It would not be hyperbole to describe the 2006 season of the CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail as the most pivotal in the 38-year history of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society.
The changes announced by BASS officials are the most sweeping ever. The highlights include:
• The establishment of the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series, which will pay out a record $11 million-plus (and be limited to 100 qualified anglers in 2007).
• The highest entry fees ($5,000) in BASS history for Elite Series competitors.
• The most lucrative and deepest payout ever offered $10,000 for 50th place.
• The CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year program will feature double the money ($600,000) in 2006. It will pay $125,000 for first down to 50th place.
• A revamped venue for Open-level anglers, which will include six events on the renamed CITGO Bassmaster Northern and Southern Tours, (paying tournament winners $75,000). These circuits will serve as springboards to the annual CITGO Bassmaster Classic, as well as the Elite Series.
Add to that the three previously announced no-entry-fee Majors events paying $250,000 to the winner and the upgraded $500,000 Classic champion's prize, and you begin to get a clear picture of what is at stake next season.
No one understands this as well as the guys in the trenches, the touring pros. In this two-part exclusive Bassmaster.com series, we examine the reaction of a cross-section of Bassmaster anglers to the dramatic changes looming ahead.
As expected, the dramatically increased Elite entry fee was the biggest topic of discussion.
Veteran North Carolina pro Marty Stone: "To me, there's two things that come to mind. When I first got started, I was somewhere between $28,000 and $30,000 in entry fees. I was fishing FLW and the BASS Tour and the Opens. I had a grand total of $7,000 coming in. When I first started nationally in 1997, it was the first time that everywhere we went we were fishing for $100,000 first place. And I never once went to these organizations and said, 'You know what? I can't afford to fish this. You guys need to reduce the entry fees and increase the payout.'
"One of the reasons I didn't was there were guys that could afford it like the Larry Nixons, Denny Brauers, Rick Clunns and Kevin VanDams. A lot of guys that had been out there a while and were established and this was their opportunity to finally be able to compete for some real money. In my mind, I knew the rules going in. It was a huge financial commitment on my part and my family's part. And I had to step up to the plate.
"If I wanted to play for the big money, I had to pay big money. This is no different now.
"I have heard some of the negative comments about the increased entry fees. I can understand anytime there's change people become concerned, apprehensive and a little scared to a point. I can sympathize with that. I also know there are guys that can't afford this. But I'm just looking at this like if I had just a mediocre performance, just have an average year, I'm going to win over $150,000 or $160,000. If you go out there had have a year like Kevin (VanDam) had this year, a man's going to win a million bucks.
"A million bucks on a $55,000 investment. Dude, I don't know anywhere else right now that you can spend $55,000 and have an opportunity to make that kind of money. And I'm not talking about a hypothetical. Kevin has already showed that it can be done.
"I see nothing but positives. Again, I'm sympathetic because this will price a few people out. For those guys, BASS created the Tour, which is a perfect place for them. It's great competition and the payout is darn good. A man can go out there for two or three years, win him some money, save up some money, get used to this business, meet the right people, develop some of those relationship, and then when he comes out on the E Series. Then it's not a financial shock.
"We're giving these guys a training ground. And I think it's a wonderful training ground. And we're also providing spots in the Classic. The stakes have been raised, but so has the reward."
Tour rookie Preston Clark of Florida: "It's scary. Real scary. I like the idea of having a smaller field, but the entry fees scare me. I'm hoping that I'm going to be able to do it. I'm working on a couple of (sponsor) deals right now and if they should come through I shouldn't have a problem. But right now it's really scary.
"If not, it's going to be awfully tight for me and my wife to try to come up with that money. I'm going to have to rely on my fishing and see if I can fish my way in. I know I'm guaranteed $10,000 in the (2006) Classic and that's going to help a lot. I can come up with a $5,000 and the first payment they have scheduled. I like the way they have a payment schedule; I just wish they had it spread out a little bit more."
Oklahoma's Jeff Kriet, sixth year on Tour: "I think it's a lot of money, of course. I'd like to see the payout spread out a little better. It's pretty much $100,000 for first and anything under about sixth place is basically $10,000. I'd like to see that more spread out.
"But I kind of like what they're doing with the Tour card like the PGA card. I think that's something that will be great for a true professional angler to have that to separate himself from some of the others for sponsors and things like that.
"I like the idea that we're going to be able to use our boats an extra day or two. The way it's going if we have $5,000 entry fees there's no way you can do it without running a wrapped boat. That's just all there is to it. By the 2007 year, I don't think it' going to be too hard to get a $75,000 to $100,000 wrapped boat deal. Right now, I have a wrapped deal for next year. It's a pretty good chunk of change, but, goodnight, for 14 tournaments and $55,000 in entry fees you just can't hardly sign a deal for under $55,000.
"I think it will be better because more guys are going to run a wrapped boat next year if ESPN and Jerry McKinnis do what they say they can do. I talked to Jerry about this and he says they're going to be able to give more TV time to other anglers. Not just a select few anglers. We'll see if that works. If they'll divide the television time amongst the people that are catching them, and with the live coverage for the Majors and stuff like that… and they're also putting together a packet for guys to send out to potential sponsors giving the value of the exposure they've gotten."