With the B.A.S.S. Elite Tour in its final stages for 2016 and FLW on break, big news in the industry came in the announcement of the 2017 Elite schedule and the inclusion of the Toyota Texas Bass Classic as a B.A.S.S.-only event during BASSFest.
While the schedule looks strong, it appears B.A.S.S. is placing more pressure on full-time pros anxious to compete for big prizes anywhere, as well as trying to revitalize its BASSFest idea and take the top spot in the tournament world.
And while the newest events may indeed prove exciting, such announcement comes with a bit of sorrow to the true fans of pro bass fishing, and with feelings of resentment and betrayal for FLW Tour pros.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
A decade ago, the concept of the TTBC was derived by members of the now-defunct Professional Anglers Association, along with industry sponsors and personnel, as an attempt to pit the best bass fishermen in the world against each other, regardless of tour allegiance or affiliation. It was a great idea; for the first time, fans could follow their dream match-ups, watching as pros like Kevin VanDam, Brent Ehrler, Dave Lefebre, Mark Rose and Jason Christie came from all corners of the country to chase the big dollars.
For awhile, the TTBC was one of the best events in bass fishing, possibly second only to the Classic in popularity with fans and pros alike, and included a festival atmosphere with concerts by country music stars, attracting tens of thousands to the sport.
Since the early days, the TTBC tournament has been a Toyota marketing event, driven by one of the largest dealer networks in the country. So it makes sense that B.A.S.S., also a major partner with Toyota in the pro bass game, would do all it could to join the party.
These relationships deserve special attention, for they have been incredibly rewarding. Toyota, through collaboration with B.A.S.S. and a stellar pro staff, represents one of the biggest marketing success stories in the history of the sport. Once a category dominated by "bubba brands" Ford and Chevy, Toyota changed the thinking of rural Americans by forcing great product down their throats. B.A.S.S., and guys like Mike Iaconelli, Gerald Swindle and Kevin VanDam, should pat themselves on the back for that one.
But getting back to the point at hand, what we now have is an event once open to the best in the world, and now only to those fishing B.A.S.S.. Such makes for a sad state of affairs.
Around the industry, the general consensus for the basis of this move has been attributed to poor attendance at recent TTBC events, as well as last season’s BASSFest. The TTBC was dealt a bad hand with weather in 2015, then followed it up with a more urban venue in 2016 – which never seems to work in bass fishing – and has since lost a bit of momentum. BASSFest started as an event intended to include more anglers, including some Open stalwarts, then quickly pushed many back with increased entry fees. Such changes, also combined with a bit of bad weather, recently slowed BASSFest a bit, too.
So the decision was made to combine forces and attempt to grab the best of both worlds. However, I’m afraid the TTBC underestimates the interest of fans due to the original format of allowing all of the country’s best into one event. Maybe it’s me; maybe I’m a super-fan representing only a small percentage of those interested in the game. But, personally, I won’t be nearly as interested in the TTBC as I used to be. Formerly, I couldn’t wait to watch a live weigh-in or check the standings each day to see how FLW’s gunslingers did against the star-laden BASS boys. Now, it’s just another hyped-up Elite event.
Despite efforts, I was unable to gather comment from B.A.S.S. or TTBC officials, but I certainly heard from FLW pros. Stetson Blaylock, a big-money winner at the 2014 event, commented “I think it stinks for FLW guys, it was one of the most fun events I’ve ever fished”, adding “but I understand with the Toyota/B.A.S.S. relationship. On paper, it makes sense.”
Bryan Thrift expressed similar feelings: “It's bad because a lot of guys, myself included, always looked forward to qualifying for it. It was a true championship of the best of both major trails. I feel bad for the guys that thought they qualified for it for next year through FLW.”
Other FLW pros chose their words less carefully, expressing distaste for the decision through words I won’t re-print.
Regardless, we’ve again lost something, folks. During my time here, many of you have expressed fond memories of events that went against the grain, but produced storybook endings. MegaBucks in the 1980s. Bassmaster SuperStars. The early years of FLW, pitting Clunn against Fritts, Wendlandt vs. Hibdon.
Now, we’re back to business as usual. Again, all we have to gauge a tournament angler’s success is the BassFan World Rankings, a list lately dominated by FLW pros. Pros who will no longer be invited to what was once a championship event, built by the momentum that only such can produce.
(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.)