One of the most surreal thoughts I have is the fact that 2016 marks my 30th year as a full-time professional angler. The transformation I've witnessed in this sport has been epic, to say the least.
I’d like to take this opportunity to share a few wide-ranging thoughts and observations on the current state of our sport.
Over the past 30 years, I've seen the sport go through stages that I would classify as the following.
> 1986-1995 – Pre-FLW, B.A.S.S. domination. This era was the stage where the full-time professional angler was really born. B.A.S.S. was developing beyond the Invitational-only events it had when I started out and expanding into Top 100 and Top 150 events, where qualifications were necessary. Solid sponsorship opportunities were growing. At the weekend and regional levels, there were many opportunities for anglers to climb the ranks.
> 1996-2004 – FLW emerges in a big way. B.A.S.S. begins to struggle. Irwin Jacobs transforms the sport and takes it to the next level. Non-endemic companies were flocking to the sport. Payouts were growing to unheard-of levels. Sponsorship opportunities were many and lucrative. I consider these the "golden years" of our sport. ESPN's coverage of professional fishing gave our sport the respect it deserves, in terms of showcasing tour-level bass fishing as the true professional sport it really is. It was the best time in history to be a pro bass angler.
> 2005-2007 – Things begin to unravel. FLW puts strict sponsor-logo restrictions on many of the two-tour anglers. This forces most anglers to "choose sides" between FLW and B.A.S.S. For many, sponsor alignments force this decision. As well, a huge influx of new tour-level competitors flood the sport, making solid sponsorships more difficult to obtain for most.
> 2008-2011 – The darkest years for the sport. The great recession of 2008 devastates the industry and angler sponsorships. It’s a huge blow to our sport and we still have not recovered. Most pros face an immediate 50 percent to 100 percent loss in sponsorship income and support, and sponsors begin to pull out of tournament sponsorships as well. Tournament payouts plummet and sponsorship deals are extremely difficult to land and sustain.
> 2012-Present – The state of the sport. That leaves us looking at 2017. Where is our sport at and where is it headed?
Despite the fact that fishing industry sales (tackle/boats/motors/etc.) are going very well, that has not translated into higher payouts and increased sponsorship opportunities for anglers and tournament organizations. Endemic support is important, but the key to increasing payouts and sponsorships lies in developing and sustaining relationships with non-endemic companies.
The problem we have is that most organizations and anglers have not done a very good job in showing these companies what a tremendous value it is to use professional fishing as a marketing tool – articularly with the value and power of the organized team concept.
Another challenge is that most marketing managers for these non-endemic companies are undedicated or unwilling to learn how many impressions vs. costs that pro anglers and teams can generate. If they knew the reality of it, most of them would stop throwing their money away at traditional advertising forms.
Given this, we sit at a period in pro fishing, that unless tournament organizations and anglers can begin to effectively communicate and formulate ways for non-endemic companies to come into and stay in our sport, we will remain stagnant. Obviously, the approaches that have been used in the past are not working in terms of attracting and sustaining these relationships.
I know from being part of the Bridgford Foods Corporation Pro Fishing Team for the past 4 years, that it doesn't have to be this way.
Bridgford Foods' involvement in professional fishing is a model of success that tournament organizations, anglers and non-endemic companies would do well to study and emulate. They have effectively activated and capitalized on their sponsorship. They made a commitment to this initiative, and it is an alive, growing and creative process that brings value to the company in a real, measurable way.
The team concept provides a much better platform for a company to not only increase impressions, but it has a stabilizing effect on the industry as a whole.
One of the big fails, particularly on the endemic side of our sport, is when a company commits a major portion of its budget to just one angler, leaving only crumbs for any additional support of others.
In today’s world of social media and diverse marketing opportunities, there is no single angler in the sport today, regardless of accomplishments, that can compete with the marketing advantages a hard-working team of just solid anglers can provide.
The second issue I'm concerned with is the fact that myself and many others see our sport turning into somewhat of an elitist activity. I’m hearing this more all the time from the anglers. While there are ways for those less financially heeled to compete, it is extremely difficult today compared to 30 years ago.
When I started fishing professionally in 1986, my entire entry-fee outlay was $3,600 to fish all the B.A.S.S. events at the top level. You could fish the entire circuit for the year, expenses included, for under $10,000. Boats and trucks cost a fraction of what they do now.
In my own personal situation, I mowed lawns all summer and saved up enough money to fish that rookie year in 1986. I did it on my own as a 24-year-old with no help from anyone.
In 2016, the path I took in 1986 is now impossible.
Entry fees for the tour-level events are $32,000 and up. Expenses are another $30,000. Boat and truck costs are more than the value of most Americans' houses. And that's just before you make a cast. None of that covers living expenses, insurance and mortgage payments the anglers are responsible for.
So realistically, if you are a 24-year-old today, like I was in 1986, you would have to have an initial financial outlay of over $150,000 to compete at the Tour level as a rookie. I don't know any who can do that without the financial assistance of family or friends.
