I listened intently to what he was saying; after all, Jay Yelas has always impressed me as a pretty level-headed guy. He’s certainly been around the block in the world of professional fishing.
“The late '90s and early 2000s were the glory years of professional bass fishing,” Yelas claimed. “We may get back to that level again, or even surpass it, but for now, that period still stands at the top.”
Yelas said that, during the period of FLW’s infancy and the Bassmaster Top 150 tour, competitive anglers were awarded the greatest reward for risk involved. In other words, pros paid less to win more, based on ratios, than anytime before or since.
Looking at the math, this may very well be true. In addition, it was during this same period that sponsorship contracts were rumored to be more lucrative than today for many pros, especially those involving boats and motors.
Truthfully, any such conversation often results in a “good ol' days” mentality when discussing payouts and entries. Nearly every generation feels that the grass was often greener before their involvement.
But maybe Yelas was right.
I’m naturally cynical. I know many of you have grown tired of my complaints of ballooning tournament expenses; in that case, I’ll hold my tongue. But I want to address the subject from another viewpoint – one that might just hold a flicker of interest in the back of a business-savvy mind.
The tournament bass-fishing market has been reduced to so few competitors, in fact, it’s somewhat of an oligopoly. And right now, the industry is more ready than ever for expansion.
Consider these recent statistics: The 2017 Bassmaster Southern Open at the Harris Chain drew 200 boats, the Costa event the following week at Okeechobee, 250. Add to the fact that both of these trails still feature the co-angler format, and we have about 900 tournament entrants over a 2-week period.
Just a few short years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for triple-A events to draw fewer than 100 boats. However, due in part to a stronger economy and continued low gasoline prices, as well as fewer options, more anglers are paying stout entry fees and traveling long distances to compete at this level – a level that isn’t always the strongest when it comes to the risk-vs.-reward ratio we mentioned earlier.
Again, to avoid being a sourpuss, I won’t do the math. The point is this: We’ve obviously got a major population of tournament fishermen looking for a place to compete. Perhaps additional organizations, local event organizers or interested investors will take notice.
Sure, running bass tournaments is anything but easy. The “Big 2” invest millions of dollars to ensure they get it right. A strong, reliable format, combined with national publicity, are needed to make it work.
But it’s not impossible. We’re not talking about tooling and start-up costs that prevent others from entering the marketplace. And there’s no trade secrets or intellectual property involved. I argue that a group of motivated individuals could have an additional trail up and running in less than a year. Those same individuals, given reasonable business sense, could easily run the numbers and find that the entry-level pro trails generate sizable income at each event.
Will it happen? It’s certainly possible.
Reasonable thinking may argue that there’s a lot more involved. Tournament sponsorships immediately come to mind, but I’m not sure how much they matter at this level. In fact, I see the triple-A bass ranks as being more like high-stakes cash games than a professional sport.
Sure, sponsors are smart to market to this segment of the bass-fishing world, but their support isn’t necessary to run a comparable trail offering comparable payback percentages. Especially if that trail was kept regional, which is another variable that could be key to the business plan.
Nearly every veteran tournament fisherman can name a regional trail that once ran the table in his area. Yet today, we see few viable competitors for the BFL, Costa and Bassmaster Open series. There’s regional exceptions in a few select bass-fishing hubs, but these are often 1-day shootouts, big-bass specials, team events or “wildcats” with looser rules and organization.
There’s room for start-ups. We heard a little rumbling of this last year, and it will be interesting to see if these new ideas pan out into viable trails. There’s certainly enough interest.
But the key will be for the right individual to figure out the magic formula. Bass fishermen can be fickle. Despite a willingness to unload their wallets on all the newest gadgets regardless of cost, they often hold back on an unproven tournament model, for reasons even the most accomplished economist will never figure out.
Will someone break the code? Can the legions of pay-to-play anglers be harnessed? Will we see a better, more competitive market as a result?
I, for one, could go along with it.
(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.)