Phil Briscoe has a dream. A dream that later this summer looks set to become reality. One angler will, he insists, walk away from the fishing contest he is intent on launching with a record-breaking amount of money. Whichever way you fold it, £100,000 is a lot of cash for catching fish.
There will, in amid the initial excitement at his new concept, be a fair share of critics. They’ll say that we’ve been here countless times before, that claims like this have become as familiar in angling circles as those made by the inventors of the latest ‘wonder bait’. Talk, in this sport, is very cheap.
Up to a point you can understand their cynicism. Fish O’Mania apart, we seem to hear stories like this on a yearly basis. The boasts are made, the headlines written and the anglers’ appetites whetted. Then, through either a lack of understanding, poor planning or both, the project goes up in smoke, leaving behind a fishing community ever more sceptical. When it comes to big-money matches, we have heard it all before. Remember the promises made by organisers of the Golden Peg and the more recent Willis Worms fiasco? Exactly.
From the outset, though, this competition has a different feel about it. For one, the brains behind Match This, as the contest has been called, is a man with a proven track record in the fishing industry for getting things done. Maver boss Phil Briscoe has, as the saying goes, been there and got the T-shirt.
He has already personally guaranteed £50,000, with the remaining half dependent on the number of anglers who participate in the 24 qualifiers. Whatever happens, someone, somewhere will be winning the biggest cash prize in fishing.
But with any new concept come questions. Anglers, by virtue of a seemingly inbuilt bullshit radar, are naturally suspicious animals and anything that appears too good to be true is normally treated accordingly.
So what of the concerns?
We can, surely, dismiss the first – and biggest – of them all: the event WILL go ahead. As discussed, the backer has too large a reputation to allow it to fail. But what of the other, lesser, fears?
Will the competition be élitist? Will it attract only the very best, making it almost impossible for Mr Average to win? Frankly, so what if it is? The same could be said for the only big-money match of its kind – Fish O’Mania – but that doesn’t stop the yearly clamour for tickets. And anyway, you don’t expect rank amateurs to line up alongside the best golf or snooker players at the major tournaments, so why would you expect them to appear in a fishing final that will naturally sort out the best of the best? If they’re good enough, they’ll enter. If they’re not, their entry fee will only help to line the pockets of the winner. Either way, they have a choice.
And what of the claim the £50 entry fee is prohibitive? Admittedly, at face value it does look expensive but by comparison it’s hard to see what the gripe is. Fish O’ costs £23 per ticket, with each competitor forced to join the Angling Trust first – and that carries an annual subscription of £20. A certain type of angler, it seems, is happy to cough up if it buys him the chance of collecting a small fortune in exchange. Matchmen by their nature like a gamble – what else is paying to draw a random peg? – but especially so if the reward is vast.
What, as you will have already noticed, is the unavoidable comparison with Fish O’Mania? As the only other competition that offers serious thousands as a first prize (The Parkdean Masters also has a £25,000 winner-takes-all format but access is more restricted), it has become such a phenomenon that is the yardstick against which all other matches are judged. After 16 years of unparalleled success, it has risen to become the stand-out date in the matchfishing calendar.
Will Match This have an impact on this so far unrivalled success? It could. The chances are it will be drawing from the same pool of anglers that support Fish O’Mania. Here there are 16 qualifiers, each of 130 pegs, giving a total of 2,080 available places. Although these currently sell out – indeed most are over-subscribed – that doesn’t mean more than 2,000 individual anglers are applying for tickets. Most who seek to take part try and get their hands on numerous tickets to maximise their chances. If there were more than 800 or 900 separate people I’d be surprised.
Match This will be attempting to either take some of those anglers away from Fish O’ or force them to make a choice – support both and spend more or pick one over the other. And with a prize that’s so massive, such a decisi0n could prove fairly straightforward.
In comparison to Fish O’, Match This will have 24 qualifiers, each offering 120 pegs – making the total slots available for one of the places in the final 2,880.
Considering that same pool of 800 or 900, and adding a few attracted by the huge prize fund, it means the organisers require each angler to buy three tickets – sum total £150 – for it to sell out. Is that feasible? Possibly. Is it likely? Maybe not.
What can’t be denied is that while the Fish O’Mania prize fund hasn’t moved in 16 years, the entry fee has. You can’t blame organisers – Matchroom Sport – either.
Until now, it’s had no serious competition and it’s always over-subscribed. If anything, its popularity has grown year-on-year – despite the hike in entry fee and the static prize.
But what it has, and what Match This hasn’t, is history. And with history comes prestige. Yes, the cash is an obvious incentive to take part but beyond that is the honour of being called Fish O’ champ. Such is the credibility the competition has accrued since its inception, lifting the trophy is almost as important as claiming the cheque.
There is, though, another, potentially greater element that trumps even those two factors. Television is what really gives Fish O’ its edge. There is a magic associated with the competition that is inextricably linked with its exposure on Sky TV and it’s so strong that it almost makes everything else – money and gravitas included – irrelevant. The chance to line up in a winner-takes-all televised final is as close as fishing gets to recreating genuine sporting drama, and that fact alone can often be enough to encourage hopefuls to gamble on lining up against the big boys when normally they wouldn’t go within 10 miles of a qualifier. Enjoying your moment of fame on national TV is a very powerful motivator.
Is Maver Larford – the venue set to host this new event – a place that can accomodate television? The pools at Hayfield and Cudmore were not only carefully selected for that very purpose, in the case of the latter it was specifically dug to host television events. Although the Match Lake at Larford is a uniform rectangular shape, whether it provides the logistics needed to be truly TV-friendly remains to be seen. Laying on five-and-a-half-hours of live television is no easy – or cheap – feat. Fish O’ employs the use of 14 cameras and in excess of 90 crew members to ensure the watching audience is treated to a seamless live transmission.
Can Match This work if it’s not broadcast on live TV? I hope so. I really do. Angling, and not just match angling, needs this kind of fresh and exciting impetus to help its profile outside of fishing. If would-be sponsors, those cash-rich organisations that have overlooked us in the past in favour of more glamorous sports, see that we are capable of holding contests boasting such vast sums of money they might take a second look. Although it wasn’t designed to do so, we could all bask in the reflective glow if Phil Briscoe gets this right.
What I think is crucial, imperative even, for the future of the competition is that Phil is able to pay out the maximum prize of £100,000. Imagine the publicity, the fanfare, the headlines that would accompany the winning of the biggest cash prize in the history of UK angling. Not only would it give the match credibility, it would also fill anglers with the confidence to believe that this isn’t just another hollow promise. Its longevity might not be assured, but it would stand a far greater chance of reaching its second and third birthdays if the maximum prize was paid out.
In this day and age, £25k is not a life-changing amount of money. £100k definitely is. I hope – and expect - one man is able to tell us by how much later this summer.