The short road home

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Gerald Swindle and Brandon Palaniuk return to the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2020.

As most of you know, B.A.S.S. recently announced the return of former Bassmaster Elite Series pros Brandon Palaniuk and Gerald Swindle. The news sent a shockwave through the sport, particularly through the ranks of the Bassmaster Elite Series anglers.

Citing a “Legends Exemption” clause (which opens the door to the Elite Series for past Bassmaster Classic champions and Bassmaster Anglers of the Year) previously outlined in the Elite Series Handbook, B.A.S.S. invoked the rule so that the two could compete in 2020.

Before I comment on that decision, it’s important to share some of the events that preceded it.

The “new” B.A.S.S.

Last year, after the announcement of the new Bass Pro Tour (BPT), many of the biggest names in the sport (including Swindle and Palaniuk) decided to leave the Elite Series. B.A.S.S. immediately responded by engaging with its remaining Elite pros and sponsors. We were reassured that the Elite Series would not only survive, it would prosper. 

B.A.S.S. promised increased exposure for all who participated, across all of their platforms. In fact, they expanded those platforms times three — a major investment that posed considerable risks.

With that promise, they began to reconstruct the Elite Series field by enlisting qualified B.A.S.S. Nation and Opens anglers, while also inviting some of the FLW Tour’s more prominent names. In a few short weeks, a 75-man field was announced — some hailing from Canada, Japan and Australia.

Boasting a truly international field, the Bassmaster Elite Series was back on track. And as the season unfolded, their promise of increased exposure was delivered. Even anglers performing poorly were experiencing some airtime. It was the best promotional effort I’ve witnessed in my 30-plus-year career. 

Bassmaster LIVE, The Bassmasters, Bassmaster.com, B.A.S.S. Times, Bassmaster Magazine and all their related social media pages raised the bar to promote the tour and its players. Seeing this increase in exposure had to have caught the attention of every BPT competitor that had been lured away from the Elites by a similar promise.

Sponsors, too, observed the effort. Several are now renewing with B.A.S.S. My longtime supporter, Rapala, announced a major commitment at all levels — including the Elite Series, Bassmaster Opens, College and High School tours. 

The Bass Angler Sportsman Society is back, stronger than ever. And that’s the good. Now for the not so good.

Meetings of the minds

Back at the beginning of the season, I was invited to be part of a six-man advisory board. I accepted, along with Mark Menendez, Matt Herren, Keith Combs, Jason Williamson and John Crews — all seasoned veterans on the Elite Series. We believed the alliance would strengthen relations between B.A.S.S. and its new field of Elite Series anglers, while helping to shape the future of the tour.

Over the next few months, our discussions ranged over a number of topics. But one of reoccurring concern was the possible return of BPT anglers to the Elite Series. Many of the remaining Elites felt abandoned, and some of the newer faces didn’t want any additions to the field. We heard their concerns and discussed them at length among the board members.

Those talks were sometimes heated. A minority lobbied for “sponsor exemptions,” claiming key Elite Series sponsors should be granted representation by BPT anglers wanting to return to the Elite Series. That proposal was met with fierce opposition, however, and — in response, B.A.S.S. promised us twice it would not change its position and that any pro wishing to return to the Elite Series would have to do so by requalifying through the Bassmaster Opens.

That reassurance gave the Elite field a level of confidence I had not witnessed in my many years. For the first time, we felt there was true transparency, and that the anglers would have a say in the future of the tour.

Toward the end of the season, rumors of BPT anglers wanting to return to the Elite Series became a reality. Among the names mentioned were Palaniuk and Swindle. Again, the opposition spoke up. Most of the field felt B.A.S.S. should hold the line — that any BPT angler wanting to return to the Elite Series must requalify through the Bassmaster Opens. 

After listening to our arguments, B.A.S.S. management convened to discuss the matter internally and with its partners. Eventually, they reached what they felt was a compromise — reinstating the Legends Exemption and allowing only two qualifying anglers back into the Elite Series.

Many were disappointed with that decision. And, honestly, I was too … at first. 

The more I thought about it, however, the more it made sense. While it’s easy to hold contempt for those who, a year ago, deserted B.A.S.S. for another tour, I realized there was a bigger picture to consider. Having Gerald and Brandon competing in the Elite Series adds credibility and star power to the field. It also makes a positive statement to sponsors, media and fans who follow the politics of our sport — a statement that I’m sure was unwelcome by BPT management and its backers. 

I hold no ill will toward Gerald or Brandon. They’re fellow Rapala pro staffers, and I consider them both friends. I can’t blame either of them for taking advantage of the opportunity. Both are clearly qualified under the definition of the Legends Exemption clause, and both are only trying to do what’s best for their futures. 

Back to business 

What the BPT lacked for Brandon or Gerald, only they can say. Whatever it was that brought them back to the Elites, I welcome them both.

I entered the Bassmaster Elite Series because I wanted to compete against the best. I felt that when and if I won, it would have more meaning. And having Gerald and Brandon — two of the sport’s best — back on this tour is a positive step in making that dream, if realized, more meaningful.

Welcome back, guys. I’ll see you at the St. Johns.