Fishing Tournaments Lure Anglers With Top Prizes & Close-to-Home Venues
By Tammy Leytham
Allowing participants to compete on a home lake has spurred growth for U.S.A. Bassin, said Kevin Yeary, owner and founder of the organization.
“We’re on practically every body of water in Indiana. You’re fishing your little lake close to home,” Yeary said. “You’ve fished it, you’re comfortable with it. If you’re a beginner, you jump right in.”
With U.S.A. Bassin, no matter what level you are as an angler, “it gives you an opportunity to jump in, have fun and compete,” he said.
Making its tournament affordable is key to growth. When Yeary held the first U.S.A. Bassin Classic in 2003, 19 boats participated. In 14 years, the U.S.A. Bassin Trail has grown to 5,000 members and hosts hundreds of divisional and regional events. It now has 600 teams competing in its Classic.
“The growth seems to have tapered off a little bit,” Yeary said. “We still grow a little every year but we’re stabilized.”
And U.S.A. Bassin is not the only trail luring anglers.
In 1996, Al Odom held a single bass tournament in South Carolina that included an inspirational, Christian meeting.
Two years later, the Fishers of Men National Tournament Trail started with four divisions and a total of less than 150 members, said Senior Vice President Bobby Eads.
“The next year, we grew to 11 divisions in nine states,” Eads said.
The Fishers of Men Trail continues to evolve and now has 59 divisions in 20 states, with an average of 4,600 to 5,000 members each year.
A newer competitive fishing series is the Alabama Bass Trail Tournament Series, created in 2013 to follow the lakes along the Alabama Bass Trail, which was created in 2012 to promote Alabama as a year-round fishing destination and lure recreational anglers to the state.
The series caught on right away, experiencing 26 percent growth in 2017 over 2016, said Kay Donaldson, director of the Alabama Bass Trail Tournament Series.
In fact, when the Tournament Series was announced in September 2013, it sold out all 200 teams in its Northern Division in 72 days. “We averaged 170 boats in our Southern Division the first year,” Donaldson said.
The Alabama Bass Trail Tournament Series includes North and South Divisions that hold five tournaments each. In 2015, the Tournament Series increased the number of boats accepted to 225. “Although we didn’t meet those numbers in 2015 or 2016, we did in 2017,” Donaldson said. “Our South division sold out 225 boats/450 anglers and our North Division had 203 boats/406 anglers.”
The championship features the top 185 teams/370 anglers cumulative from both divisions. “In all, we host 11 events,” Donaldson said. “We are seeing growth in many amateur fishing tournaments in Alabama.”
While the Fishers of Men Trail has expanded over the last five years, the last two years have seen the most rapid growth, Eads said.
“I believe that one of the key factors has been an improving economy,” Eads said. “I think people are a little more economically confident than they were a few years ago.”
Close proximity to venues was also a factor when Fishers of Men restructured its Championship series a few years ago. “We listened to our membership and their concerns,” Eads said.
As a result, the Fishers of Men Trail went from four large Regional Championships to 11 smaller District Championships.
“This reduced driving distances for our competitors and increased participation,” Eads said.
Donaldson attributed growth in the Alabama Bass Trail Tournament Series to awareness helped in part by a TV series on FOX Sports Southeast that airs from July to December each year, along with the increased tournament payout.
Prizes are great incentives, with tournaments doling out thousands of dollars and other rewards, including an RT 188 Ranger boat with 90 hp Mercury motor and a Ranger Z519 with a Mercury 225 hp motor given out in the U.S.A. Bassin’s Ranger Aluminum Cup and Ranger Classic.
U.S.A. Bassin’s Lucas Oil Tournament of Champions event held in May gave out a $10,000 first-place prize and other tournaments give top-dollar prizes, too.
“Whether you’re a novice or someone who fishes every weekend these are easy tournaments to jump into, and you could advance and win something nice,” Yeary said.
For those competing in Fishers of Men Trail events, the incentive may be all about the hospitality.
“Our numbers keep going up because our competitors like the way they’re being treated by our directors,” Eads said. “If you treat your competitors right, they’ll have a good time and they’ll want to come back. But before they do, they’ll talk about the events to others, which generates new competitors.”
Looking To The Future
U.S.A. Bassin started in the Midwest and has pretty well saturated that market so to continue growing, Yeary said the organization is looking to expand into the Southeast and West. States such as Arkansas and Oklahoma are now holding tournaments. “Looking forward, we’re trying to build our growth in farther-away states in areas that may not have heard of us yet,” Yeary said.
The U.S.A. Bassin Classic is held on Kentucky Lake every year, chosen because “it’s basically within a day’s drive of 70 percent of the country’s population,” he said.
Key to getting more anglers involved is continued affordability. Most divisions in U.S.A. Bassin have a $60 entry fee. So U.S.A. Bassin Trail grew even when times got tough and gas prices went up to about $4 a gallon, Yeary said.
U.S.A. Bassin also holds open tournaments throughout the season for non-members. “You can get a sense of what U.S.A. Bassin is all about without paying $30 membership fees per person,” he said.
The Alabama Bass Trail tournament will host its first Open Tournament in 2018 to help spur growth, Donaldson said.
Tournaments are also looking to grow participation among young anglers and women. Of the 2.5 million newcomers who had their first fishing experience in 2015, for example, 46 percent were female and 44 percent were ages 6-17, according to the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation. But middle-age to older men make up the majority of competitive anglers and each of these organizations also have women competitors, either in their own divisions or in couples divisions.