The Rest of the Professional Angling Picture

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by Dan O’Sullivan


A Step in the Right Direction Cover Image – courtesy Jason Lambert Facebook

Last week I ran a story entitled, “A Step in the Right Direction.” This opinion piece was inspired by the changes in the payout structure to the FLW Costa Series (formerly Rayovac Series). I detailed how FLW had adjusted the structure of the payout, and placed the payout at the upper ends of the field as opposed to spreading out the payout thin, throughout more than half of the field.

I thought, and still think, it was the appropriate move for the organization.

I also spoke about how the payouts have changed at the highest levels of our sport; in what I view as not the right direction. Watching the Bassmaster Classic and now the Forrest Wood Cup’s top prize be reduced to $300,000 is a step that removes some of the gloss from the events, and diminishes their value – in my opinion.

Those moves were made by the organizations to reduce the overall amount of overhead, but still allow anglers to make a living at the tour level. By reducing the top prize of their flagship events, the leagues are able to keep their payouts at the mid-level anglers at tour events intact. But, I also showed how that level of angler is already more than likely losing money each year anyway, with the structure as it stands.

To reiterate, I’m not by any means picking on the organizations. B.A.S.S. and FLW are businesses that are there to turn a profit. They must balance the needs of their businesses with offering the most that they CAN AFFORD to for their customers. It’s a delicate balance that has to be played – in any business.

I’ve received a lot of feedback from that story, some from representatives of the leagues, and some from anglers across the country. I felt like it’s time for me to give the rest of my perspective.

U.S. Open Anglers Launching at Lake Mead - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

U.S. Open Anglers Launching at Lake Mead – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

Here is my position, and it is going to be controversial. Our industry is doing things wrong. There are too many pro staff, and low to mid-level tournaments across the country pay out too much to the anglers. Our marketing efforts have become diluted and tournament organizations are building anglers who expect high payouts, and it is driving people out of business. Less business means less opportunity.

Allow me to explain before you take a hit out on me.

What is a Professional?
Anglers across this country compete in tournaments and are sponsored by companies, and many of them consider themselves “professional anglers.” But, let’s be real about the definition of professional angler.

Merriam – Webster Online Dictionary defines a professional as such
Full Definition of professional

  1. 1 a : of, relating to, or characteristic of a profession b :  engaged in one of the learned professions c (1) :  characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession (2) :  exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace
  2. 2 a : participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs <a professional golfer> b :  having a particular profession as a permanent career <a professional soldier> c :  engaged in by persons receiving financial return <professional football>
  3. 3 : following a line of conduct as though it were a profession <a professional patriot>

Another simpler definition online when I conducted a Google search came up as such:

(of a person) engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as a pastime. “a professional boxer”

synonyms: paid, salaried

“a professional rugby player”

Alabama Bass Trail Anglers Awaiting Launch at Smith Lake - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Alabama Bass Trail Anglers Awaiting Launch at Smith Lake – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

The feeling I have long held – even when I consider my own involvement as a tournament angler – is this. Most of us do not, and by most, I mean more than 99-percent of us – make our living as tournament anglers. Instead, what we do is participate in our sport’s equivalent of Thursday night softball leagues; otherwise known as “Beer League Softball,” or weekend golf tournaments or a Wednesday night bowling league.

For certain, there are prizes in many of those types of events, but they typically involve merchandise from the pro shop, and in most cases of these types of recreational competitions, the prize is a medal or trophy and the pride that you accomplished something as a team or individual.

While many of these participants are frustrated athletes that did not reach the level they thought they would after high school or college, they have not, nor will they likely ever be able to consider themselves “professionals.” In most instances, they own a business or go to a place of employment Monday through Friday in order to make a living, and they take vacation days to participate in their recreational endeavors.

That is precisely what anyone who competes in bass fishing tournaments below the top two levels of the sport are. I personally consider primarily the Bassmaster Elite Series and the FLW Tour, and add in the Bassmaster Opens and FLW Costa Series events, the only true “professional” fishing circuits out there. While there are many who do not fit the definition of professional in the Opens and Costa Series, the truth is that many of those competing in those divisions are attempting to build a career as a professional angler, and that is the reason they are competing at that level.

As a side note – there is one other group of anglers that I consider professionals, and that is a top quality fishing guide who makes a living taking clients out on the water. This group of anglers works just as hard as a tour level angler at staying current with the fish, and put as much effort into producing for their clients every day, and therefore, I consider them professionals as well.

In my opinion, the organizations should be focusing their payout structures to be maximized at those two levels. The reason? For the most part, those are the anglers who will be the most recognizable, and become assets to them in promoting their brands as well as the corporate partners who advertise with them.

