The bait that shook up bass fishing
Three years ago, success was pouring in for Major League Fishing and its bass fishing competitions. Its televised tournaments were the top-rated, regularly scheduled series on the Outdoor Channel. It had an impressive roster of sponsors that included the likes of General Tire and Geico.
But President Jim Wilburn knew that despite Major League Fishing’s efforts to build the property, it faced a big risk of being sunk by the sport’s premier circuit, the Bassmaster Elite Series, run by the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.).
“We were in a very precarious position,” Wilburn said. “When we started there was a lot of consternation on the part of B.A.S.S. that we were going to cannibalize sponsors and we would hurt them financially. And so, we always had big brother looking over our shoulder and we knew that at any time if B.A.S.S. wanted to tell the anglers ‘You have to fish us exclusively,’ then we were in essence out of business.”
Major League Fishing’s board members met in November 2017 to figure out their next move.
They would strike first.
What followed would be a series of meetings and preparations for an entirely new tour that would rattle the sport of bass fishing. And it would be the new tour that would get some of the sport’s top anglers to fish the venture exclusively, using major payouts as bait to secure them.
Major League Fishing wouldn’t be looking over its shoulders anymore.
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Major League Fishing has always been about taking a new approach to the sport. Its tournaments differ from B.A.S.S. and FLW, where crowds gather to watch anglers weigh their catch. Major League Fishing, in comparison, doesn’t try to attract fans outside. Instead, it aims solely at its TV audience and builds suspense by having boat officials input the weights into an iPad, then distribute the running totals to all of the anglers in real time. It shifts the focus of professional bass fishing to where the numbers caught can often contribute more to an angler’s scores than landing the biggest fish.
Since anglers Boyd Duckett and Gary Klein launched the property in 2011, the long-term goal for Major League Fishing has been to create a full tour where the anglers could earn a living and have a voice in making decisions.
Enter the new Bass Pro Tour, launching in January. The same Scoretracker system Major League Fishing has become famous for will now be in place for the tour. Eight tour events will lead to the tour championship, The Redcrest.
Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour
■ 8: Qualifying regular-season Bass Pro Tour events
■ 80: Total anglers competing
■ 30: Top 30 anglers, based on points accumulated from regular-season events, qualify for the Bass Pro Tour championship
■ $6 million: Overall prize money, including the Bass Pro Tour Championship
After that November board meeting last year, when Major League Fishing’s directors voted unanimously to go full sail on the venture, the next six months were highly secretive, Wilburn said. “We had a code name and all that kind of stuff and we started planning on how we could make this beneficial.”
This past May, Wilburn and Duckett met with Bass Pro Shops CEO John Morris to bounce the concept off him. “He’s the pre-eminent person in the outdoors,” Wilburn said. “He is the guy that can either kill us or make it happen.”
Wilburn and Duckett’s presentation received enthusiastic approval from Morris, thus checking off a big box on Major League Fishing’s to-do list. The next box was approval from Stan Kroenke, whose Kroenke Sports & Entertainment subsidiaries include the Outdoor Sportsman Group, which owns the Outdoor Channel.
“Over the next eight weeks we sweated bullets to get the approval from Mr. Kroenke to go to that next level and go ahead and talk about sponsorship with Johnny,” Wilburn said.
Once Kroenke gave the thumbs-up, Major League Fishing held a final meeting in August with Morris and Bass Pro Shops where they finalized a title sponsorship.
Next up was securing financing — a sizable $15 million to $20 million investment. On Sept. 8, Wilburn received word from Matt Hutchings, COO and executive vice president of Kroenke Sports and president and CEO of KSE Media, that the money was there and that they had the green light.
“I was actually on the way to an Oklahoma football game with my daughter and grandkids and got a call from Matt at about 10 o’clock in the morning,” Wilburn said. “As you can imagine … it was exceptionally euphoric getting that call from him. He said everything is in place, let’s move forward with this.”
