The Elite Series: Looking back

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This personalized Rand McNally Atlas and presentation watch were awarded to the anglers who signed up for the inaugural Bassmaster Elite Series season.

In 2006, when then-CEO Don Rucks introduced the Bassmaster Elite Series, the concept was clear: Have the sport’s best anglers compete on the best fisheries at the best times. And angler branding was a big part of the package.

That involved boats wrapped in NASCAR-style graphics with matching jerseys touting not only the anglers’ sponsors, but the anglers’ names as well.

For the first time, the competitors would fish throughout each event and into the post-season using their own boats. That included the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods. 

The only major hurdle for B.A.S.S. in selling the concept to the anglers was cost. With entry fees at $5,000 per event and an 11-tournament series, the price to participate was substantially higher than ever before. But it also meant higher payouts. And most of the pros liked the idea of competing for higher stakes while having full control of the boat. Well … most of us liked it. 

There were a few holdouts. Among them were Roland Martin, Jay Yelas, Tommy Martin and Larry Nixon — all legends who helped grow and define the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society. They decided to move on … as did others. Still, enough bought into the vision, believing it was the right direction for competitive fishing. I was one of them.

Others included Kevin VanDam, Skeet Reese, Mike Iaconelli and scores of other young competitors — all of whom quickly became the faces of B.A.S.S.

Hard times ahead

With a mixed roster of established pros and young wannabes, the Elite Series got underway. And for a time, things went according to plan. ESPN spent millions promoting the tour, and we set many new records at the scales.

The Elite Series was rolling, but then things changed.

By the end of 2007, the Great Recession sent the economy into a steep decline. Anglers were feeling the crunch. Finding and securing sponsorships had become increasingly more difficult, and the cost of participation was taking its toll.

To soften the blow, B.A.S.S. reduced the number of Elite events to eight and returned to more familiar venues — places where support was reliable. The tour had become less about breaking records and more about survival. In 2010, fewer than 100 competitors made up the Elite Series field. 

Coming and going 

At the end of that year, ESPN sold B.A.S.S. to Don Logan, Jim Copeland and Jerry McKinnis — a group determined to right the ship.

Slowly, the number of competitors increased and the emphasis was once more on tapping the best fisheries wherever possible. That meant extensive travel, back to venues like the Delta and Clear Lake in California, Okeechobee and the St. Johns River in Florida, and to the Great Lakes.

Scheduling these events required considerable effort by the team at B.A.S.S., and though the choices aren’t always in accord with the anglers, B.A.S.S. does try to create a schedule that is not only challenging, but rewarding. They also strive for maximum fan participation. Many of our events coincide with music festivals, where there is good potential for crossover interest.

In creating any schedule, there’s always a concern for travel. Some years, the tour operates much more efficiently than others. We may hit two or even three events, back to back, that are in relatively close proximity. That’s usually popular with the anglers, as it reduces the number of miles and time invested. 

Other times — like last year — there was a tremendous amount of roadwork involved. We visited Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas — all neighboring states — at separate times. That’s not only hard on the anglers, it’s hard on the tournament department and sponsors who set up at each Elite Series venue.

A look back

Like any venture, the Elite Series has suffered some growing pains. But when I look back at the time, effort and cost to participate, there’s no doubt in my mind I made a good investment. And I think most of my fellow competitors would agree.

I love the tour and the guys I compete against, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. Here’s to 2018, hoping it’s a productive year for us all.