BASS giveth to women and Bass taketh away.
When BASS launched the Women’s Bassmaster Tour in 2005, outdoor women were elated. It promised to raise awareness of female professional anglers, give them a chance to compete against each other and build the kind of relationships that would enhance sportfishing opportunities for all women.
That euphoria turned to disappointment Jan. 4 when BASS General Manager Tom Ricks announced the decision to eliminate the Women’s Bassmaster Tour from the Tournament Trail, citing declining participation levels as the culprit.
“We have worked diligently to grow the WBT to increase or maintain participation levels – even awarding a berth in the Bassmaster Classic – but ultimately, our efforts didn’t resonate,” Ricks said. “This was a very tough decision, and one that we didn’t take lightly.”
I visited with several professional women anglers last week and while most weren’t shocked by the news, the timing of the announcement did catch them off guard.
Sharon Rushton said if they had canceled the tour last fall, it would have been less surprising. According to Sharon, during the tour’s first full year, boat numbers ranged from 90 to more than 100. That number had fallen to less than 70 by last year. However, with the new schedule announced, many women thought the show would go on in 2010.
The last minute cancellation left many women scrambling. Judy Wong, who claimed her second Bassmaster Women’s Tour Championship last year, had to decide by Jan. 11 whether or not she would fish the Bassmaster Opens or FLW Tour events.
Kim Bain-Moore, who focused on the 2009 National Pro Southern Kingfish Association Tour after her history-making appearance in the Bassmaster Classic last year, said even before the news of the WBT’s demise, it was decision time for a lot of women – continue to fish the WBT or focus on the next frontier, fishing the Opens to try to break into the Elites.
“Maybe if the WBT was still around only four or five girls would have a serious crack at the Opens in 2011,” Kim said. “Now with no other option, hopefully 20 girls will focus on the Opens in 2011. And for the success of women’s angling that is what we need. A bunch of girls turning up en masse to fish the Opens, united rather than divided by strength of numbers, and therefore less likely to be singled out. We don’t need to win. But we need to be there, fishing, and having a noticeable presence — A call to arms.”
For many women, competing in the Opens this year won’t be an option due to finances and schedules that conflict with Open dates. There’s also the fact that some women don’t want to compete against the men.
One thing is for certain, 2010 will be a year of flux for many women who fished the WBT.
For example, Sharon weighed her options and will most likely fish the Heartland Trail, which for her means she won’t have to drive as far and will spend fewer nights in a hotel. Debra Hengst, who said she could see the end coming, got into the BASS Central Opens in November and also will fish the Bass Champs Trail, which has four divisions in Texas. While Kim Bain-Moore decides what she wants to do next, she’ll definitely be filming the second season of her Sportsman Channel TV show “Breaking the Surface” with co-host Diana Rudolph.
While these women are launching their boats in different directions, they all said they were grateful for the opportunities the WBT provided.
“I made so many friends and met so many people along the way,” said Debra. “The Women’s Bassmaster Tour was something to be thankful for.”
Sharon appreciated the positive female role models the tour provided.
“I hate to see the tour go away because it showed women who were independent —launching their own boats and fishing on their own. It’s fun to fish with other women, too. It’s a different atmosphere.”
While everyone agrees the failing economy dinged the WBT, several of the women questioned whether or not everything possible was done to grow the tour.
Judy, Debra and Sharon all made the point that with the firepower of media giant ESPN behind BASS, why was there no TV coverage of the women’s tour?
Professional women anglers have been scratching and clawing for sponsors since Sugar Ferris founded Bass’N Gal. A fundamental law of sports survival is a dastardly chicken/egg situation: Without sponsors, there is no TV airtime. Without TV airtime there are no sponsors.
While TV coverage of the WBT was never promised, participants fervently hoped for it.
“I felt at the beginning it would grow and be THE tour for women. But ESPN didn’t get behind it,” Judy said. “They didn’t use all the resources available to them to grow the tour.”
The jury is out on whether or not someone else will pick up the loose ends. But as far as Judy is concerned, it will take someone who has an understanding and passion for women’s fishing. And a lot of money to back up that desire.
Despite upticks in the stock market, experts warn we’re probably facing a false economic rebound, which doesn’t bode well for tournament support. Though WBT title sponsor Academy Sports + Outdoors did not pull their sponsorship, according to a marketing representative who called into Fish Bait Radio on Jan. 6, it will be tough for individual anglers to catch the sponsor dollars they need.
So, 2010 may be a year where professional women anglers hit the water to keep their skills sharp in hopes there are better times around the bend.
If you’d like to hear what others have to say about the closing of the WBT check out the following podcast: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/fishbaitradio
What do you think about the downfall of the WBT? Leave a comment here or you can find me at: Facebook.com/tammy.sapp2 and Twitter @TammyDianeSapp.