A LOOK BACK AT THE BASS TOURNAMENT REVOLUTION OF 2019
There are approximately 60 million anglers in the United States. I am one of them and I am also a bass tournament junkie, have been since I first discovered competitive fishing at age 15. I approached iBass360 about doing an opinion piece on the 2019 tournament year, given the upheavals it brought, both at the beginning of the season, and at the end. As a guide on Lake St. Clair, a tournament angler with ELITE SERIES experience, a college fishing coach, and high school fishing tutor, I share a boat and talk with a lot of people at all levels of the bass fishing world. I have heard opinions and certainly formulated my own. So consider this my view of the current state of tournament bass fishing.
We have all read about the plans for FLW post their recent acquisition by MLF, but in the end, no
one is sure exactly what the trail will look like. We will see how it evolves. In the past, FLW’s model was based on the fact that anytime you offer up a $100,000 top prize, live streaming internet exposure, a national stage, and a championship worth $300,000, you are going to find enough tour veterans, ambitious upstarts, and guys who are simply wealthy enough to pony up the entry fees, to fill a field. FLW was ok with that. Based strictly on the numbers, qualifying for their championship was actually the hardest of the majors, and the fact that it attracted Larry Nixon and Bryan Thrift contributed to its legitimacy.
Just prior to the 2019 season, an official FLW press release firmly stated that they had no intention to change anything just to compete with BASS or MLF’s Bass Pro Tour. Perhaps they already had a deal with MLF in the works, maybe not, but since we don’t really know what 2020 will look like, for true side-by-side comparison, I am just going to compare BASS and the BPT, keeping in mind that many of the things that historically and currently make BASS successful, also made FLW successful.
B.A.S.S.- What They Did Right in 2019
My lead is in two words, TENSION and CLIMAX. While I believe the BPT is doing some great things (keep reading), I believe the number one thing that separates the BASS product from the BPT is tension for the viewer and a climactic finish. For me, and many of the folks I talk to, that tension and climax simply makes a BASS Elite event more entertaining from start to finish. BASS tournaments are like a good book, the tension drives investment on the part of the viewer. From Day One, minute one, of a BASS Elite event the viewer begins to feel the tension. Day One sets the chess table and the pieces start moving and every day counts. Every day affects the outcome of the event, as well as the Angler of the Year standings, in a significant way.
In the BPT, the first two days essentially mean nothing for the viewer. On Days Three and Four all
we really care about is who takes 20th place to make the cut. We don’t really care who is leading the two brackets because all weights are zeroed. Day five sets the final but even there the weights are zeroed.
The BPT touts the motto “Every fish counts.” For BASS tournaments, it’s “Every hookset counts” because we don’t know if what’s on the other end is going to affect the outcome or not. There is nervous tension until that fish is in the boat, measured, and weighed. Sometimes the fish helps, sometimes not. The uncertainty creates the tension and viewer excitement. The competitors are targeting the five biggest fish, and there are times we have to wait, making anticipation and tension build. Waiting is okay. BassTrakk exists, but it is far from perfect. I would argue that the imperfection just allows the tension to build!
At the end of each day, and especially on “Championship Sunday”, there is a climax with BASS. The fish are bagged, we get to see the great beasts again, and we learn the real results. Positions jockey, the crowd is there, the daily winner is revealed, and there is a celebration-
especially when the ultimate winner is crowned. When we get to the end of a BPT event, the winning angler stands alone in his boat and smiles, maybe gives a fist pump to the marshal, and it’s over. Yes, there is a trophy presentation later on, but who really watches that? There is no reason. The viewer knows who won and needs to get his lawn cut or start the burgers.
If you listen to the BPT pro anglers, they talk about how tense it is for them- even more so than BASS. I can accept that for the anglers- especially when it comes to making the various cuts. However, the tournament is a media product for viewers, not for the anglers. The viewers are the ones buying the products on the jersey and boat wrap. To keep viewers tuned in, the tension has to be palpable. For the majority of those I have talked to, it simply is not. They want to be invested and they can’t bring themselves to it.
