An appeal to economic self-interest in the Elites

Like Don Barone, I read many of the Elite Series competitors’ social media comments about Philadelphia and the Delaware River last week. Barone gave an impassioned response to the griping that some of them engaged in. Sonofagun kind of stole my thunder, as I’d been planning to address the same topic.  Then, yesterday, before I could write this, Brent Chapman wrote a partial rebuttal to Barone’s piece.

I read their back-and-forth with interest, and I believe both made some valid points. Some of you may be sick of reading about this and ready to move onto Cayuga, but I feel it’s important to tackle one aspect of this dispute that has yet to be addressed: The economic benefits to the anglers of visiting waters that some of them may see as less than ideal.

First, let me address the criticisms – whether you want to call it complaining, whining, dissenting or criticizing, in and of themselves the pros’ statements don’t strike me as problematic. The anglers should be allowed to express dissatisfaction in a reasonable manner, through social media or otherwise. I do have a problem, however, when they grasp at straws. One of their major gripes seemed to be the lack of safety in the area. While that’s always a concern when you’re traveling with a $70,000 boat and an equal amount of tackle, I find this one hard to take terribly seriously. I’ve yet to hear of any safety problems from Philly, whereas every time there’s a big tournament at Okeechobee (Fla.), Fork (Texas) or Tohopekaliga (Fla.), we seem to hear about organized theft rings wiping the anglers clean, sometimes even taking their entire rigs, yet no one seems to be suggesting that those venues should be off the table.

Instead, I think there was generally a fear of the unknown, of being out of their element. In particular, there’s one statistic that was responsible for a lot of the Elite Series angst over the past week:

The population of Philadelphia is 1,553,000.

With that number there comes industry. With that number comes congestion. With that number comes traffic. It creates problems that many of them aren’t used to.

I understand that most of the competitors didn’t have time to appreciate Philly’s diversity, history and culture, possibly not even the cheesesteaks. They were there to do a job which didn’t leave much time for sightseeing and driving a dually into the city in search of food can be a daunting task. It’s much easier to get around in towns like Guntersville (Ala.), Clewiston (Fla.), Grove (Okla.) and Many (La.). The approximate populations of those towns are as follows:

Guntersville – 8,200

Clewiston – 7,200

Grove – 6,600

Many – 2,700

That makes them operate at a slower pace. On the other hand, within just a few miles of the launch site on the Delaware River there were many times more residents -- and in all probability many, many times more wealth – than the combined 25,700 who live in those four tournament meccas.

“But those are real fishing towns,” you might implore. “The people there know and love our sport.”

To be honest, that’s exactly my point. The people in those towns are already aware of what the Bassmaster Elite Series is. Even your average Joe/Jane hanging at the gas station or taking her kids to school knows who Kevin VanDam is. They’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of sparkly boats rolling down the road. If they don’t fish tournaments themselves, then a family member or a neighbor or a friend does.

With that in mind, the only appeal I’m going to make to the anglers is one for their own financial self-interest. What’s ironic about this to me is that many of the same guys who complained about the Delaware River venue are also the first to complain that it’s tough to make a living as a pro angler. I don’t doubt that they’re correct, but the first step toward righting that problem should be to seek more ways to make more money.

Because no pro in his right mind would allow me to look at his tax returns, I can’t be certain of what any of them make, but let’s say for the sake of argument that the top-earning Elite Series pro rakes in a million bucks a year and the median Elite Series pro nets $75,000 in tournament winnings, endorsements, appearance fees, etc. My contention is that with a little bit of effort, perhaps a little bit of personal discomfort, they should be able to earn three, four, or maybe five times that much. The only way to get to that point is to go to more non-traditional venues like Philadelphia.

Think about it – while a higher percentage of the residents of towns like Guntersville/Clewiston/Grove/Many may be predisposed to gravitate to bass fishing (and therefore buy fishing-related items), we’re already approaching the ceiling of that number. On the other hand, the people in urban venues, or other non-traditional audiences, are nowhere near their respective ceiling. If you can get 2% of the people of Philadelphia to develop an interest in bass fishing, that’s over 30,000 people, more than the combined population of those other four cities. They may not all buy new fiberglass bass boats, but perhaps some of them will, and the rest of them may buy crankbaits and fishing line and rods and reels.

On Friday, I was introduced to Tejmohan “Tej” Sawhney, a professional jewelry buyer originally from India (a country with no bass), who moved to Abu Dhabi (a country with no bass) before moving to the U.S. a few years later. Had a co-worker not introduced him to bass fishing, he might not have recently bought a $50,000 bass boat. How do we appeal to others like him who aren’t lucky enough to have a co-worker who takes the time to explain how great bass fishing is?

On Sunday, I was tasked with writing a story for about the raucous Philly crowd. As I pushed my way through the madness, I stopped to interview a diminutive 49 year-old African American woman in a Phillies cap who was screaming her lungs out. She told me she’d never fished before, but had wandered into Penn’s Landing on Saturday and was so energized by the proceedings that she decided to come back on Sunday. What time did she have to arrive to claim her awesome front row seat for Ike’s victory? “10 a.m.,” she told me proudly, for a 3 p.m. weigh-in. Now she’s planning to go out and buy a rod and reel and take up the sport. That may not immediately make any struggling pro rich, but take a few hundred or a few thousand people like her who catch the bug and start buying and it increases what is now a relatively stagnant pie. She probably wouldn’t have been quite as excited if she’d happened upon The Bassmasters on TV, or read a copy of Bassmaster Magazine at the doctor’s office. It took seeing it live to pique her interest and get her jacked up about getting on the water.

Surely not all of the people at the weigh-in were relative newcomers like my two new acquaintances. Many have already spent lots of hard-earned money on fishing gear and will continue to do so – they were just happy to have the tour in their own backyard. The pie of tackle sales is relatively stable right now, but there are more and more hands pulling at it from every direction. More pros and wannabe pros every year. More entrants into every tackle category each year. With the right strategy, we can increase that pie via towns like Guntersville/Clewiston/Grove/Many in small increments, and the pros may see a small boost in their incomes. If they really want anything approaching a multiplier effect, though, they’re going to have to take their show on an occasionally bumpy road.

The person who figures out how to make bass fishing big in Montana and market it to the new immigrant from Mumbai as well as the little girl in the princess dress on Park Avenue, that’s the only guy who has the potential to really make a lot of pros wealthy, or at least more wealthy than they are right now.

Complain or criticize all you want. I strongly favor open discourse. At the same time, make sure your complaints don’t contradict one another. The hardest part of any job is expanding your horizons into uncomfortable situations, but that’s usually where the greatest progress is made.