When the innovative CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series was first announced last fall, the excitement of the limited-field, lucrative top-tier circuit was tempered by one over-emphasized fact.
The entry fee for the 11 tournaments totaled $55,000.
Never mind that nearly half of the 106-angler field would be invited to compete for free in the three Majors, where the winner would earn $250,000; or that the Elite Series anglers were fishing for a total of $11.2 million in cash (no product prizes); or that since 50th place was worth $10,000, each pro had a 50/50 chance of cashing a check.
Still, the $55,000 investment brought out the naysayers.
With the completion of the Elite Series season on Missouri's Table Rock Lake last week, we now have a clear picture of the financial impact of BASS' premier tournament scene.
Alabama's Gerald Swindle summed it up best when he said, "The Elite Series made a lot of people rich."
Of course, a number of anglers failed to cash enough prize checks to offset their investment with winnings alone, but the whopping majority of Elite Series competitors will tell you that they made a wise investment with their entry fees.
Consider that the top 11 pros in the CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings topped the $200,000 mark in earnings in 2006. Impressively, the top 36 made $100,000 or more. And the top 65 performers at least made their $55,000 investment back.
The big winners were newly crowned Angler of the Year Michael Iaconelli (whose AOY bonus was $125,000) at $382,015 and the three Majors winners: Peter Thliveros ($374,046), Dave Wolak ($342,430) and Scott Rook ($327,397). Louisiana's Greg Hackney had a heck of a year without such a huge windfall, banking $269,557.
Kevin VanDam did not win a tournament and even missed one event because of disqualification, yet still pocketed $241,680. And Angler of the Year runner-up Steve Kennedy earned $239,420 without getting into the winner's circle.
In addition, Shaw Grigsby, Brent Chapman and Preston Clark didn't perform well enough to qualify for the 2007 CITGO Bassmaster Classic, but each earned more than $100,000 in tournament winnings.
"This year with the Elite Series, there was a lot of money to be made," Iaconelli says, "especially for the cream of the crop that rose to the top."
Marty Stone, 55th in 2006 earnings with $62,810, believes that the Elite series has lived up to its ambitious billing as the premier league for pro anglers.
"I hear people talk about the good old days," the North Carolina pro notes. "When I got started about 10 years ago, the entry fee was $1,200. The last paying place paid $1,000.
"People say, 'It was nice back then.' Heck no, I was starving to death. Now, I pay $5,000 for an entry fee, but half the field makes $10,000 or better. Back then, winning the Classic paid about $50,000. Now, it's $500,000. And we have Majors that I don't have to pay an entry fee for. Back then, Angler of the Year paid $10,000 and there wasn't anything for second through 10th place." Now, the winner earns $125,000 and the next 49 anglers split $475,000.
"People don't realize how things have improved over just a 10-year period. We're talking about increases of many multiples. In the old days, I was sometimes in the red if I made a check. Now I'm at least $5,000 in the black. It's going to keep going and we're going to have even more guys show people how to make money out here."
And that's just the tournament winnings! Any discussion of the Elite Series would not be complete without mentioning the big dollars that come from sponsors. The Elite Series encouraged its competitors to concentrate on branding themselves and their sponsors through specially wrapped boats and other means. And BASS and ESPN offered training and marketing data designed to help the pros obtain better sponsorship deals.
As a result, there has never been more endorsement/sponsorship money in the sport, not to mention more non-endemic companies from all walks of corporate America. In an upcoming issue of Bassmaster Magazine, a ground-breaking expose will reveal, for the first time, the sponsorship riches of the top Elite Series pros, including six that earn more than $350,000 a year before they make their first cast!