We ended last week’s column with the idea that I’m one of the luckiest men alive. Part of that thought is obvious. I had the right job that allowed me to fish tournaments that were scheduled over 11 months. I had the right family as well as good sponsors considering where I was in my career at the time. And, I was young. Being broke wasn’t a big deal.
The other thing that made a huge difference for me was that I had early success. I won the second Top 150 tournament I entered. It was the 1999 Vermont Bassmaster Top 150 on Lake Champlain. I earned a $100,000 check for that effort.
I tell you that not to brag but to point out that my good fortune in winning that event made all the difference in my career. My expenses were relatively small at the time. That amount of money allowed me to move forward without financial pressure.
As I look back on things, I realize how different they might have been but for that win. That’s the situation that a lot of our newer anglers are in right now and have been in over the last few years.
An angler looking at the Bassmaster Elite Series right now is facing a $100,000 bill between entry fees, travel, food and gear before he ever makes his first cast. Never mind the fact that he fished for his high school team successfully, that he competed for his college successfully — with little or no financial help in the form of scholarships — and that he qualified through the Bassmaster Opens. And, never mind the fact that sponsors are harder to get and keep than they ever have been.
Every year this keeps great anglers from joining the Elite Series and it forces others out who are already in. That’s not the way to build a sport. Things have to change.
What I’m saying is not a criticism of B.A.S.S. or any other trail, and it’s not a criticism of any of our sponsors and supporters. They are not responsible for any of it. That doesn’t change the truth of what I’m saying, however.
Understand something: I’m not suggesting that we should be paid huge sums of money like a lot of the team athletes. That would be absurd. The size of our fan base and the advertising dollars we can attract prevent that. But, somehow we have to figure out a way to remove the financial roadblocks in our spot. If we don’t, we’ll continue to lose top-shelf talent.
Part of the problem is our age. Depending upon how you measure it, professional bass fishing’s around 40 years old. Compared to the team sports that have generated so much money for their athletes, we’re still in our infancy. We haven’t had time to evolve, much of which is done by trial and error.
Remember, too, that the huge salaries for other professional athletes are relatively recent. Just a couple of decades ago they were poorly paid and basically considered the property of the team owners. That changed because of aggressive agents and a long series of court decisions that were years in the making.
I’m not suggesting that route will work for us. I am suggesting, however, that there are some things we can do to better our sport. We’ll talk about them another day.