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With sponsorship and finances in place, Major League Fishing now had to secure the most critical asset for its tour — the anglers. “We wanted the best 80 anglers who can take this sport to the next level,” Wilburn said. “That does not necessarily mean the biggest money earners in the sport.”
In mid-September, Major League Fishing invited 80 anglers to meetings in Guntersville, Ala., Tulsa and Atlanta, and made its pitch to why the anglers should fish the tour exclusively and leave behind B.A.S.S. and FLW.
The anglers had some apprehensions, the biggest being the thought of leaving the 50-year-old NFL of bass fishing, B.A.S.S. They also questioned things such as entry fees, which in other tournaments can range as high as $5,000. Duckett reminded them that in this new tour, the anglers would make those decisions.
“Kroenke Sports and Outdoor Sportsman Group, they don’t care to make those kinds of decisions,” Duckett said. “What we told them is we will come up with a board of eight anglers and each of those guys would represent nine other fellow anglers. You’re going to make the decisions. If you don’t want entry fees, then they’re gone.”
Indeed the anglers did just that, voting last month to not have entry fees.
Duckett said that giving the anglers a seat at the table is what will make the venture successful. “How the tournaments work and run and how the payouts are decided, it’s all handled by the anglers,” he said. “That was the great opportunity.”
Word was spreading throughout the industry that several big-name anglers might be jumping ship from B.A.S.S. to join the new tour. To combat that, B.A.S.S. in late September announced several changes to its 2019 Elite Series. For starters, it offered a $20,000 credit to anglers who competed in the previous season. It offered reduced entry fees and an increase in payouts. Select anglers also were offered signing bonuses of $50,000 and up.
Despite its best efforts, B.A.S.S. lost most of its biggest names. Out of the 80 anglers invited to Major League Fishing, 74 of them accepted, including every Bassmaster Classic winner dating back to 2002.
Jordan Lee, who won the two previous Classics, was one of the bigger surprises to switch tours. “We didn’t think that he would leave to come to Major League Fishing and leave the possibility that he may never fish in another Bassmaster Classic again,” Wilburn said. “It would be like the equivalent of Tom Brady going to the USFL and realizing he’s never going to go to the Super Bowl again.”
Aside from allowing the anglers to have a voice, a big reason they made the jump to Major League Fishing was the amount of television coverage, Wilburn said.
“Bassmaster Magazine has 500,000 members and gets a lot of coverage and B.A.S.S. has a tremendous streaming website,” he said. “But we went to them with 850 hours of television on six networks (Outdoor Channel, Sportsman Channel, Discovery Channel, CBS and CBS Sports and the World Fishing Network).” He added, “Nobody wanted to hurt B.A.S.S. The goal was never to hurt our competition at all. The goal here has always been … if we can bring more viewers to bass fishing, then that helps us all.”
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B.A.S.S. remains optimistic about its future. “With competition comes opportunity,” B.A.S.S. CEO Bruce Akin said. “We’re pretty confident that we will be able to rebuild and build the anglers that stayed with us into stars just like we have with the ones that went over to Major League Fishing.”
The loss of anglers to Major League Fishing will also give B.A.S.S. the opportunity to give more exposure to a slimmed-down roster. Instead of featuring close to 110 anglers, B.A.S.S. will now have around 70. “We think the future is bright,” Akin said. “We had a little hiccup here, but we’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.”
Major League Fishing is looking to take the sport mainstream and reel in fans who may have been unaware of the drama taking place on the water. With the right fishermen in place, the Bass Pro Tour is poised to succeed when it gets underway in January.
“The problem with professional bass fishing is that the existing leagues have lived in a very small pond with a finite customer base, which creates a finite sponsor base,” Duckett said. “They’ve lived in those ponds their whole careers. What we’re doing is launching into the ocean, not knowing the results. We may fail and capsize but the possibility is completely different. We are legitimately investing to show the world what this sport is well beyond the pond we’ve all grown up in.”
Mike Chupita writes for sister publication Sports Business Daily.