After spending a few days out of the loop, I was surprised by the headlines when I signed back on. Shocked, really.
“BPT Anglers Likely To Pay Entry Fees In ’21”
Naturally, my bewilderment stemmed from all the hype that surrounded the no-entry fee model at the inception of the Bass Pro Tour. As fans, we were led to believe that the new circuit was the beginning of a revolution in professional bass fishing, one that would elevate the athletes to true professional status without the threat of them going broke in the pursuit.
In addition, I was under the impression that the concept was a three-year experiment, also reported by those who initially made the jump. The anglers were going to steer the ship, it was said.
"What brought this great group of anglers together in the first place was the allure of being able to ultimately control our own destiny because collectively we now make the rules … We call this 'Major League' Fishing for a reason and no entry fees is a monumental move in our achieving that distinction,” said co-founder Gary Klein in a statement regarding the vote not to pay to play.
Now, my first objective was, and always is, to be fair. That required more research.
Here I found a very important sequence of statements that should be refreshed. In his initial reports to the media regarding the inception of the Bass Pro Tour (these date back to late 2018), co-founder Boyd Duckett stressed the importance of expanding the sport.
Doing so would be accomplished, according to Duckett, through increased television and online competition coverage and support of major sponsors like Bass Pro Shops, thus producing greater exposure. Any talk of helping anglers was absent from the early bullet points, other than offering a higher payout.
“We always believed if we elevated the visibility of our sport, everyone in our industry would be a beneficiary,” Duckett simply said.
At the time, if you remember, the Bass Pro Tour announced it would feature a standard entry-fee system; somewhere in the neighborhood of $48,000 per angler. Payout percentages were reported to be above and beyond those of other top professional circuits. At the time, the rumors of a no-entry fee circuit were just that, and it appeared the standard model would hold true.
A few months later, an angler vote was held to either continue with this plan or drop the payout substantially based on a no-entry-fee model. Again digging through the archives, we learned, “Vote totals weren't announced, but several anglers reported that the margin was a landslide, with only a handful preferring the pay-for-play format that pro fishing has traditionally utilized.”
One thing that’s important to note is that Duckett himself voted for pay-for-play. In his view, the concept of higher pay in and out, and thus eye-popping purses, would better sell the BPT package.
However, according to recent comments by Duckett, the advertising game isn’t always fair: “The fans and sponsors forgot that we don't pay entry fees and we were being compared directly to leagues that paid a little less than we did. It's something that the world might not be ready for.”
In any case, after the initial vote, significant marketing and exposure was given to the no-entry fee model as a way to legitimize and build the sport. Major League Fishing went as far as releasing a commercial with contributions from some of the biggest names in the game praising the plan.
“I’ve waited my entire life to see this,” one veteran said. “It legitimizes our sport,” was the feeling of another. Numerous eggs were being placed in the basket.
But, again to be fair, the whole concept behind the Bass Pro Tour was one of expansion and bringing new eyes to the game. Again, initially from Duckett, “we have big plans for teaching the rest of the world what tournament fishing is and creating a phenomenal fan base …”
There is no question they have done just that. Regular readers here will recognize my admiration for how much the Bass Pro Tour has accomplished in short order, how far it's pushed others along and how impressed I am by its working business plan.
As I’ve stated in the past, I commend the management at the BPT for continuing to remain flexible in their approach. A dynamic business is necessary for growth. However, I must say that the no-entry fee concept was one principal I assumed was stable.
The most recent statements confirm that anglers will still drive the boat and meetings and votes will determine the best path, entry fees or not. And in the event that the entry fee model is put back into play, the net expense per angler is reported to be incredibly low. But, as we’re already seeing in feedback from the fans, this quick change is being viewed by some as a real egg on the face of the BPT, as it defeats the brotherhood notion that so many competitors put out there initially.
And while the creators of the concept have more business sense in their little fingers than I do in my entire body, I question the comments on pandemic-related budget concerns. Much of the fishing industry is experiencing record participation and online sales right now, as COVID pushes more Americans outside. But then again, I’m guessing that many of the big players in the BPT game are those from non-endemics, which may very well be hurting.
In the end, I’m a little sad for the sport. With the announcement of the no-entry-fee system in 2019, one headliner said, “We can honestly say, from this day forward, the sport is beginning.”
So where does that leave us now?
(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.)