Major shake-up in bass tournament world

Professional angler Michael Neal from Dayton (Tenn.) is one of many anglers waiting to learn the details of a huge expansion of the Major League Fishing circuit. Some insiders say the expansion could spell trouble for BASS and FLW, the other two major bass tournament circuits. (Photo by Richard Simms)

Fans of professional bass fishing are buzzing this week with the announcement of a huge expansion of the Major League Fishing (MLF) circuit. Insiders say the expansion of the new circuit will put big pressure on the other two major circuits - BASS and FLW - that have led the way in professional bass fishing for years.

The expanded MLF program includes the addition of the Bass Pro Tour (BPT), a premier 80-angler, eight-event tour with a championship and heightened payouts, made possible through support from Bass Pro Shops and Outdoor Sportsman Group (OSG). Partly controlled by the Outdoor Channel TV network, MLF events are geared specifically for live TV. MLF episodes are consistently among the highest-rated shows on Outdoor Channel and World Fishing Network and in recent years, MLF has expanded its reach through broadcast partnerships with CBS, CBS Sports Network and Discovery Channel.

The idea of the MLF began in 2009 with an organizational focus group meeting which 14 top anglers including Bassmaster Champion Boyd Duckett, Kevin VanDam, Skeet Reese, Gary Klein, Alton Jones, Denny Brauer and many more.

The first-ever MLF event was held in 2012 and has grown steadily ever since. The anglers have said from the beginning that, "The formation of Major League Fishing should be geared to only strengthen the sport by playing a complementary role to B.A.S.S., FLW and more importantly, the anglers."

Whether that will be the case remains to be seen. Michael Neal is a professional bass angler from Dayton (Tenn.) who made his name primarily fishing FLW events. In seven years on the FLW tour Neal has won a total of $654,064. However Neal has also fished MLF events the last two years.

"I enjoy [the MLF events]. I look forward to them more than the tour events," he said. "It's a totally different atmosphere. It's a lot more fun. I think [the expansion] is going to be good for the sport as a whole. It's getting the right kind of entertainment to the viewers. They watch MLF way above any of the other [televised] circuits].”

However bass tournament insiders say that the MLF expansion is likely to force the top-name anglers in the sport to choose which circuit they fish. John Johnson and Todd Ceisner with BassFan.com write that the expanded MLF, "has the potential to significantly change the landscape of the sport."

"I don't see how there won't be some overlap [in tournament schedules]," said Neal. "But at this point there's just not enough details."

MLF is holding informational meetings with anglers this week. However to attend those meeting anglers are expected to be required to sign non-disclosure agreements so it is still unclear how much detail about the new BPT circuit will be known publically even following those meetings.

The MLF is set up dramatically different from BASS and FLW. In those circuits anglers compete in day-long or multi-day events and weigh-in their combined total catch (up to five bass per day). Fans don't know who will win until the final bass is weighed at the end of the event.

However in MLF events anglers catch, weigh and then release all bass immediately, live. The fish are weighed by a boat referee before release and EVERY bass one-pound or larger is recorded as part of each angler's cumulative catch. That means fans will be able to follow the competition in real time (either on TV or online) rather than waiting months for the televised version to air. Other major differences include:

  • Surprise venues (anglers don't know in advance what lake they're going to)
  • There are no practice days
  • There is a real-time leader board in each boat (angler know how all the other anglers are doing as they fish)
  • Since all fish are released, there are no limits on the number of fish weighed

Outdoor Sportsman Group Executive Vice President Matt Hutchings said in a release. “MLF has made fishing an even more popular spectator sport through televised events on Outdoor Channel and other networks. The MLF model is a proven success and we are excited to continue the journey with all of our partners towards future prosperity.”

In reality I say the majority of fishermen in the world could care less about the shake-up. Most don't know the difference between a local CBA tournament on Chickamauga Lake and the world famous Bassmaster Classic. However those in the professional tournament world, and especially in the tournament sponsor network, are wondering where it will all lead.

There has long been intense competition between the two major circuits. In recent years area bass professionals such as Wesley Strader from Spring City (Tenn.) and Jacob Wheeler from Harrison (Tenn.) made waves when they switched over from fishing FLW events to the BASS circuit. The addition of another major tournament circuit will put even more pressure on anglers to make such choices.

Bass Pro owner Johnny Morris said Bass Pro Shops’ support of the BPT will not impact its sponsorship interests related to BASS or FLW. Bass Pro Shops currently serves as the presenting sponsor of the Bassmaster Opens and the Bassmaster College Tour as well as FLW’s high school fishing series.

“We’re especially proud to be supporting anglers themselves, who make up an important part of MLF’s ownership team,” he said. “Our support for this expansion does not diminish our enthusiasm or support for other popular tournament series including B.A.S.S., FLW and hundreds of grassroots events across the country.”

Whether that equivalent support transfers to other sponsors or to the top-name anglers remains to be seen.

Learn more about MLF here.

Read more from Bass Pro Shops here.

Read more from BassFan.com here.

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