There’s been a bunch of chatter in the world of professional bass fishing recently over changes made to the Bassmaster Opens and how they will affect aspiring pros looking to break into the big leagues through this popular passage.
For starters, let’s summarize the major variations for 2018:
> The Opens will be reduced to two divisions, each consisting of four tournaments.
> An Open Championship will be offered, consisting of a field derived from the top 10 anglers (in points) from each division, as well as single-event winners (28 total anglers).
> Following the championship event, the top 5 anglers from each division qualify for the Elite Series, the top 3 for the BassMaster Classic. The Championship winner automatically qualifies for both.
> There will be co-anglers in all stages of the events, up through and including the Open Championship.
A quick look at social media and the feedback sections of many webpages reveals quite a bit of disdain for the new format. Tournament venues – always a sore spot with the squeaky wheels – got hit the hardest. For many, participation will require a much larger investment in time and money than previously for the same circuit. In addition, every basser west of Texas wonders why they didn’t get an invitation to the party, as no events are scheduled for the vast Western fisheries, once a staple for Invitational and Open competition.
However, while I find one direction of the revamped Open circuit to continue to be troubling, perhaps much of the new path is positive, especially if we consider the long-publicized direction of this league.
The B.A.S.S. press release sums it up. CEO Bruce Akin said the new format is “designed to provide opportunities for the best bass fishermen to prove their fishing skills on a variety of waters as they earn their way into the Bassmaster Classic and Elite Series.”
Regarding Championship qualifiers, Akin stated: “The smaller, more elite field of championship qualifiers can be expected to create more excitement, attract a bigger fan base and generate more media coverage than ever before in Opens competition.”
I wonder if he used the word "elite" on purpose?
In any case, we see here the mission – one which has been repeated numerous times in the last few years: utilize the Open trail to bring new, proven anglers to the Elite Series, while maintaining a pathway for a few of those anglers to directly qualify for the Bassmaster Classic (and thus keep interest and ambition high.)
Sounds logical to me. And, when it comes to anglers complaining of a higher investment and greater travel, I guess an old cliche' sums it up: You gotta pay to play.
You see, no longer are the Opens intended to be a circuit for a guy looking to jackpot a single event near his home, or possibly travel throughout his region and earn a living. The intention, if these changes are any indication, is to follow the lead of the pro trails, requiring serious commitment and investment from touring anglers willing to sign up for all the events at one time and follow through during the season.
I, for one, don’t feel there’s anything wrong with that, again providing we’re all clear that this is a tournament trail designed for aspiring pros trying to get into the big leagues, much like many other professional sports featuring minor leagues.
Further review of the B.A.S.S. press release confirms this concept: nowhere are the participants labeled as “grassroots” or “working men”. Conversely, the terms “best bass fishermen” who “have to prove their abilities on a variety of fisheries and at different seasons” described the anglers B.A.S.S. would like to see apply.
Another aspect of the new format seems particularly appealing: a direct, easy-to-follow qualification process for those who advance to the Elites and Classic. Everything will hinge on an angler’s overall performance in the regular season and postseason combined, as it should, and a quick look at the standings following the Championship will spell out the qualifiers.
Win-win, right? Not quite.
You see, while B.A.S.S. has continued to evolve its view of triple-A players and their placement in the leagues, they’ve still resisted fully elevating their best players to another status. Here, of course, I speak of the continued acceptance of Elite Series anglers in the Opens. It’s absolutely absurd, and I predict it will eventually change.
With guys like Mike McClelland, Justin Lucas and Mike Iaconelli beating down the competition every season, aspiring Open “pros” will find themselves competing against established touring veterans at every stop. One needs only to review the current Open standings to view a wealth of examples. In addition, other Tour veterans, needing a helping hand to get back to Elite status, will certainly occupy a few Open spots, thus taking away another chance for a newcomer to break through. In the end, we have a new Open trial setting its athletes ahead by format, but an Elite Tour allowing a step back.
Often we find the major tournament trails trying to do too much. With all the stakeholders involved, it’s understandable that they can’t please everyone. In recent years, B.A.S.S. has proven that it can, and will, elevate it’s Open trail to new levels, and aspiring pros will support the format. Here, appreciation must match such devotion, and those anglers must be given a fighting chance.
(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.)