An ordinary email came across my desk; FLW was taking applications for the 2020 FLW Pro Circuit marshal program. It’s a pretty easy concept: those interested pay a $100 fee to ride along with professional anglers for a few days of competition, learning the tips and tricks of some of the world's best bass anglers. A seminar and cookout is also included.
B.A.S.S. has a similar program for the Elite Series, also allowing marshals an inside look into the action. Fees there are $150 for regular-season events or $500 for those interested in marshaling for the Bassmaster Classic.
At one time, household-name pros were the selling point. I must admit, riding along with a bass fishing millionaire is quite an experience, as I’ve done several times as a Classic press observer. But the vast majority of the sport's biggest names now fish the Bass Pro Tour, where marshals are replaced by boat officials – trained, full-time positions available only to those living in or near Tulsa, Okla.
Such likely reduces the number of fishing fans interested in marshaling. I’m told that many Elite Series events recently were short on marshals, leaving just the competitor in the boat. That can’t be good.
It appears FLW’s answer is to offer an incentive; an opportunity for marshals to get paid – well, win a prize, really – for signing up. At each 2020 Pro Circuit event, FLW will offer a payout to the highest-placing marshals, as determined by the combined weight of their paired anglers’ catches each day. Top prize is $2,500.
While many nuances of these marshal programs puzzle me, this payout principle tops the list. In fact, I’d wager it will be dissolved or modified after only a season or two, so contradictory is the principle.
From what I know, a marshal’s role is to be an unbiased judge of the action and ensure competitors uphold the rules. At no time are they to influence the pro's decision-making or fishing locations. Documenting fish catches is also a duty.
So tell me, how can we ensure that the marshals remain unbiased when they have skin in the game? I mean, payment to the highest finisher defeats the whole purpose.
In no sport do we see payment of any type of officiating body, based on the outcome of the performers. At least none that I can think of – let me know if I’m wrong.
Perhaps my definition of a marshal as a tournament referee is incorrect. The original email would have me believe so. Here, nowhere does it state that – by acting as an FLW marshal – I would be required to officiate in any way. The language includes learning about “locating and catching big bass," being “in the middle of the action” and receiving “VIP access."
Gone is any mention of the original, basic premise behind the whole marshal movement: to eliminate the chance of a competitor cheating. Think about it: if this wasn’t necessary, marshals would have never originated in the first place.
Yet, here we are, now offering payment to marshals based on the performance of their paired partners. These seem contradictory.
Now, I don’t want the reader to confuse my opinion with one who doesn’t believe in the pro/marshal model. I’m all for pros having the ability to fish solo in certain formats. The problem exists in the selling point of the program.
Want marshals, but can’t seem to sell the concept? Sure – you can go ahead and pay them –but you must do so based on pure chance, in a lottery-type setting, or offer them all the same set of prizes and incentives. It’s only fair. Maybe some confusion exists between shared-weight formats and in-boat officials.
Which brings up another concept – that of the MLF model. Here, officials are just that, and the concept is secure. Rarely do these guys even crack a smile. Through contract with Major League Fishing, these “refs” fill a role necessary to the weigh-release format, as well as assessing and assigning penalties.
With all of the dollars and cents going through the hands of the tournament trails, I often wonder: Why not go ahead and pay the marshals? Perhaps solicit a sponsor to fund the program exclusively and receive all naming rights. Like the “Mountain Dew Marshal Program.” It’s already happening with the “Blankity-Blank Big Bass Award," heaviest stringer of the event incentives, 100-pound clubs and the like.
Offering payment to marshals would ensure participation. Asking for payment seems petty.
In any case, our sport continues to evolve to meet modern standards and push toward futuristic dreams. Think about it, it wasn’t long ago that two guys flipped a coin to determine whose boat to take.
We’ve come a long way, but have so far still to go.
(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.)