The way it is currently structured, the anglers get a large percentage of the money that goes into any of these organizations in the form of tournament payouts. This would be fine, if the anglers would appreciate what they have. What happens instead is that the anglers demand more, or they don’t participate at all, citing weak payouts as the reason.

Remember When Doing Things for the Sens of Accomplishment Was Enough - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Remember When Doing Things for the Sense of Accomplishment Was Enough? – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

Pro Staff
The other issue affecting our sport today is an overabundance of pro staff that siphons the dollars off the bottom of a marketing budget making it harder for a company to afford a top level angler to use in their promotions. There are reasons that athletes such as LeBron James and Peyton Manning are among the highest compensated and most desirable celebrity endorsers available today. They are high profile, highly accomplished and participate at the highest levels of their sports. The same is said for people like Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and other NASCAR drivers; they are highly visible.

If Lowe’s, Pepsi or Coca Cola, or Nationwide Insurance had already spent three quarters of their advertising budget on small deals with hundreds of people competing in rec leagues, or running the local dirt tracks, then they would not likely have the budget to work with their most prized endorsers when the opportunity presented itself. While they would certainly get some local exposure for relatively small investments, the truth is that the overall cost to reach the same amount of people is unreasonably high, and not as effective as a higher cost investment.

Advertising – and therefore sponsorships – work by reaching the highest amount of viewership for the most cost effective means. That spending $3million to have Payton Manning endorse Nationwide Insurance on commercials during a football game is more cost efficient and effective than having 3000 local people paid to promote on a local level with little to no media exposure.

The same should be said for pro staff in a fishing industry company. If a company has a marketing budget of $100,000, then it is more cost effective and efficient to spend $50,000 on a professional level endorser, $25,000 marketing that angler in the media, and the rest of the budget to sponsor regional and local level anglers on smaller deals and / or discounts.   Our industry has gotten things backwards as a whole, and anglers who compete in team tournaments and regional or local events simply do not offer the largest return on investment for a company.

That’s not to say that those anglers are not valuable, it just means that they are of a different value and therefore shouldn’t be the focus of the corporate marketing dollar. This level of anglers is going to purchase what they need to fish anyway, and a solid compensation structure, in exchange for a logo on a shirt and on their boat, should be a discounted purchase price, or free goods based on service or achievement should be the target.

This type of program places a focus on service and effort rather than entitlement, and would go a long way to producing a stronger industry by producing anglers who know how to do the most for their companies as they progress through the ranks.

Wrapping Up
Again, before you go in search of a person to perform some “Wet Work” on me, remember, this is how I view myself as an angler. I am not by any means, a professional angler. I work in the fishing industry, and my skillset and the forum in which I work are what makes me as a person valuable. That happens to be with my mind, my camera and a keyboard – not a fishing rod.

Shouldn't This Smile Be What Tournament Fishing at Local Levels are All About - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Shouldn’t This Smile Be What Tournament Fishing at Local Levels are All About? – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

I love to fish, and I love to fish tournaments, but my value to any company is not on the water, but in what I can place on the pages of AdvancedAngler or one of the other publications I provide freelance work for – WITH THEIR PRO STAFF. Again, the most bang for the buck is what I want to – and have a responsibility as a person of this industry – to try and help anglers and companies achieve.

The reason that this will be a hotly debated topic is because of angler ego. Someone who has been competing for many years on a pro-am or regional level will disregard this as the ventings of a jealous person who hasn’t been able to do what I wanted to; however, I can assure you, that is not the case.

If we as an industry are to put aside our egos, and examine how this thing should run, we would produce a stronger product across the country with increased participation at many levels. If weekend anglers begin to see themselves as people who work for a living, and get to participate in fishing tournaments as opposed to being pro anglers,” then our industry would grow stronger.

Sure, payout scales in smaller may go down, but remember, we are participating in our sport’s equivalent of Beer League softball, and all they get is a trophy for winning the rec league championship. The fact that we have an opportunity at any payback should be greeted with appreciation rather than criticism.

Yes, regional pro staff opportunities may also be reduced in availability or benefits, but in the long run, it will produce stronger companies capable of doing more. The companies will have more potential for growth in many areas, and therefore opportunities have more of a chance to increase.

This is a touchy subject, and has done a lot to insight anger from many over the years, but there is a reason that top flight national pros are among the highest compensated endorsers in the business. Sure, they have earned their accolades on the water, but in actuality, they are more valuable off the water because of it.

Each of them spend more time off the water working for their sponsors each year than they do on the water competing. The events are a critical, necessary component of them delivering credible result, but they are paid for what they do off the water as well. In other words, they got where they are with hard work and by fishing events with little payout in order to build a resume that could take them to the top levels. Now they are there, and their endorsement deals reflect their standing.

In my opinion, our industry needs to evaluate how we are structuring things, and see how we can build a stronger one going forward. We can build more of these hard working, accomplished pros that can carry our brands into the future by doing so.