Bass war raging south of border

While Sunset Country anglers can hardly wait for this year’s editions of the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship and Kenora Bass International tournaments to roll around, many of their counterparts in the United States are caught up in a war.
No, not the one in Iraq. This one is over bass.
It all began a few years ago when the Forrest L. Wood (FLW) tournament circuit arrived on the scene amid much pomp and ceremony. Not to mention purses which, at the time, staggered the imagination.
Like the American Football League and World Hockey Association, the FLW was an upstart of sorts. Until its formation, the BASSMASTER tournament circuit was the only game in town.
Indeed, the BASSMASTERS Classic was the Grey Cup, World Series, and Stanley Cup rolled into one.
Now all that’s changing.
At the same time the FLW circuit was growing and challenging the BASSMASTER tour for supremacy, B.A.S.S. (the parent organization) was bought out by media giant ESPN.
The hugely-popular BASSMASTER TV show was revamped, given a dynamic new image, and, of course, televised exclusively on ESPN.
Then this winter, B.A.S.S. announced it had signed a major new sponsorship arrangement with Anheuser-Busch, the largest beer-maker in the world. With the bulging pockets of Busch Beer behind it, the BASSMASTER Tour now could offer hugely-lucrative purses.
There was only one hitch. Actually two of them. To garner points to get to the season-ending BASSMASTERS Classic that is worth more than $1 million to the triumphant angler, you had to wear a Busch patch on your clothing and display a Busch decal on your boat.
The same requirement was put in place for any angler wishing to contend for the coveted Angler of the Year title—and the $100,000 that goes to the winner.
No patch, no decal, no points, no money.
B.A.S.S. likened the requirements to Busch’s multi-million dollar NASCAR sponsorship where the same rules prevail. However, it seems they miscalculated when they assumed all the top tournament anglers would line up behind the rule as the race drivers had done.
To understand why, you need to spend a little time in the southeastern United States, especially in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and North and South Carolina.
There, tournament bass fishing and stock car racing aren’t sports, they’re religions. And speaking about religion, by no mere coincidence, this same area is regarded as the heart (better make that the soul) of the Bible Belt.
For B.A.S.S., it has been a dangerous brew, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Some of the anglers rebelled at the patch and decal requirement. None other than BASSMASTERS Classic winner Jay Yelas, said, “I have no interest in participating in the Busch Angler of the Year [AOY] program. I am going to wear the revised patch and boat decal this season only because they are mandatory.
“If I should be so fortunate to win AOY, I will make an attempt to work out some sort of “Don’t drink” campaign with Busch.
“I believe it is important to make an effort to engage Busch in their marketing efforts. We may not be able to come to terms, but I am willing to make an effort.”
Yelas went on to say that, “I will graciously decline any AOY money I may qualify for. This will give me a great platform to share my faith with those who will listen.
“A man who turns down $100,000 cash based on the principles of his faith will really have an audience. People will be curious. It will be an opportunity for me to glorify Jesus Christ, my priceless Lord and Saviour,” he added.
To be fair to the folks at Busch, they have linked their sponsorship with a “responsible drinking campaign” that many pros like Denny Brauer and Kevin Van Dam have said they support.
What I also find puzzling is that NASCAR racing is such a hit in the south. It not only is sponsored by same Busch beer company, but it has its storied roots in the bootlegging of “white lightning” in the Appalachian Mountains.
Go figure.
Still, some anglers have indicated they only will fish the FLW events. That means some of bass fishing’s super stars will not be at this year’s—and presumably future years’—BASSMASTERS Classic.
As if all this isn’t enough, it now appears the circuits also are starting to split along boat company lines. Forrest Wood, after whom the FLW circuit is named, was a pioneer in the bass fishing industry and the founder of Ranger Boats.
He sold the company several years ago to boating giant GENMAR (which also owns Lund, Larson, Crestliner, Stratos, Champion, and Glastron, to name but a few). Not surprisingly, the FLW circuit offers a separate and very lucrative “Ranger Cup Award” to the angler who garners the most points over the season while fishing from a Ranger boat.
Pros running Triton, Skeeter, Nitro, ProCraft, and Bass Cat boats, on the other hand, appear to be aligning with B.A.S.S. That is, of course, if they are prepared to wear the Busch patch on their clothing and the decal on their boats.
It sounds like the Hatfields and the McCoys—and it is enough to drive a man to drink.
If things weren’t complicated enough, FLW Outdoors recently released next year’s schedule of competitions. That, in itself, is a coup because it now forces B.A.S.S. to either schedule its tournaments at different times or risk going nose-to-nose with the competition.
But there’s more. Millions more. As well as announcing the 2004 schedule, FLW Outdoors announced an additional $1.04 million has been added to the payouts.
That means two of the FLW events will have purses of $500,000, two will have purses of $900,000, and two will offer $1.25 million each. The FLW Championship’s payout will remain at a not-too-shabby $1.5 million.
For the bean counters in the crowd, that makes for total circuit prize package of $6.8 million.
Hardly small potatoes—especially when the FLW Championship winner will cash a cheque for $500,000 while the last-place angler still will take home a sizable $15,000 for a week’s work.
It just goes to show, I suppose, that you don’t need to go to Iraq to have a war.

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