Let’s talk about the size of the fish. I am sure the BPT guys are tired of hearing this, but this was the chief complaint I heard throughout the season. Did they catch some big bass? Of course, they are the best in the world, fishing world class waters. Did 1 lb. score-able bass dominate the season? Unfortunately, YES. Is that going to get old quick? I think so. Long-term, invested viewers want to see big fish- just as they want to see aerial touch downs, Home Run bombs,
slam dunks and wrap-around goals. How many times has a low scoring, field goal only, football game lost your attention? Let’s face it, the first question a lot of us get when they hear we fish is, “What’s your biggest fish?” People tune in to pro fishing for the same reason they watch other pro sports- to see the best in the world do their best, catch the biggest, achieve something never before achieved.
BASS could not have scripted a better start to their season than having legendary fisherman Rick Clunn reeling in giants on the St. Johns River. Big bass heroics also were key at Winyah Bay and Ten Killer, with Scott Canterbury nearly taking the title at the former, and Carl Jocumsen being able to pull away from the field in the latter. Then there was Lake St. Clair for the Angler of the Year event- anglers challenging for the tournament win and the AOY were culling four pound fish! Big bass were absolutely the story of the BASS season.
Event Coverage & Angler Exposure
With decades of experience, including input from ESPN and the genius of the late Jerry McKinnis, BASS covered their events in 2019 like no other in the history of pro fishing. I think it is generally accepted that they have the best broadcasters in terms of in-depth reporting, stats, experience, and color commentary. Their data is well researched, they bring the viewer interesting details,
and the jokes are on time and on point. JM productions and the camera teams, both still and video, are second to none. Their product is polished and professional.
MLF BPT put on a good show for the camera, but I often felt like I did when FLW first started, that a lot of the commentating assumed the viewer was 100% new to the sport. The commentary felt “juvenile” and "dumbed down". As a viewer with fishing intelligence, I found myself just shaking my head a lot while listening to the broadcasts.
MLF Bass Pro Tour- What They Are Doing Right
Raising the Bar
The first thing I have to admit is that without the MLF BPT it is unlikely that BASS would have stepped up their game. It’s Economics 101- BASS (incorrectly) did not perceive any market threat from MLF prior to the formation of the BPT, and little had changed in terms BASS’s relationship with the anglers since the Elite Series started in 2006. The introduction of the BPT forced BASS to accommodate anglers better in terms of giving them a voice, providing better media coverage, and making the financial side of pro fishing make more sense. BASS’s online and on-air production value was already high, but it became even better this year. All this is the result of good old competition at work. Pro anglers and viewers have the BPT to thank for that.
With the acquisition of FLW, MLF will push the issue even further. In the last ten years entry fees at all levels have continued to rise, but MFL says they will lower them for 2020. Is this sustainable? This could become the bass fishing equivalent of the Gas Price Wars. We will see. I think we can safely say that a near sure-fire way to get more people involved is to lower prices.
The primary advantage MLF and BPT have over BASS is that they are attracting young viewers
and casual outdoorsmen to tournament fishing. I have no inside knowledge, but I suspect their primary target market is not the avid fisherman and tournament junkie like me. They have broadened their target market in terms of numbers of eyeballs watching, and refined the profile of viewer they are targeting. They certainly want more people competing (the main reason they bought FLW), but more importantly, they want more people watching- whether or not they actually fish is beside the point- they either want to get them to fish or they want to attract more non-fishing sponsors.
The big question is, will these viewers invest in their viewership in the long term? Can you talk this casual viewer into spending tens of thousands on a new boat, motor and electronics, or hundreds on rods,reels and other gear? Maybe they just want him to buy a lawn mower from a title sponsor. That very well could be their plan. I guess we will have to ask General Tire, Sonic, Yeti, , Kubota, Ferguson and others if they are getting a payback.
Attracting Younger Viewers
I have fished with lots of high schoolers this year, and I can tell you most of these young anglers are watching MLF more than BASS. They rarely have a single reason, but if I hazard a guess, I would say a significant factor is “attention span.” Speaking also as a high school math teacher, most high schoolers (dare I say adults too?) do not have the attention span to watch a full tournament. They do not have the attention span to watch BASS Live on a lake like Ten Killer where they could wait 45 minutes for someone to catch a fish. They like MLF for the same reason they like the NBA- it’s fast paced, has a lot of action, and the scoring is easy to follow.
