The news — some of the biggest news in modern-day bass fishing history — came down while the pros were traveling to Lake Tohopekaliga and the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes for this week's $618,000 season-opener of the CITGO Bassmaster Tour presented by Busch Beer. By the time practice began on Monday, the excited response to the big announcement threatened to overshadow the tournament itself.
And it has snowballed from there.
News of ESPN's plan to completely revamp the Tour in 2006 was the topic of discussion throughout Kissimmee and on the water that dissects the central Florida community. Although some pros expressed reservations while they awaited more details, there seemed to be near unanimity that their sport is about to take a giant step forward.
In case you've been camping out in some wilderness locale or just returned from a Mexican excursion, here are few of the highlights of the announcement that was made at BASS headquarters on Friday and reported on during BassCenter on Saturday:
The Tour will grow from six to 11 tournaments spread from March through September (instead of the current spring-heavy season).
The highly popular CITGO Bassmaster Elite 50 Tour has morphed into three big-time events called "Majors" (similar to the PGA's highlighted tournaments) that will be sprinkled throughout the Tour schedule. The basic Elite-50 qualification process stays intact for the Majors. The winner of each tournament will pocket a whopping $250,000.
The venerable CITGO Bassmaster Classic, the most important event in competitive bass fishing, will undergo two major changes. It will be moved to February or early March in order to launch the 2006 Tour season (a la NASCAR and its Daytona 500), as well as provide Classic contenders and fishing fans with a chance to enjoy some truly great fishing. And the total payout will jump from $700,000 to a cool $1 million — half of which goes home with the winner.
In addition to the lucrative, additional opportunities that come with the changes, the Tour overhaul achieves another goal — stability. After four years of restructuring tournament formats and qualifications, ESPN/BASS officials believe this new framework will last for the foreseeable future.
"We've made considerable changes in the past and I think our whole goal with this set of changes now, really it's just tweaking from here on out," said Dean Kessel, BASS Vice President of Operations. "We feel like we've got a competitive schedule and something that an angler can make a career out of. And we've got the incentive with the Majors that is very inspirational for the angler to get to that level in his career and qualify for those events. And then you've got the Classic, which is every angler's dream."
"I think that (lack of stability) hurt us, I really do," said all-time BASS money-winner Denny Brauer, a member of the BASS Athletes Advisory Council. "I've been confused and I'm a participant. What does that tell you about how the general public has been able to follow out sport? So we needed a standard season where everybody can get in tune with it and look forward to certain events.
"I think that's the neat thing about the Majors and all of that. Just like golf. You know when they're coming about and you start creating more of a history to the sport than what we have right now. I think that's all good."
It should be noted that even the most enthusiastic pro's excitement is tempered by the fact that there is no definitive word as to whether Tour entry fees will rise in 2006 or how the payout will be structured.
"We're looking at the whole dynamics relative to entry fees," Kessel noted. "Not just in one specific area, but I'll just say they're under review. We haven't made a decision one way or the other, but we're certainly looking at it. I don't have a timetable right now, but as soon as we can. But there are a number of things to consider. The big thing was how do we get this out and have the biggest impact. As far as the entry fees and other particulars, we're going to be working on those. But it will be in the near future.
"The reason why we wanted to make the announcement now is because the season was going to start the next week and this is not something that we wanted to announce two or three events into the season. So that was really what pushed us over the top."
To the man, every pro polled was enthusiastic about the nearly doubling of the Tour events from six to 11. Throw in the Majors for the 51 most fortunate pros and there will be 14 big purses to fish for in 2006.
"I think it's fantastic," said veteran Texas pro Gary Klein, another member of the BAAC. "First of all, it's a change for the better. To go from six Tour events to 11 Tour events is what I've always wanted. And to take the E-50s and turn them into Majors where they're worth a quarter of a million dollars for first place, that's pretty awesome. Then to take the Classic to a half-million.
"This is what I've been waiting for ESPN to do — step up to the plate and let's make this thing neat and exciting. Make it so the guys can make a living."
