guaranteed spot early on brings out another gear in some competitors, and I think we will miss this facet in our sport.
> FLW reduces exclusive sponsor categories from 31 to 9 and allows sponsor display exemptions in unfilled categories: I won’t speculate as to the reasoning behind this because it would be just that – speculation. But what’s important to consider is that such a reduction will strongly impact FLW pros both positively and negatively.
For many established veterans, such changes will now allow a much greater chance of bringing an outside sponsor in without conflict, and give that sponsor the exposure it deserves. However, for many it will mean the loss of an FLW team sponsorship. These programs have made it possible for dozens of anglers lacking major recognition or sponsorship to fish full-time and often kick-start their careers. Several of today’s top anglers started this way. Certainly the rug will get pulled out from under quite a few hopeful anglers.
> BASSFest comes back with a $6,000 entry fee for qualifying Open anglers: While it would be easy to simply write this one off due to the absurd entry fee, we need to look at both sides. To some extent, I feel B.A.S.S. continues to push to see just how much they can get out of the Open fishermen. The regular-season payouts fall far below other triple-A circuits, yet Open participation continues to surge, thanks in large part to the Classic qualification clause.
Now B.A.S.S. is pushing those same anglers to pony up a previously unheard of entry fee. Surely, many will now forego competition despite qualification. However, to consider both sides of this coin, the qualifying Open anglers are fishing for the same prize as the Elite anglers, who spend tens of thousands more annually while following the entire circuit. And considerable recognition is offered to an Open angler should he win BASSFest, as we saw last year with Jacob Wheeler.
> FLW allows pros to wear their own jerseys on Day 4: This is huge. For nearly 20 years, the FLW jersey rule has been touted by pros as the ultimate “deal-breaker” for sponsor support. Now that is no more, and sponsors outside of FLW’s home base can be guaranteed the exposure they deserve when their supported anglers make the finals. This is imperative to companies with professional fishing staffs and is absolutely necessary for FLW to stay on par with B.A.S.S. when it comes to generating exposure for these brands.
> B.A.S.S. outlaws umbrella rigs in Opens, FLW does not for Rayovacs: Just because we all need a dose of Alabama Rig every now and then, let’s take a peek here. I always felt it was illogical to outlaw rigs in tour level events, but allow them in events that qualify anglers for those same tours as well as the championship events of those circuits. In other words, a guy makes the Classic in an Open throwing a rig, but the pros can’t do so to qualify for the same event. Huh?
In any case, B.A.S.S. has come to its senses. FLW has not, likely due to its vocalization of the ridiculous “rigs are good for the fishing industry” argument, thus now leaving it no choice but to allow inclusion somewhere. Perhaps it will take a few more years for the public to forget about the whole thing and then we’ll finally put this thing to bed.
There’s a great deal more happening right now in the world of pro bass. FLW has reduced the overall field size and increased entry fees. The Rayovac Series is taking more anglers to its championship. B.A.S.S. appears to be blatantly copying the popular Ultimate Match Fishing model with its new B.A.S.S. Brawl, minus the big payday. Triple-A Northern Divisions still occur out East. The PAA has canceled its entire season.
Like any facet of change, there will be peaks and valleys. Some will come out ahead while others will be left behind.
There’s a lot to talk about and a bunch of insiders to interview. Stay tuned for more.
(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.)