Attracting the Average Outdoorsperson
The average outdoors person also is a target. Statistically, he/she fishes less than twenty times a year. The majority of adults I have talked to that enjoy BPT more than BASS are not avid fishermen. They enjoy fishing, but they don’t live and breathe it. Bill Dance still has a TV show.
Why? Because most viewers of outdoor programming are content with thirty-minute programs showing people catching fish. That’s really all they want, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Now add to that the biggest names in the industry fishing from fancy boats, using a scoring system that is easy to understand, that same thirty minutes, and a few novelty catch-phrases like “Score tracker update”, “Fish landing violation” and “two minute penalty”, and you have attracted a lot of casual outdoor programming viewers. The catch phrases have a bigger impact than you may think. Nearly every client I had this year, after landing their first fish, said “Score tracker update.” In the music industry they call that a
“hook.” The MLF has created a “hook” with their catch phrases.
Quick Hitters: Entry fees & Product Placement
The BPT also set a new standard by doing away with entry fees. Yes, payouts were not quite as high, but MLF listened to the anglers. Instead of having anglers fight their way to the highest level of pro angling only to be rewarded with higher entry fees, MLF did an industry first by
eliminating BPT entry fees. While BASS still has entry fees, they did respond by paying out all the way to last place- a huge change. Again, BASS’ action was spurred by the competition from BPT.
MLF and the BPT also scored with their product placement. Quite simply, in order to watch Bassmaster, you have to change the channel from what you were watching to ESPN. MLF, on the other hand, is the “next show” when the viewer is already watching outdoor programming. The kids are in bed, you’re watching something interesting on Discovery channel, and next up is the MLF. The casual viewer, especially the casual outdoors person, will sit, stick with that channel, and watch that.
Since this is an opinion piece, I get to give my final opinion. Despite the competitive landscape, I don’t think BASS should change much. They do need to continue to make tournament fishing more affordable and accessible, and especially target younger viewers. I believe the current BASS product drives invested committed viewers. I like the level of complexity in their events- not too much, not too little. I love the tension. Dumbing down a sport to get more people involved has never worked for the long term- I offer the XFL as case in point. Raise people’s knowledge and give them something in which to invest.
As far as the BPT, all I can say is, if they have an event, I’ll be watching, but I don’t enjoy watching
nearly as much as I do the BASS product. They are the best anglers in the world, so I will watch, but to be honest, I usually watch on mute while working on other things. They are getting more viewers, but I am afraid their product is going to be a mile wide and an inch deep, and I am not sure that is sustainable in the long term.
I read in a recent article on a reputable fishing website that some of the leaders of the BPT suggested that they do not want their anglers even showing up at the Bassmaster Classic Expo to represent their sponsors. Word of advice from this writer- don’t do stuff like that. It’s petty. It’s been tried before and it doesn’t work. You hurt the fans, and even your anglers. Just play nice and let the anglers be. Focus on continuous improvement and putting out a good product. Let the anglers rep their sponsors and meet their fans. It’s better for the industry, and, as was said many times at the start of the year, a rising tide lifts all boats.
Ryan Said is a tournament angler and U.S. Coast Guard licensed guide on Lake St. Clair. He also guides Lake Erie, and many of Michigan's inland lakes. He books trips through Marcels Guide Service - an affiliation that is in its sixth season. In 2011, after winning the Bassmaster Northern Open points championship, Ryan had the honor of fishing the Bassmaster Classic and the Bassmaster Elite series trail. He has fished the Bassmaster Open Series several times, as well as the Costa Series. Ryan is an engineer and teaches high school math. He coaches the college bass fishing team at Lawrence Tech, and offers seminars and on the water instruction for high school anglers. Ryan is promotional staff for Dobyns Rods, Lew's Reels, Costa Sunglasses, P-Line and Blackfish Gear