"I definitely feel like this is the next step," Brauer added. "In order to keep adding credibility to the sport, you've got to expand the sport. And, boy, that allows us to go to more places and introduce more people to what we really do for a living. It allows more people to make a living, obviously, with more events. It gives the sponsors more exposure.
"I just think it's a win-win for the whole industry when you expand the Tour. Boy, we just didn't expand one tournament. We kind of kicked the door open. So I think it's a good thing."
BAAC member Edwin Evers expressed the sentiments of some of the Bassmaster pros when he added: "I'm kind of worried about the newer anglers or the lower tier anglers having the money to fish all of those events. That's a concern of mine. But other than that, I'm ecstatic about it. I think it's going to be great."
A more level playing field
Since the Tour season has been packed into the three spring months in recent years for television coverage purposes, there has been considerable grumbling that the schedule played out best for springtime specialist and sight-fishermen.
That is no longer the case. The 2006 Tour schedule, which will stretch seven months and through three fishing seasons, will apply to the seasonal strengths of all of the participants.
"I'm a big-time fall fisherman and I like the fact that we're going to fish the summer and fall and we're going to get out of this spring cycle," Evers said. "That's what I'm excited about. I'm going to be fishing something always. It doesn't matter if it's the Opens or the Tour. I'd just as soon fish all Tours.
"I say that, but then we'll probably be going to all smallmouth lakes up north, which will be something I'm completely unfamiliar with. It would be fun to go up there."
Instead of playing for a big season-ending payout again, the three Majors will each provide the winner with a mind-boggling chunk of money.
"That's where it's got to head," Brauer chimed in. "You've got to grow (the purse) because the media pays a lot of attention to what the payout is. That's one of the first questions that everybody asked. We need to be up there to where we're competing with the other circuits that are paying good money. I think it's just a great step."
For just the second time in BASS history, the coveted Classic is being moved. The early Classics were held in October, but BASS officials moved it to the summertime so that they would not have to compete with fall sports like football for coverage and attention. Beginning with the 2006 Classic, fishing's Big Show will take place in the late winter/early spring season.
The only possible negatives that the pros foresee are a possible lack of attendance because, unlike the traditional summertime Classics around which families plan entire vacations, young people will be in school. And the weather will limit possible sites of the Classic to a line from about Lake Guntersville south.
Still, the change has received a warm reception.
"That's the best idea I've ever heard," veteran Texas pro Alton Jones said. "And I can't believe nobody has ever thought of it. That's not the sight-fisherman in me speaking; that's the everybody-up-north-has-cabin-fever-and-is-ready-to-watch-fishing in me. I think it's going to be great for the sport. The other part is true, too. I'm a shallow-water, springtime fisherman, so I love that. But I just think for our sport it's going to be great to have the showcase event during the time of year when everybody's thinking and dreaming about fishing.
"Nobody ever figured it out until (BASS general manager) Don Rucks came along."
"I think moving the Classic is great," Klein opined. "I hate having the Classic in the summertime. There are too many spectators on the water and there's just too much going on. I've always had a hard time fishing in crowds. So to me it's a plus.
"I think it's great," Evers agreed. "That's going to (create) one of the biggest boat shows in the country. Think about sales for the industry and getting things kicked off. The Classic Outdoor Show is going to be huge. That's going to be one of the best things about it.
"And I think the Classic records are in jeopardy. Go to Guntersville in February and (Rick) Clunn's record is in trouble."
A writer's perspective
In my opinion, these are the most sweeping changes in my 24 years of covering the BASS wars. And they all seem like solid moves — the kind of changes that are needed to get to the next level. They fulfill the wishes of many somewhat impatient fishing fans who have been waiting for ESPN, the Worldwide Leader in Sports, to put their mark on this sport.
They have certainly done that now.
Like some pros, I am concerned that expanding to 11 Tour events will create such a financial burden that some anglers (old and young) will be squeezed out and BASS will not be able to fill the Tour fields. But some attrition is inevitable if we are to reach the next rung on the way toward becoming a true professional sport on a par with other sports.
From all indications, these bold moves bare the fingerprints of new BASS boss Don Rucks, whose vision for this sport seems dead on.