Within the rumor mill of pro bass, we’ve been hearing of these changes for quite some time.
Truthfully, I was beginning to doubt if they’d ever take place.
But, in what seemed like a long-overdue action by tournament officials, it appears B.A.S.S. is ready to begin trimming the Elite Series field to more closely include only its top performers.
The theory, of course, is that smaller field sizes promote more fan recognition, overall. The same model is used successfully, and to a higher degree, by Major League Fishing. But rising costs, including a rumored rise in entry fees, may also be to blame, as it’s simply difficult to find high numbers of independently-sponsored anglers with six figures to drop for a season on Tour.
In the past, B.A.S.S. has been somewhat forced to invite all Elite anglers back year after year. Ownership changes within the organization, coupled with the Elite Series' relative infancy, had made any proposed cuts seem in bad taste, and nearly impossible to figure out mathematically. But B.A.S.S. has now bit the bullet and announced their intentions to begin in the spring of 2015.
Such a move is particularly important for a few major reasons.
First off, it allows B.A.S.S. to keep its field size at a number they feel is reasonable. In all of the press releases surrounding this subject, B.A.S.S. has stated that they found 100 to 110 anglers to be an “ideal field size” according to pro angler surveys.
In truth, without question the majority of pro anglers would actually prefer smaller fields than this, thus freeing up more areas of the lake and allowing a mathematically greater chance of winning. However, considering fan appeal, qualification parameters, sponsor support, entry fee base and the like, there has to be a minimum, and it looks like 100 anglers is right around that number.
Keeping the field at that number, therefore, allows for a reasonable percentage of roster turnover, with qualifying Open anglers coming up and taking 15 spots. I can go along with that. For the past several seasons, a number of parameters have been put in place that have significantly increased the interest in B.A.S.S. Open participation. That, coupled with a recovering economy, has made Elite Series spots a hot commodity. And, while I don’t support Open anglers receiving bids to the Classic as many of you know, I’m a big believer in the Opens being the stepping stone to the Elites. It’s really a great formula.
Secondly, this trimming of the Elite field size is advantageous to the tournament trail, as it allows them to more specifically select their athletes. This has been a source of contempt for what seems like an eternity. Sure, the fans want to see their long-time hero pros compete, but the lackluster performance of some does not truly “qualify” them to retain their spots. Thus, the greatest dilemma faced by the tournament organizers is often how they can retain their fan favorites, but not bump a truly deserving up-and-comer.
B.A.S.S. has come up with a proposed solution in its new criteria, but I’m afraid it may serve to be problematic. While the majority of the newly-trimmed Elite qualifiers still come out of the existing Elite field, and 16 others come from the Opens and the B.A.S.S. Nation program, it’s the remaining spots that may be met with the most scrutiny.
> Five anglers return with “hardship exemptions." While I totally understand this, the ability to clearly define such a term is absurd. A prime example exists here, in the first year of the rule’s enactment. Does having a seriously ill spouse qualify you for such an exemption? Heck yes. Does falling out of a tree stand while you’re deer hunting? Ahhh, no.
> Five rookies are given a grace period. Rookies will be given two years to prove their performance. Again, I understand this. Jumping in as a rookie, often times with less resources available than much of the competition, is a very intimidating and difficult affair. But even the definition of a “rookie” is clouded in pro bass, and may result in discrepancy here. Is Joe Sancho a rookie? Sure. Is Randall Tharp? Come on.
> Sixteen additional positions are to be determined based on the anglers’ average AOY finish over their entire Elite career, with their worst year discarded from their average. This could result in very shaky ground. While an average will occasionally determine an athlete’s overall performance, it may not do so in the case of bass fishing. We’ve seen many times in the past where a new angler comes in hot, and has a couple of great years, then fades off for the next several. I’d hate to see a three-year pro, with a couple “lucky” campaigns and a hot streak, take the spot from a Gary Klein, John Murray or Kenyon Hill. For the time being, it appears this clause will be somewhat acceptable, as the only grumblings we’ve heard have come in the form of non-qualifiers blaming lackluster fishing performances, but this could get sticky down the road.
In the end, B.A.S.S. has the stipulation it can always fall back on; the best trump card in the pro bass tournament deck: Fishing tournaments are, in reality, all “invitationals." Organizers can simply pick and choose, to some degree, whom they let compete. In addition, there are always a few gray areas within the rules that gives the tournament organizations the final say-so for nearly everything.
That’s fine - it’s their party, and they will be fielding all the calls and complaints. However, B.A.S.S. will need to do so with extreme scrutiny, as this is sure to be a difficult situation. And, like changes before and surely after, this system will also likely change, as B.A.S.S. finds a better way to determine the best field, constantly having to juggle the delicate balance between fishermen, fans and sponsors.
As these changes begin to take place, theirs is not a job I envy.
(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.)