Given this, my concern is the fact that kids like myself who didn't have any financial help early on, but had the passion and desire to want to fish professionally, will never get the same opportunities I had in 1986.
This is unheard of in other professional sports.
Can you imagine if Tiger Woods, Hank Aaron, or Serena Williams never had the opportunity to compete simply because they couldn't afford it? Until we can take this element out of professional fishing, it will never live up to its potential as a real professional sport. It’s simply not fair to some anglers starting out and needs to change.
That is why I'm so supportive of high school and college fishing, and the potential that lies within it.
It is my hope that passion and desire of an aspiring tournament angler, not family financial backing, will determine who is able to compete in professional fishing in the future.
Another area I have an issue with, is the elephant in the room ... that B.A.S.S. is the "true" professional tour and FLW is just a glorified BFL circuit. Make no mistake about it, as I've competed on both Tours – FLW is the most difficult circuit to compete and excel on.
The field is bigger, and loaded with talent. The Bassmaster Elite Series is slowly but surely being transformed into a field of past FLW guns who have qualified through the Opens. FLW keeps pumping out the talent due to the fact they have the largest number of grassroots events in America and will continue to do so.
The disturbing thing, and issue I have with this, is many companies choose to allocate many more sponsorship dollars to B.A.S.S. pros, while many FLW pros are relegated to the leftover crumbs.
An Elite series angler gets no more impressions than an FLW Tour angler when driving a wrapped rig across the country. And regardless of what anyone tells you, driving a wrapped rig is the No. 1 impression-gainer any pro has.
This perception that some of the media, fans, the anglers and some sponsors have created and continue to perpetuate, is that B.A.S.S. somehow has more talented anglers, and that needs to stop. It is a myth that is simply false and is not fair to the anglers.
Both sides have the world's best anglers. But again, FLW is the tougher tour to excel on simply because of the larger fields and a grassroots organization full of sticks. To get a check in FLW, you must finish in the top 50 out of 160 anglers and finish in the top 20 after 2 days to make a cut.
In B.A.S.S., you only have to finish in the top 50 out of 108 anglers to get the same check and finish in the top 50 after two days to make a cut. You do the math on which circuit is harder to succeed and stand out in.
On the positive side, one of the best things our sport has going for it now is social media. The impact of this cannot be dismissed or marginalized. Social media platforms allow anglers to not only expose sponsor products, but educate an extremely loyal and passionate target market.
An angler with a Facebook following that has thousands of fans can create more impressions than anglers who qualify for the Bassmaster Classic or Forrest Wood Cup, or even win an national event. Just 5 or 10 years ago, this was not the case.
This is a huge transformation, especially for a non-endemic company.
When you talk in terms of brand impressions generated, in 2016, an unknown angler with a wrapped boat and truck who drives 40,000 miles per year and has a big social media following can literally generate more advertising value than an angler who dominates through performance. A fishing team can multiply that number tremendously.
Like it or not, that is the reality of it, and in my opinion it is a good and much-needed thing at this point in time.
It opens up more anglers to good, solid sponsorship opportunities, and until we reach a point in pro fishing where money is not a requirement to compete, being able to place more value of promotional ability over performance is the key to getting more and new anglers into the sport.
One of the aspects of the sport that many who don’t compete cannot fully comprehend is the phenomenal increase in the level of competition over the past 5 years especially. Ten-plus years ago, it was the norm for weights to be the highest on day 1, then taper off 1 to 3 pounds the next day. In today’s sport, most of the times weights stay the same or increase on day 2.
It used to be you could “junk-fish” your way to a lower-level check with 7 to 10 pounds a day, depending on the lake and time of year. No more. Most 50th-place checks require 10 to 16 pounds per day. You need a kicker with a limit these days just to cash a check, and to make a top-20 or top-10 cut, you need multiple kickers with a limit.
The lakes are not getting better, but the competition and technology to catch the fish are. New lure and electronic technology, combined with strong local information ties, have made some anglers consistency border on the incredible. We are seeing less-connected anglers who cannot afford these advantages fall by the wayside, regardless of their passion level and work ethic.
As well, one of the realities that is transforming our sport is the “amateur” anglers are getting better at an incredible pace. When co-anglers first started fishing with me, it was common to see them with spincast oufits and two-piece rods.
No more. Today’s average amateur angler is as good as the top pros were 20 years ago. The Internet has transformed our sport in both positive and negative ways.
Amateur anglers cannot be fooled by gimmick lures like they were in the past. They can discern things that work from their own knowledge and experience, where in the past, they could not.
If I could identify the biggest single change I’ve seen in the sport over the past 10 years, it would definitely be how much the skill level of the co-angler has skyrocketed.
I'd like to say I'm optimistic about the future. Bass fishing is the best sport in the world. The people are great, and being able to spend time on the water and in nature provides a healing that few people understand unless they have experienced it.