Pick up the phone and talk to anyone closely tied to pro fishing and the immediate subject turns to FLW Outdoors. The entire sport awaits news from the league about plans for 2010 and beyond.

The biggest concern involves Walmart – the critical sponsor that helped launch the modern era of fishing when it first underwrote the FLW Tour more than a decade ago. Through Walmart's involvement,

payouts escalated and the sport reached new highs in visibility and participation.

Concern about the Walmart sponsorship initially grew when longtime Walmart CEO Lee Scott retired earlier this year. Scott forged the original sponsor partnership with FLW Outdoors chairman Irwin Jacobs and the two remained close friends.

Questions about a Walmart pullout escalated as the retailer shrank – and in some cases eliminated – its fishing merchandise. Concerns gained yet more momentum at the Forrest Wood Cup when Walmart was noticeably left out of emcee Charlie Evans' comments.

Over the past 2 weeks, questions about Walmart's future role have intensified further as the much-anticipated FLW announcement about 2010 remains locked in delay.

Currently, many in the sport believe that Walmart will continue as a sponsor of FLW Outdoors, but at a much reduced level. Walmart is said to be most attracted to the FLW Fantasy Fishing program and will spend most of its dollars there, perhaps functioning on the competitive side as merely an associate sponsor.

Concerns thus arise about other FLW sponsors closely tied to Walmart's participation, such as Proctor & Gamble, which fields fishing teams under brands such as Fabreze, Iams and Pringles, or the Kellogg's, MasterFoods and Castrol sponsorships.

BassFan spoke with numerous sources on the condition of anonymity who said those companies are waiting to hear confirmation from FLW about plans for 2010, and whether or not Walmart will remain involved.

Should the Walmart retreat be larger than predicted, the ramifications could be immense, as other companies could take it as a cue to downgrade or eliminate their involvement as well.

When asked about Walmart's level of involvement next year, FLW Outdoors issued the following statement to BassFan: "We do not disclose terms of our agreements with any of our partners or the status of any discussions. As was relayed yesterday, we're continually evaluating our programs and we're diligently working on our 2010 plans to provide the anglers with quality tournaments that meet the current economic climate and the challenges the anglers face."

Other Sponsor Fronts

Walmart isn't the only topic of concern, however. There's also the belief that BP will not renew its sponsorship, which this year was quite large. BP fielded seven pros, title-sponsored the Eastern FLW Series and presented the Forrest Wood Cup.

Thoughts of a BP pullout gelled earlier this year when communication between the company and its pro team dropped to near silence, and ramped up at the Cup when BP was noticeably absent from the Family Fun Zone.

The National Guard is reportedly enthused about the results of its FLW sponsorship, however, so if BP does depart, perhaps the Guard would title-sponsor the Eastern Series as it does the Western.

Pure Fishing currently fields five pros under its Berkley and Abu Garcia brands. It also title-sponsors the Stren Series. Sources say the Berkley sponsor commitment this year was around the $1.3 million mark, but the company is looking to play at a level next year nearer to $300,000. Originally, it was suspected that would lead to a new name for the Strens (i.e., another title sponsor), but it's now believed that Pure Fishing will retain naming rights to the series despite a reduced contribution.

One name floated as a new Stren Series title sponsor was Rapala, who was reportedly interested in naming it the Sufix Series. However, it later emerged that Rapala's expected sponsorship of FLW will take the form of an in-kind trade. In February 2007, Ranger Boats and Rapala announced a cross-marketing promotion. Rapala's parent company, Normark, is listed as an unsecured creditor in the Genmar bankruptcy – owed $87,390. It's believed that a Rapala sponsorship of FLW would be a tradeout against that debt.

Evinrude is another FLW sponsor listed as an unsecured creditor in the Genmar bankruptcy – owed $470,637. FLW earlier this year filed suit against Evinrude, alleging the motor manufacturer did not pay its sponsor fees for the 2009 season or contingency awards of nearly $100,000. It's assumed that Evinrude will not return as a sponsor next year, which would leave Yamaha the sole FLW motor sponsor by default.

Land O'Lakes, a 13-year sponsor of the FLW Tour and title-sponsor of its Angler of the Year race, confirmed this week that it would not renew its sponsorship next year.

Lastly, Ranger Boats – which helped propel participation in FLW Outdoors throughout the decade via lucrative contingency prizes – is part of the Genmar bankruptcy. It needed permission from a court to pay this year's Ranger Cup money – some anglers just received their checks this week – and Genmar must seek court permission to continue those programs in 2010.

Jacobs, who also serves as Genmar chairman and CEO, was recently granted an extension in the bankruptcy proceedings, which gives Genmar more time to formulate a bankruptcy exit strategy. At the same time, the extension could push back any announcement concerning Ranger Cup bonuses for 2010, which again, are a key component in the FLW Outdoors tournament model.

The bright spot amidst such bad news appears to be Cabela's, which is expected to become a major sponsor of FLW events in 2010. Cabela's maintained a significant retail presence at the Forrest Wood Cup and would fill an obvious retail void should Walmart downgrade as expected.

Shrinking Deals

Across the outdoors industry, sponsorship and media deals have shrunk considerably in recent years. BASS lost its primary sponsor Citgo several years ago, as well as Anheuser-Busch, and that was before the economy soured. This year, the Bassmaster Elite Series signed several small deals for naming rights to single events.

FLW Outdoors long seemed insulated against such ups-and-downs due to its involvement with Walmart. The foundation showed cracks last year when sponsors ConAgra and Playtex departed. Even if Walmart stays engaged with FLW at a significant level, the loss or expected loss of other consumer-product sponsors – and Ranger's precarious position – seem to belie that bullet-proof perception.

A few years ago, the sky seemed the limit for professional bass fishing. Right now, most folks involved in the sport simply hope to fly above the trees.