High Tide for Curt Flood


Welcome to Professional Bass Fishing Jeopardy, where we skip the easy questions and go straight into Final Jeopardy. This week’s conundrum, for all the marbles, goes as follows:

·        The private jet of Jeff Bezos;

·        A DeVos family vacation in the Seychelles; and

·        The Walton compound in Arkansas.

[cue the music]

Leroy, we can see you’ve bet it all. What did you write down?

“Alex, what are three places less likely to be the site of a unionizing effort than a pro bass tournament?”

We are living in strange times, my friends, not just in bass fishing but in the world at large. As a result of the shift from two tours to three, and particularly in light of the mass exodus to the Bass Pro Tour, our sport seems to be at a pivotal moment. The current state of flux might not directly change anything about the way we catch fish, or where we catch them, or even the equipment we use to catch them, but there’s a substantial chance that it’ll impact the way we digest it as a spectator sport.

Without opining as to which tour will be “best,” or what the anglers and fans should hope to get out of it, it’s fairly obvious that there has been a change in the angler-to-management power dynamic. The move by many major stars has shown that they are stronger, more frustrated and perhaps more daring than I would’ve previously believed. The implications of their actions could exceed those of the changes that occurred two decades ago when FLW first established itself – it’s potentially not just the size of the pie, but also how it will be distributed.

I’ve become aware that some anglers are now advocating for some sort of “larger than a tour” organization. Don’t call it a “union” – apparently that term doesn’t fly with this group – but that’s essentially what they want if they can call it something else. Ike has mentioned it expressly on his “Ike Live” show and on social media, and he and others are pushing the idea through a letter distributed to anglers across all three tours.

Is a “union” or “collective bargaining unit” or “players association” a possibility for this group? As it relates to getting group health insurance or a retirement plan or a tour card, I’d say yes. Whether it will become some sort of entity able to address grievances for the sake of all pro anglers, I kind of doubt it.

They’ve tried it before, through the Professional Anglers Association (may it rest in peace), which died for a variety of reasons, but was dealt its final blow when many of its stars stopped participating in PAA events and meetings. Oddly enough, some of those same anglers who played a disappearing game are leading the current charge for freedom from control of the existing tours.

If they are to make unification succeed, the big names will need to remain engaged – and they will need to assuage the feelings of those who feel bitter and left behind. From my cursory understanding of the history of sports unions, part of their purpose is to protect the least powerful among them, which requires some sacrifices by the most powerful among them.

Those of you old enough to remember the 1987 NFL players strike will recall that their efforts failed because not only did management bring in replacement “scabs,” but also because big name players like Mark Gastineau, Lawrence Taylor and Tony Dorsett crossed the picket line. Those three and many similarly-situated players looked out for their own self-interest first and foremost. Three decades later, the NFL Players Association is comparatively weak – you need only look at the non-guaranteed “$50 million dollar” contracts that end up paying only a fraction of that amount to see that truth. The 1987 strike isn’t the only reason for that, but it exemplifies the problem.

Compared to the NFLPA, the Major League Baseball Players Association is quite strong, for a variety of legal, historical and political reasons (as well as factors related to average career length), but also because the big boys tend to protect the newcomers. If you think back to when Alex Rodriguez left the Texas Rangers over a decade ago, it was his clear preference to go to the Red Sox. In order to get his wish, he agreed to restructure his record-setting contract and take a significant pay cut. It wasn’t that much of a sacrifice because he was going to make over $20 million a year either way, but still, stars of that magnitude are used to getting what they want. Ultimately the union told him that he could not do so because his willingness to accept lesser pay would completely undermine the ability of less powerful and less talented players to maintain any leverage in negotiations.

When push comes to shove for the cream of the crop anglers – who typically make less money but enjoy longer careers than athletes in the major US sports – will they be willing to put it all on the line? What if they have to sacrifice for someone who’s not even on their particular tour? I kind of doubt it, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

Also, there’s a particular wrench thrown into this this situation because, unlike other sports, where management and workers are kept far, far apart, at least one of the three major tours has competitors who are also owners. Which side of the table will they sit on?