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Navigating the Course of the Biggest Merger in Bass Tournament History

16 Oct, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Mergers and acquisitions are nothing new in the world of sports events. But when two of the biggest bass fishing event owners in the travel space, FLW and Major League Fishing (MLF) made the big announcement last week, it hit the sports business industry like a slap upside the head with a trophy fish. And across the board, event owners, destinations and anglers were left wondering the same thing: will we see any changes?

Spoiler alert: Yes. You can bet your bass on it.

To recap, MLF will acquire FLW, creating the single biggest brand merger in bass fishing history. And what follows will be interesting to watch, since the two organizations are vastly different. Here’s what we know so far:

FLW runs more than 290 bass-fishing tournaments across five circuits. FLW and its partners offer a High School Fishing and College Fishing Series, the Bass Fishing League (BFL) series for grassroots anglers, the Costa FLW Series for aspiring professionals and the FLW Tour, which showcases some of the top anglers in the world.

MLF, by contrast, was established in 2011 as a television product and has grown into a sports league with the launch of the Bass Pro Tour in January of 2019. is a professional bass fishing league and television show that airs on the Outdoor Channel, Discovery, CBS, CBS Sports Network, World Fishing Network, Sportsman Channel and on-demand on MyOutdoorTV (MOTV). The league was established in partnership between the Professional Bass Tour Anglers' Association (PBTAA) and Outdoor Channel as an answer to other professional fishing tournaments that the anglers compete in. The show focuses on the personalities and struggles of the anglers in competition, and on telling their stories. Additionally, Wikipedia notes that MLF additionally has a strong conservation focus; “anglers catch fish and release them immediately. Anglers do not land fish or cradle them to their body and fish are never kept in the boat's live well.”

So what will change for tournaments? According to Joseph Opager, FLW’s director of public relations, this season will find only a few immediate differences.

“The only announced changes at this time are to the format of our top-level circuit. The FLW Tour will now transition to the FLW Pro Circuit, and the format will change into a hybrid-type tournament. The first three days of competition will be in the traditional five-fish limit format. The remaining competition days will be fished in the Major League Fishing format – catch, weigh and immediately release.”

Opager notes that more information will be released later. “Other details regarding the full schedule, payouts and rules are still being finalized and will be announced around the expected closing date of Oct. 31.”

Down the road, however, tournament hosting may play out in a different format. Without a need for large public weigh-in events, such as those previously hosted in a convention center, demands for space may change - although such space is also commonly used for expos, fan engagement and other activities associated with the tournament.

FLW’s website contains a synopsis of what else is expected to change – and what will stay the same. A quick recap is as follows:

Where we won’t see changes: The website notes: All remaining 2019 events on the FLW tournament schedule will be contested as previously organized, with no changes to competition days/times, venues, payouts, etc. That includes the Costa FLW Series Central Division event on Lake of the Ozarks and the 2019 Costa FLW Series Championship on Lake Cumberland; five remaining T-H Marine Bass Fishing League (BFL) Regionals that range from the Potomac River to Grand Lake; the Nov. 8 BFL Wild Card; and a handful of High School Fishing and College Fishing events scheduled for October and November.

Where we’ll see some changes: FLW High School Fishing, YETI FLW College Fishing, T-H Marine BFL and Costa FLW Series circuits will continue in 2020 and beyond, with the addition of three regions in the Costa FLW Series and reduced entry fees for both BFL and FLW Series boaters and co-anglers. (Costa FLW Series anglers will see an expansion of regions from five to eight in 2020, to make the Series geographically available to more anglers. The schedule will include three events per region, and an FLW Series Championship.)

Where more significant changes will be seen: The most significant alteration will occur at the top of the FLW professional tournament ladder. The 2020 tournament season will find the debut of the FLW Pro Circuit, replacing the 24-year-old FLW Tour. The Pro Circuit will feature a 150-angler field and will be contested over a seven-event regular season that leads to the FLW Angler of the Year Championship event. All anglers who qualified for the 2020 FLW Tour will be eligible to compete in the Pro Circuit.

The website further notes, “The Pro Circuit will operate on a six-day competition schedule that features FLW’s traditional five-fish-limit format on days one through three, transitioning to the MLF catch, weigh, immediate-release/every-scoreable-bass-counts format on days four through six (which include two 10-angler Knockout Rounds and a final 10-angler Championship Round). As is the case in all rounds of the MLF Bass Pro Tour, MLF-appointed in-boat officials will manage the competition and weighing of fish on the final three days of the FLW Pro Circuit. 

Payouts for the Pro Circuit will extend down to 75th place, representing a payday for half the field (a 12-percent increase in the number of anglers earning a check). The new Angler of the Year Championship will serve as the signature final event of the FLW Pro Circuit, taking the place of the FLW Cup. The most successful anglers (based on competition results) in the FLW Pro Circuit will qualify to compete in the MLF Bass Pro Tour.”

Both FLW and MLF has leveraged social media effectively to engage audiences in their events, and both have been highly visible in the tournament space – although MLF holds the image of the upstart and FLW is seen as a longstanding power.

While the combination of the two organizations represents a seismic event in competitive fishing, it’s unlikely to decrease the economic impact of the tournament industry – although with new formats, it is inevitable that there will be some changes within events themselves – and SDM will continue to follow these announcements.

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