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The world’s largest tournament-fishing organization is embracing the world of fantasy sports, and Major League Fishing will now have a sports betting element like the one that already exists in many of today’s mainstream sports. The partnership that was announced on Dec. 16 marks Bally’s fifth betting agreement with a professional sports league. The global casino-entertainment company has already partnered with the NHL, NBA, WNBA, and MLB.     

“This is really exciting for us and the industry,” says Jake Wittkop, MLF’s senior director of marketing integrations and business development. “We’re really trying to grow the sport into a true, nationally recognized sport. We want to be spoken in the same breath as the PGA Tour and the NASCAR Cup Series, and this partnership is really going to help with that.”

This is the first sports betting partnership in the professional bass fishing world, and the partners will start by offering two new free-to-play fantasy fishing games next year.  

The MLF Predictor Game allows fans to make predictions at Bass Pro Tour events for prizes. The MLF experimented with a pilot version of this free-to-play game in September of this year. Witkopp says the pilot program was a huge success, and it got both partners excited about the potential for rolling out a full-season version in 2022.

MLF Fantasy Fishing will debut when the 2022 professional bass fishing season launches in January. Similar to Fantasy Football and other mainstream fantasy games, Fantasy Fishing gives fans the opportunity to select a team of professional anglers for each tournament. Fans can then build and maintain their team throughout the season by trading out and adding new anglers, and they can create private leagues with their family and friends. Players will be able to compete in both the Bass Pro Tour and the MLF Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuits, and top finishers will be eligible to win thousands of dollars in cash and prizes.

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Bassmaster and Fishing League Worldwide, which was acquired by MLF in 2019, have both had fantasy fishing leagues for years, Wittkop explains, “and it’s something that our fans have been yearning for since the inception of the Bass Pro Tour.” MLF fans will now have this opportunity, and Wittkop says the tournament-fishing organization hopes to take a page out of the NFL’s playbook by using a fantasy league to drive viewership and expand its audience.

“One of the major reasons why NFL viewership has grown significantly in the past 10 years is really the mainstream adoption of fantasy and betting,” Wittkop says. “I’m certainly not trying to compare MLF to the NFL, but we think it could have similar impacts in terms of driving fan engagement with the sport.”

To put all this in perspective, statistics from the Fantasy Sports and Gaming Association show that roughly 59.3 million people living in the United States and Canada played fantasy sports in 2017. Globally speaking, the industry generates more than $20 billion annually, and all signs point to more growth in the years to come.   

Wittkop says that down the road, MLF hopes these free-to-play games will open the door to other sports betting games and mainstream gambling opportunities. But for now, he says, MLF Fantasy Fishing and the MLF Predictor Game represent new and exciting ways for fans to get more involved with the sport of professional bass fishing.

“It’s a low-pressure environment for fans to engage with the sport and learn about it,” Wittkop says, “and it goes well beyond just watching it on television or livestream.”