Opens EQ: More on the new Elite qualification system

“Managed expectations” — it’s how you help ensure proper preparation on the front end for optimal output on the back end.

St. Croix Bassmaster Opens Director Hank Weldon used this phrase to describe the mindset behind a new system through which competitors may qualify for the Bassmaster Elite Series. Starting with the 2023 season, only anglers that commit to all nine Opens events — three divisions, three events each — will be eligible for one of nine Elite Series invitations, based on Elite Qualifier standings.

Known as the Bassmaster Opens Elite Qualifiers (EQ), the new plan will replace the current system (in place through 2022) where the top three anglers from each division, plus the top three from the overall Opens standings, earn Elite invitations.

Understandably, reactions and opinions have varied. That’s to be expected and such discussion has true value. But while the response from anglers has been largely positive, Weldon knows that no decision will please everyone. Offering further insight, he addressed the key points.

A plan for preparation

Weldon said that he and Senior Tournament Director Chris Bowes worked with B.A.S.S. upper management and current competitors across the tournament spectrum to address all relevant aspects of the Elite qualification picture. They also sought executive consultation from outside the organization.

Foremost, Weldon said the decision to restructure the Elite qualifying format supported the goal of ensuring that incoming Elite anglers are ready, in every sense of the word.

“The Opens are going to be geographically spread out similar to the Elites at various times of the year,” Weldon said. “If you can compete in the nine-event Open series, you should be ready to go within a 90-angler Elite Series field.

“We’re managing the expectation of the anglers. If you’re having a hard time doing it in the Opens, you’re certainly going to have a hard time doing it in the Elites, because your financial commitment increases and your competition gets stronger too.”

Simple allusion: Give a novice angler, maybe a small child, a high-end baitcaster, begin their instruction with a lesson on dock skipping, and it’s just not going to end well. The interest was there, the desire was authentic, but mismatching tools and tactics to experience level is the formula for frustration.

On a more advanced level, Weldon said the desire to spare anglers unexpected difficulties was central to the new Opens EQ plan.

“We’d heard for years that B.A.S.S. needed to be responsible to the anglers — to make sure that we, as a tournament league, were preparing these anglers for that next step,” Weldon said. “That mostly relates to an angler getting fortunate on a three-event series in a certain region in the United States.

“It’s still very hard, but we’ve seen anglers do that, move on to the Elite series, drain their bank account and two years later they’re no longer in the Elite Series.”

Qualified is qualified

In the interest of fairness and accuracy, no one’s implying that anglers who previously reached the Elites through a single Open division had an easy route, or lacked ability and preparation. Some fished all nine events of their qualifying season but simply qualified through one division, so the stats don’t always tell the full story.

“When you think about it, we currently give three Elite invitations in each division; that’s three out of 225 anglers. In the overall Opens, we do three invitations out of 83 (based on 2023 participation),” Weldon said. “You can get lucky on the water, but to finish in the top three out of 225 is a very hard mountain to climb.

“I think it’s still a fair qualifying route that we currently have; I just think the EQ system is a more responsible one.”

One thing that’s pretty easy to predict is the season-long drama of a single ongoing Bassmaster Opens Angler of the Year points race. There’s lots of room for anglers to gain traction, mount impressive rallies and build their brand — all of which furthers the fan engagement potential.

“We’re going to elevate our coverage of the EQ race to help these anglers,” Weldon said. “It’s a serious financial commitment they’re making to compete in the Opens, and we want to help them leverage B.A.S.S.’s significant platform to promote themselves. It’s going to be performance based, but it’s an opportunity to build their exposure.”

For those unable to make the Opens EQ commitment, as well as those who remain content with regional competition, each division will still offer a Bassmaster Classic berth to event winners, along with significant cash prizes.

Local access

In addition to the new Bassmaster Opens EQ, anglers also have the option of reaching the Elites through the B.A.S.S. Nation. Along with three Bassmaster Classic berths, each season offers an Elite qualification to the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship winner.

“We have a working model for anglers who can’t carve out the financial commitment to fish the Opens,” Weldon said. “They can fish on the local level within their state and qualify for the Nation Championship.

“Several current Elite anglers got there from the B.A.S.S. Nation. Matty Wong, Pat Schlapper, Caleb Sumrall, Paul Mueller and Brandon Palaniuk all competed locally at a much more budget-friendly level than a full Opens commitment.”

Ultimately, it’s about building the strongest and most broadly capable Bassmaster Elite Series field possible, and doing so in a manner that helps ensure longevity — a good thing for anglers, sponsors and fans.

Supply and demand

Historically, the Bassmaster Opens have fielded some of the tournament scene’s fiercest competition, and demand for Elite Series space has never been higher. To this point, Weldon said he expects the Opens EQ to elevate the premier professional bass fishing circuit.

“As this system develops, the caliber of angler we are going to send to the Elites is going to be even stronger,” he said.

No doubt, it’s a grueling and mentally-demanding proposition. Some will find they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, but better to find out before committing to the greater costs and longer events that come with Elite qualification.

Conversely, some will thrive in the Opens EQ system where a passion for performance pushes them up that daunting, demanding hill. These anglers will have the opportunity to showcase not only their ability to compete on diverse fisheries, but also their mental toughness and economic sustainability, without which an Elite career will not last.

Either way, the angler is best served with the brutal honesty of a make-it-or-break-it proposition.

This is the essence of the Bassmaster Opens EQ.