Q & A with BASS' Don Rucks — Part Two

Don Rucks, BASS's General Manager, knows where he thinks BASS and the sport of professional bass fishing should go. Since taking the reins at BASS, Rucks and his team have introduced sweeping changes to the Tour that include increased payouts and larger fields, all in the name of growing the sport.

Growing often means growing pains and BASS has not be immune to those. Some of the proposed changes to the Tour have illicited outcries from pros and fans alike. Bassmaster.com sat down with Rucks to talk about the future of the sport and, more specifically, the Tour changes slated for 2006 and beyond. What follows is the second part of a two-part series.

Can you give details on FLW, WON and others qualifying for the Tour? Why does BASS see this as important? Does it diminish the importance of qualifying for the Tour?

Rucks: First of all, this does not diminish the importance of qualifying for the Tour through our Opens or other BASS mechanisms. It merely provides other avenues for talented anglers to join our Tour. We're convinced that once they do, they'll realize that the CITGO Bassmaster Tour is the most prestigious tournament circuit out there.

We will first look to fill the fields with qualified BASS pros. We believe we have the finest bass anglers in the world fishing our events, but recognize that there are other talented anglers out there.

The BASS Federation, FLW Tour and WON Bass have established themselves as quality trails with many talented anglers.

We will offer invitations to 10 positions from those categories, six Federation Regional Champions, one Bassmaster Series Champion, one WON US Open champion, one FLW Angler Of The Year and one FLW Champion. I might add that the 2004 WON US OPEN Champion was Aaron Martens, our 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year.

How does the cut to 75 anglers on Day Three impact television coverage?

Rucks: It certainly makes things more challenging for the television production people, but we believe this will make for even better events and better television. With only 12 anglers making the cut on Day Three in 2005, there was little opportunity for a true come-from-behind victory. Seventy-five anglers on Day Three means more opportunity for drama, and that should create better television.

From an angler's perspective, cutting to 75 boats rather than 12 is a great arrangement. On the third day, the anglers will be fishing from their own boats, which has been a real concern for them. Then, on the final day — because we're cutting to 12 rather than six — we're doubling the number of sponsor wrapped boats on the water. It creates a real win-win situation for everyone.

Deposits in 2005 were $500 per tournament for a total of $3,000. Would you explain the deposits for 2006?

Rucks: Demonstrating great care for the anglers, we have left the deposits for the 11-event season at $3,000 to help alleviate the financial burden on the anglers. We will apply the deposit to the last five tour events of the year when we think anglers will need it the most.

Once the $3,000 deposit is made, the first six Tour events will require $1,800 each prior to competing while the final five events will only require $1,200 each prior to competing. We think this offers a big break for anglers by helping to ease the up-front expense burden. Yes, it's different, but we think it's better.

Why do you think these changes for 2006 have been confusing for some individuals?

Rucks: A great deal has changed over the past few months here at BASS, and I understand that change — especially significant change — is sometimes difficult for people.

With so many changes affecting virtually all of our events and tournament series, it's inevitable that there be some confusion. Bass fishing competitions have operated the same for many years and many people in our industry have become very comfortable with the way it's always been.

If you look at other major sports, they've all gone through significant changes in order to grow. Many of those changes met with resistance and they weren't always popular, but over the long haul they proved to be the right thing to do in most instances.

A year ago, NASCAR changed the NEXTEL CUP points championship by paring it down to the top ten for the final run to the championship. When NASCAR announced their plans in 2003 that it would be the program in 2004, it didn't meet with much popularity — especially from the drivers, the athletes. It turned out to be very successful.

We simply ask that our members, sponsors, anglers and fans take a good close look at what we're doing at BASS. If they'll do that, we're confident they'll realize that we're on the right track and that the changes are moving us in a positive direction.

How do these changes impact the BASS position regarding the new PAA?

Rucks: In light of the positive strides in our sport, BASS sees no reason for an anglers' association at this time. We think the BAAC was an effective communications tool and whatever can be accomplished through the PAA could just as easily be accomplished through the BAAC. We've yet to see how working with the PAA is going to make a valuable difference.

One reason we don't see a need for an anglers' association is that we've been very responsive to the anglers over the years. You only have to look at our no-entry-fee events, our expanded Tour schedule and the cut to 75 anglers in their own boats for evidence of that.

