What an eye-opener!
I recently attended the Bassmaster College Central Conference Regional at Sam Rayburn, and was quickly awakened to the student bass game. Upon arrival, I assumed I’d see kids doing their best in borrowed boats, really just out for a good time.
I figured I’d hear stories of indecision and inexperience, the lunkers that got away, and open-ended questions about sponsorships.
I thought it was all just in fun.
Boy, was I wrong.
I was greeted by serious anglers, many of whom had vast tournament experience, and often a long list of accomplishments. I talked to guys more polished in the realm of business than most competitors twice their age. And I saw them weigh in some really big bass.
They were polite. They were professional. And they were incredibly impressive. Take it from me, the college fishing game is far more advanced than what many of us have seen so far.
When asked if he intended to go pro, a standout competitor immediately confirmed: “Truthfully, I don’t know why you’d be here if you weren’t planning on it.” I must say, with their overall persona and proven skill set, many of these young fishermen are on their way.
But is it just that easy? Unfortunately in our case, probably not.
Let’s consider the numbers. Each year, thousands of aspiring professional anglers take to the lake in competitions at various levels. Many spend tens of thousands of dollars in pursuit of what they consider a lifelong dream, yet fall vastly short of making a living by the end of the year. For every successful pro on tour, with earnings that can actually be taxed by the government, possibly dozens fall by the wayside. So already, the numbers are against the college angler trying to make the leap.
However, armed with a burning desire and the admirable skills learned through their schooling and competitive fishing experience, the youngsters are a step ahead. Their age aids them as well, as most anglers at this stage of life aren’t burdened by real-world scenarios presented to adults – things like homes, kids and bills – and are better apt to chase a dream. Whether or not such a move is smart is irrelevant, but at least it’s possible.
However, when it comes to turning pro, one major hurdle stands in nearly every college competitor’s way. It’s one that’s not apparent in major sports, and therefore rarely discussed. And it will undoubtedly create a giant chasm in many a young angler’s dream.
You see, when we step back, we realize that standout sports like football, basketball, baseball and hockey all have professional leagues designed to bring the best college athletes in. Heck, even lacrosse has a professional draft.
And, in the case of many single-athlete collegiate sports like tennis, golf, swimming, gymnastics – the list goes on – the cost to compete is far less than professional bass fishing. Think about the difference in equipment cost between a boat and truck combo and a pair of swim trunks.
Now, I know I’m dumbing it down and not doing justice to all the sacrifices made by college athletes aspiring to turn pro. The chances of becoming a professional athlete, in just about any sport, are astronomically stacked against you. Fewer than 2 percent of all NCAA student-athletes go on to professional careers.
But the argument persists that, in most other sports, there is a real and feasible way for this to happen without the investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars by the athlete. Not so with bass fishing.
Today, we’re seeing the major tournament organizations rally around the cause a bit. Bassmaster gives the chance for its highest-accomplished college star to fish a year on the Bassmaster Open trails at no charge, also awarding them the use of a boat and truck. In addition, one college angler will make the Bassmaster Classic, another the Forrest Wood Cup.
But we’re talking about less than a handful of anglers awarded an increased possibility of turning pro. What happens to the rest of them?
We’ve seen a few recent college standouts make it work and end up on the Elite Series and FLW Tour. But believe me, there’s a whole new generation of anglers out there expecting something to happen when they finish school. They’re poised and dedicated to the belief that their sport is just as legit as those of their classmates. Perhaps they will think outside the box to push through the barriers. Perhaps the industry will recognize this and create a way to bring them in.
It will be a shame, for us all, if they don’t.
(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.)