Walleye First Tournament Series Part 4, Walleye Tournament Future
Jul 12th, 2012 by OutdoorsFIRST
Modified Jul 12th, 2012 at 12:00 AM
Author’s Note: Over the next several months, the status of the walleye tournament world with a vision for the future will be explored. Industry leaders, observers, participants (past and present), sponsors, professional and amateur anglers, host communities, marine and tackle manufacturers, and tournament organizers will offer their opinions.
Part Four is from the perspective of Dan Johnson, executive director of the MWC. Originally founded as the Manufacturer’s Walleye Circuit nearly 30 years ago, the MWC is now the Masters Walleye Circuit. No matter the name, MWC stands for perhaps the nation’s oldest team walleye tournament circuit.
History can be a good teacher, and a brief glimpse backwards may reveal why team events are surviving despite the gloomy economic times. The MWC was formed by a group of individuals representing their respective tackle and marine companies. They met in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, with the goal of taking their destiny into their hands and running their own circuit. The novel approach started by sanctioning existing team tournaments already operating in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Each tournament organization was asked to agree to simple terms (which to them seemed exotic) like no beer in boats, a minimum payout of 80 percent of entry fees, a conservation fee, a score board, community related events, a meal function at the rules meeting, a polygraph “rule” (seldom used), signage displayed for MWC sponsors, more regional and national publicity, and a no-entry fee Championship with good payout. All this quickly led to more teams. It was the advent of walleye anglers travelling out-of-state to compete.
Participation grew. In fact, according to Mercury Marine statistics, the walleye market doubled in size during the first 10 years the MWC was in existence. Anglers enjoyed the format, and still do today, as Dan listed the reasons, “It’s affordable, anglers split travel and lodging expenses, they select their partners and have fun.” About 10 to 20 percent of the contestants are family teams, he estimated.
“In the early days, it was father-son, and now we’re seeing the tradition continue with grandfather-grandson teams,” Dan pointed out. He also said there is a mother-son team with Barb Plautz and son Danny fishing (and past winners on tour). At every tournament, a show of hands demonstrates that the MWC keeps attracting new blood.
So far this year, the MWC has fielded more than 100 teams at four tournaments, including an increase of 30 at the Illinois River (to 154). The recently concluded Winnebago event drew 134 teams. “All things considered, numbers are up this year, and we expect things to keep growing,” he said. The allure with the nine tournaments is the Championship and Team of the Year qualifications. Anglers select the events they want to fish, and their top three tournaments count for the Championship and their top four for the Angler of the Year race.
“We think of this as ‘user-friendly’ because teams can fish their strong suits (rivers or Great Lakes) or fish where they feel their favorite tactics will prevail (trolling or jigging, for instance),” Dan said. He was quick to applaud there recent format adjustments because they came from the anglers. The team entry has held at $650 for several years. When it was increased to $800, entries dropped. “With $650, we have a very attractive payout, especially with the number of teams,” he said.
Dan’s been executive director since the 2010 season, but has been writing about and covering the MWC for North American Fisherman since 1995. The exciting addition to the MWC name was when Cabela’s was added as the title sponsor about 11 years ago. The Cabela’s National Team Championship is held in conjunction with MWC events, bringing hundreds more teams together. Anglers often fish both events for a chance at bigger purses. The next NTC is at Sault Ste. Marie Aug. 24 – 26.
“With partners like Cabela’s and many sponsors who have been with the MWC since that first meeting in Fond du Lac, we average 120 percent payback when the Championship purse, the Angler of the Year honors and special awards are distributed at year-end,” Dan said. “Without a major sponsor, this would not happen! Cabela’s adds credibility, but so do the 20 or so other great partners.”
“It’s a balancing act between growing the circuit and playing to the base,” he said. The waters generally include three central, two eastern, two western, and recently, two far western tournaments. The number of tournaments also provides a place for young teams to test their skills. “It’s amazing how many pros got their starts with the MWC, and still display many winning plaques,” Dan commented, “And, how many top pros are coming back to the MWC every tournament.”
Dan wondered if the circuit should be called “blue-collar, easy-going or grassroots.” Thinking about this, he said, “I guess all three apply.” The MWC works hand-in-hand with its sponsors, conducts many photo and public relations sessions, is active on social networks, is part of a large media company, has donated more than $300,000 to local fisheries, conservation and state DNR projects, spreads the word about invasive species, and dedicates itself to youth and troop fishing days. Four MWC tournaments are featured on NBC Sports TV (Pueblo Reservoir, Mille Lacs, Sault Ste. Marie and the Cabela’s World Walleye Championship on the Mississippi River). The shows can also be viewed at masterswalleyecircuit.com.
For the future, Dan sees a viable market, “Since the mid-80’s and as long as walleye tournaments exist, the team concept will remain popular.” Dan recognized how important it is to get kids involved, and said that’s one of the goals of the MWC. “If you take a 3-sport high schooler, and expose him (or her) to competitive fishing, they love it. Best of all, they know they can do this the rest of their lives,” he said. Bridging the gap with the younger set is part of the forward thinking Dan and the MWC Advisory Committee consider regularly. “These young folks need mentors. We can take on that role and have a positive influence on them and the market,” he said.
Dan can be reached at 952-988-7230 or [email protected]