BASS will continue to communicate with all anglers at tournament briefings. We understand the importance of communicating with anglers and will continue to do so in an effective manner. Angler relations is something we take very seriously at BASS, and we have plans to roll out new mechanisms for effectively communicating with anglers at all levels. Our goal is to help all anglers be the best that they can be in all phases of their career.

There's been quite a negative response from the anglers regarding the 2006 Tour payouts, do you care to comment?

Rucks: Anytime there are concerns with our events or systems we take a hard look at them. Our goal is always to grow the sport — aggressively and responsibly — and we want to be fair to all concerned. We get a lot of feedback from our stakeholders — members, anglers, sponsors, fans — and we evaluate all of it. When we have an opportunity to improve, we're going to take it.

Payouts have been a huge focus for us recently, and I'm not sure if everyone gets the real strategy behind our system. It's clear that BASS has put its emphasis on the payouts of the "no-entry" major events — the Bassmaster Memorial, Bassmaster American and the Bassmaster Legends — as well as the no-entry-fee CITGO Bassmaster Classic. You can't look at the Tour payouts without seriously considering that in 2006 these four "no-entry" major events will pay a total of $3,000,000.

Many anglers have expressed their desire to reduce the payouts of our majors significantly and add it to the Tour payouts. We just don't think that makes good business sense when looking at our aggressive strategy for growing the sport. If some anglers are focusing only on the Tour payouts to build their careers, I really think they should seriously reconsider.

To develop a solid career, an angler simply needs more than winnings to succeed. A good career requires performance incentives from sponsors, as well as the angler's ability to effectively market himself. How did successful anglers do it in the past? What about Larry Nixon, Rick Clunn, Denny Brauer and Roland Martin — how did they do it? First by performance, then big wins like the CITGO Bassmaster Classic or CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year. Finally, they were able to effectively market themselves.

I find it very interesting that in 35 years as a pro angler, Roland Martin's total winnings are a little over $1 million. That's less than $30,000 per year — gross — and everyone would agree that Roland is one of most successful anglers in history. He's an icon of the sport and has used his success on the tournament trail to market himself effectively on television, in books and on product shelves across the country. His success is not based on tournament payouts alone.

Different tournament organizations use different models for their businesses. BASS has the key ingredients for building an angler's career and growing the sport aggressively, the rest is up to the angler.

It is not the responsibility of BASS to ensure the success of an angler's career, but we are working very hard to create more opportunities for anglers to be successful, and I think we are doing that very responsibly.

We have all the multi-media, including BASSMASTER Magazine with its 550,000 circulation, Bassmaster.com, ESPN Outdoors' BASS Saturday TV with "BassCenter," "Loudmouth Bass," "Bassmaster University" and "The CITGO Bassmasters." BASS also attracts abundant media attention which provides the opportunity for anglers to build their careers by highlighting their successes and showcasing their sponsors.

Unfortunately, no tournament organization offers everything that an angler wants. Some offer larger payouts on their tours, but they don't provide anything like the BASS "no-entry-fee" majors. Those same organizations don't come close in the media components that are essential to being able to seriously build a viable long term professional career.

What do the changes mean for Tour non-boaters in 2006? The entry fee has increased by $100, why is that?

Rucks: Even with the increase, we believe that fishing a Tour event as a non-boater is one of the greatest and most worthwhile experiences that any avid angler can enjoy. Where else can you compete alongside your sports heroes? Seventy-five non-boaters will now have the opportunity to fish on Day Three, adding even more to the experience. We think that's worth far more than the $100 increase.

What is BASS' current position on the shared weight concept?

Rucks: While it's been successful for the pro anglers in the Tour events, it has not been as acceptable for the non-boater participants. We have evaluated it from every perspective and will not continue the shared weight concept on the Tour in 2006. A different set of circumstances exists in the ESPN Outdoors Bassmaster Series, and we won't announce our decision about shared weight in that series until after we have completed the entire schedule.

Will BASS continue to change its scheduling year after year?

Rucks: We certainly don't expect to make these kinds of dramatic changes year after year. 2005 is a transition year, and we plan to offer a stable schedule of the best fishing in the best locations at the best times thereafter.

We believe the aggressive but thoughtful growth of the sport demands this approach, and we look forward to making it a permanent part of our programs.

These changes are going to have great benefits for everyone concerned, and we're very proud of them.

As with all of our programs, we will continue to evaluate our systems and schedules as part of our commitment to delivering the finest events in the industry. If we can make something better by changing it, then we'll do that. At the same time, if something new doesn't work, we'll change it until it does work. If a good idea comes along, we're going to use it.