Big news came from the B.A.S.S. camp recently with the announcement of a new category of Elite qualifiers for the 2017 season, although it seemed to have slipped past most media and fans. Beginning next year, B.A.S.S. will accept two “legend” qualifiers, based on points derived from previous Bassmaster Classic and/or Angler of the Year wins.
The reason for accepting such a pair of greats is obvious: For years, there’s been public outcry and concern over excluding some of the sport’s most recognized anglers from tournament competition. After all, if the major tournament organizations want to attract the greatest number of fans, including competitors with household names should be an integral part of the plan.
Backing up a bit, it’s important to realize that the overall fan base of pro bass fishing is somewhat divided. While it seems the market has been geared lately toward young fans, there is still a strong allegiance of older bass nuts who remember the good ol’ days.
Each generation has had its heroes. During my youth, Rick Clunn, Larry Nixon and Denny Brauer ran the table; just before me it was Hank Parker, Jimmy Houston, Bill Dance and Roland Martin stealing the show.
In any case, fans of the older generation still carry a lot of weight, especially when it comes to sales and support of fishing and boating products.
In addition, a select few old-guard anglers still have a massive following on television – larger than any others in the bass fishing business. Therefore, including them in tournaments is just smart business.
Fans and tournament officials relentlessly ponder and bicker about how to include the legends of bass fishing. In similar sports, the best often receive special exemptions, as in the Masters golf tournament, where previous winners have a lifetime invitation. However, the same can’t be done in today’s tournament world, where limiting field sizes is of great concern.
Therefore, B.A.S.S. is taking a stab at a solution with legend Elite qualifiers. Priority will be given to potential “legends” that are still competing with B.A.S.S. - whether in the Bassmaster Elite Series or Bassmaster Opens. From there, priority will go to past champions currently outside of the B.A.S.S. umbrella. From what I can tell with this new qualification process, the following anglers would have high priority: Roland Martin, Rick Clunn, Mark Davis, Paul Elias and Larry Nixon.
As reported previously here on BassFan, Martin has spent considerable time in major tournament competition recently, and may just take the offer. Clunn is a lock, provided he remains healthy and hasn’t already qualified, and Mark Davis would likely also take the bid, as he is still currently competing, yet faltering on the Elite trail.
It would be incredible if the list went down to Nixon. He continues to compete on the FLW Tour, but I’d guess he’d have to think long and hard about coming back to B.A.S.S.. If he did so, he would likely prove to be the most shocking example of tour jumpers of all time.
In addition, B.A.S.S. announced that its Elite field will remain at 108 anglers – not 100, and not 110. I’m really not sure of the importance of this number; perhaps it’s simply to keep things consistent. But it will be interesting to see if the tournament trail sticks to its guns.
So what’s fair, and what do the fans think? After all, inclusion of the legends is really all about fans. B.A.S.S. doesn’t owe slots to those who don’t qualify in the current accepted method. Or, if they do, surely it’s more than two. But I digress.
Immediately, I think of Clunn’s victory this season at the St. John’s River and the incredible following it provided for the event. I’d wager more madness ensued when Clunn hoisted the trophy than any other event this season.
Perhaps someday there will be a true legends event, based on more than just current rankings. While it would be nearly impossible to remain impartial on entry qualifications, I’d guess sponsors and fans alike could come up with a pretty good list. It would have to be a hand-picked, sponsor-based event - but that’s okay, as such would chose anglers with the most recognition, or legendary status, in the first place.
Will we ever see a true legends event, or even an entire legends trail? Will there ever be a Players Championship in bass fishing, accepting qualifications from a long list of categories?
It appears that B.A.S.S. is again thinking outside the box with its tournaments, as it's done numerous times in recent years. We’ve seen a few ideas succeed and become wildly popular, while others fade away as fast as they came on the scene. It will be interesting to see how this latest installment works out.
(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.)