The Startup's Advantage

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Last week, competitive fishing experienced a first-of-its-kind occurrence when both major organizations had to shorten events. The flagship circuit at B.A.S.S., the Elite Series, dropped their tournament scheduled for the Upper Chesapeake Bay from four days to none. Meanwhile, the folks at FLW got their Northern Series anglers on the water one day at Lake Erie before canceling Days Two and Three.

Were those good decisions? The jury is still out among anglers and fans, but what it’s showed is the curse of becoming a big-time operation. With market share, big purses, staff obligations and major sponsorship dollars, when inclement weather arises – and our sport is more influenced by it than any other I can think of – there’s often no way to make everyone happy. Each time you add another interested party to the mix, the complications seem to increase exponentially. Unlike your bass club, which can reschedule on a moment’s notice, or even move an event to another body of water, that’s not always possible when your cumulative monetary impact measures in the hundreds of thousands.

Into this scenario come rumors of another major tournament trail emerging in the next year or two. I have only secondhand knowledge, but I’ve heard it from enough informed individuals to know that something is afoot. It sounds like they will be heavily funded, which will at least temporarily silence some of the anglers’ gripes. On the other hand, events like the Bassmaster Classic and the Forrest Wood Cup have history and status backing them up -- do you make the switch if there's a possibility you won't be able to return?

I believe that competition amongst the tours is good. When FLW came along in the mid-90s, they forced B.A.S.S. to up their payouts substantially (remember the days of annuities and ugly-colored 17’ Ranger Boats as prizes?). Since then, the tours have kept pressure on one another to improve their television shows and websites. With the addition of MLF, B.A.S.S. has seemingly been further inclined to incorporate at least one catch-photograph-release tournament into the schedule. MLF, the most recent startup, has certain advantages – for example, as a made-for-television entity, they don’t have to build a membership base. Nor do they need to build star anglers. Instead, they can just pluck them from the existing tours. Furthermore, because they are comparatively light in terms of structure (and don't need to factor fans in attendance into the equation), they can pivot on a dime if they need to change. The other tours have larger corporate structures, which of course provides stability, but not necessarily flexibility.

If and when another tour emerges, they’ll have to decide on their format and their distinguishing characteristics. Other than what are expected to be larger payouts, how will they be different from the Elite Series or the FLW Tour? How will they prove to the anglers and the fans that they are here for the long haul and not just throwing up a test balloon? If you’re old enough to remember the PAA or, long before that, the Golden Blend Tour, you know that there are very few circuits that last as long as FLW’s 20 years or the 50 years of B.A.S.S.

Furthermore, if history is any guide we are due for a recession at some point in the next few years. I’m not an economist, and I’m not authorized to talk politics in this space, but most signs point to that as likely. In that case, among B.A.S.S., FLW, MLF and the Johnny-Come-Lately Tour, who is most likely to survive? It probably won’t be all of them, but does history and heft prevail over the ability to pivot? There’s probably not a set-in-stone answer, but these are the types of questions the tours should be asking themselves. Professional bass fishing is here for the long term, but not all of the current players will endure the entire ride.