Following the Money: Being Good Might Not Be Good Enough

Every young athlete (in my generation) grew up with aspirations of being Randy Johnson, Michael Jordan, Brett Favre, or Wayne Gretzky. We spent hours studying our idols. How they stood, how they acted, even what they wore and what they ate. Let face it, we had a celebrity crush. For those with true goals of being a professional athlete, these players were the best of the best, the cream of the crop, and they were the players to model yourself after. No kid ever said “I want to be Shane Spencer” (4 year MLB outfielder) or “I want to be like Phil Housley” (17 year veteran of the NHL, 22nd on the all time number of games played list, never won a Stanley Cup, not in the HOF). Why? Because they were mediocre players. Mediocre when compared to the other professionals, but still miles above any average Joe’s skill set. The funny thing is, those mediocre athletes, the ones who maybe played for years on OK teams, never racked up any stats, never did anything of note, or maybe fizzled out after a few years still earned major paydays. In professional sports, if you make it to the big leagues, you’re usually earning a decent living (even if you’re just mediocre).

The sport of Professional Fishing is way different in this sense. And this is true no matter what league you are in from the FLW right down to the KBF that I fish in. The payout structures are all very much the same. First place takes home a large check, the next few places take home a decent amount, and when you get down to the last places (that get a check) it is basically your entry fee back.

Each FLW event has between 160 to 170 anglers. These are some of the top anglers in the country. The top 60 or so earn a check at each event. After 6 stops on 2019 tour, 28 of the 170 anglers have not cashed a single check. But looking at the seasons earning reveals some other interesting numbers.

Drew Ratley who sits in 160th place (out of 170) has fished all six events of the season. He earned a check at the first event of the season, $10,000 for a 42nd place finish but has finished at the bottom of every other event. Lets flip that around and take a look at Chris Mccall, currently in 77th place. He has also fished all six events to start the season. He has a season earnings of only $11,500 for an 18th place finish. Just $1,500 more than the angler 83 places behind him. Moving up the board we come to Joel Willert in 32nd place. He is on the verge of qualifying for the FLW cup. His seasons earning? $21,500.

Going back to look at the 2018 we see some more interesting numbers. Bradley Hallman, who finished the season in 61st place (fishing all seven events) had a seasons earnings of $122,700 cashing checks at three events. Compare that to Clark Wendland who finished in 15th place. His regular season earnings only totaled $40,000. He cashed a check at four of seven regular season events.

If you want to see this to the extreme 2017 was an interesting year. Johnny Mccombs finished the season in 64th place. He fished all seven events and had total earning of $120,400. Just four places back, in 68th place was Billy McCaghren. He fished all seven events and his total earning on the season $0!

Those are just some of the numbers for FLW, which pays out approximately the top 40% at each event. They can do that with major sponsorship and vast support structure. When you look at smaller leagues such as KBF, you see the same trends and in some instances to even more extremes.

In KBF tournaments, the top 10% of the field receives a check. Let’s look at some numbers for this. The consistently “good” angler, let’s place them in the top 10-15% of anglers in the league (I would think if you’re in the range, you should be considered a “good” angler), might only cash one or two small checks over the course of an entire season. The angler consistently just inside the top 20% would never cash a check. In 2018, there was a total of 1,843 anglers (only maybe 400-500 that competed in multiple live events) and there were multiple anglers in the top 50 in points standing at the end of the year that never cashed a check.

Here’s a potential scenario for the 2019 season with the new Trail payout structure. We’ll take 2 anglers, Angler A and Angler B. They both compete in the 5 Trail events in their region. Let’s assume each event has 120 anglers, earning points for your top 3 finishes.

Angler A has the following finishes: 100th, 105th, 88th, 1st, 90th. Angler A finished the season with 920 points, and earning $2,000 + bonus bucks. With that one 1st place finish he qualified for the Regional Trail Championship, the Trail Championship, the Tenvitational, and the National Championship.

Angler B fishes the same events. He finishes 12th, 30th, 24th, 18th, 15th. He finishes the season with 1,590 points; but he cashed zero checks, he did not qualify for the National Championship, did not qualify for the trail championship, and did not qualify for the Tenvitational. He did qualify for the Regional Trail Championship which is now crucial for him to advance his season.

So who is the better angler; Angler A, or Angler B? Who would you rather be? Obviously Angler B is the better angler, but how many would rather be Angler A in that scenario? Now over the course of 5 or 10 seasons that will likely balance out. Angler B will get into the winner circle and Angler A will blank some seasons. Angler B is a skilled angler for sure, but there’s a psychological issue here. Motivation. If Angler B starts looking at this, seeing that they’re the consistently better angler yet not earning any accolades or checks, it can be very demoralizing. Cliches like “It’s better to be lucky than good” start to pop up.

So what does this mean for the sport of Professional Fishing? What does it mean for the angler looking to take home a little cash at the end of the season? When one starts to look at the finances of tournament angling, be it on the professional bass boat circuit or the local kayak club it becomes exceedingly clear, consistently good fishing will not get you anywhere. Only by winning an event, or placing in the top 3 at a major event, will you earn any real check. So what do you do?

One option is to put all your focus on just a select few events. If your season has five events, only do two. Instead of taking two days off to scout and prefish each of five, you take five days off to scout and prefish just two. You are putting everything into those two events and certainly increasing your odds to do well there. But that is still no guarantee. You could get food poisoning the night before and struggle to even stay on the water all day. Another angler could simply just get lucky and put up a giant bag. What then? You’re left with having to do events you cannot properly prepare for.

Another option is to play the numbers game. If I do enough events, I should eventually place high in one of them. Decent strategy if this was entirely luck, but it isn’t. Skill and preparation play huge roles in determining your finish. You need to dedicate the time into each event, and if you spread yourself too thin, you’ll never have enough time to properly prepare for anything. You’ll likely put up mediocre bags at every events and continue the cycle.

One things that FLW has done in this regard has been how they formatted their championship. The FLW Cup. The Cup is an invitation only tournament, anglers do not pay an entry fee, and EVERY angler earns a check. This is a safeguard for the angler who has a consistently good season, but maybe never finished high enough to earn any decent money. Qualify for the Cup, and you get a paycheck. KBF is working on getting there with The Ten, a no entry fee invitation only tournament, but they aren’t quite there yet with still only paying out the top 5.

One thing that I have not discussed which can play a major factor in this is Sponsorships. This can be a great balancing agent allowing the better anglers more financial benefit for their skill. At the same time sponsors want people who can market, and good marketers might not be the better fisherman. But that’s a topic for another post.

This topic is not often discussed and can be a harsh realization to both the rookie angler just entering the sport, and the chiseled veteran who has grinded year in and year out but whose bank account does not reflect it. For most anglers just being on the water and being part of the competition is reward in of itself. But for the career oriented angler, it’s something that needs consideration.

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