BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It happened a few days ago in the village of Waddington, N.Y., population 972, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River: The Bassmaster Elite Series all-time attendance record was cracked once again.
A total of 34,100 people turned out for the Aug. 8-11 Evan Williams Bourbon Showdown at St. Lawrence River, breaking the record for the second time in the 2013 Elite Series season.
The previous four-day record of 33,650 was set at this season’s opener, the March 14-17 Sabine River Challenge presented by STARK Cultural Venues in Orange, Texas. That March record exceeded the previous Elite Series attendance mark of 17,920 set in 2011 in Alabama.
“Elite Series attendance is an excellent measure of how the sport of bass fishing continues to grow,” said B.A.S.S. CEO Bruce Akin. “B.A.S.S. and its sponsors work to promote each event going in. But of course we would not be breaking attendance records if the local hosts weren’t going all-out to create the level of interest we’ve been seeing this year.”
Bassmaster.com also saw huge numbers for the St. Lawrence River event, with more than 7.2 million page views from Wed. through Mon. That's the third largest page view tally in the history of the Elite Series.
Janet Otto-Cassada, the mayor of Waddington, said Showdown attendance far exceeded her expectations.
“You could not find someone who’s happier than I am right now,” she said after the crowd numbers compiled by law enforcement officials were released. “The event put us on the map. I knew that it would draw people. I knew that it would be big because it was something new and different. We needed that here in upstate New York.”
Even the governor of New York came to Waddington. Gov. Andrew Cuomo held a press conference Aug. 8 at the tournament site.
“The exposure is going to serve the entire upstate region,” Cuomo said of the Showdown.
He announced an Elite Series tournament will be held on one of the Finger Lakes of New York in 2014. The lake will be disclosed when the entire 2014 season will be announced in the near future.
The governor also announced the 2014Governor’s Challenge. Held in conjunction with the Finger Lakes event, the Challenge will be a fishing competition among the governor, elected officials from New York and some of the biggest names in professional fishing.
The Showdown attracted other dignitaries. On the final competition day, New York State Sen. Patty Ritchie, whose district includes Waddington, watched the Elite Series weigh-in from an elevated sound stage, where she had a good view of the thousands of fans in the crowd.
“I’m truly astonished by all the people standing here in front of me,” Ritchie said. “But I knew Waddington was going to come out for the Bassmaster event, and I’m so glad they (the pros) fished our great river.”
The 99 professional bass anglers of the Elite field competed for four days on the St. Lawrence River. They launched their colorful, wrapped boats from Waddington’s Whittaker Park and returned to the park to weigh their catches on the Bassmaster stage. Everyone was invited to the park to watch the pros; no admission is charged at Bassmaster events.
Fans were treated to a sporting event in which the competition was fierce. On the line were $100,000, a qualification for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic and a career-boosting Elite Series title.
While the anglers competed on the water, fans were drawn to Whittaker Park by a big slate of free entertainment, including the four-day Tastes of the North Country Festival with more than 100 vendors, 15 concerts, exhibits and fireworks, all organized by the Village of Waddington, the official host.
A fishing derby conducted by Wounded Warriors Outdoor Adventures and Saturday’s Military Appreciation Day added to the crowd.
Those activities brought in fans, adding to attendance at the competition’s morning launches and afternoon weigh-ins. Other activities included the Bassmaster Elite Series Expo, which consists of exhibits and demos by Bassmaster sponsors, and the Bassmaster Elite Series High School Experience, which gives young anglers an insider’s view of pro bass fishing.
Combined, the activities and vendors covered the expansive grounds of Whittaker Park. Waddington’s part in the success should be credited to a handful of volunteers, Otto-Cassada said: Bob Giordano, Jill Kubik, Bill Dashnaw, Jo-Ann Roberts, Alison Power, Bob Dalton, Billy Hosmer and Claire Tutney.
“We showed what can be done with a few volunteers,” Otto-Cassada said.
The mayor and others began organizing the event more than a year in advance. They joined forces a few months later with the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce and worked with the chamber’s FISHCAP, a public-private partnership. Resources were committed to advertising and promotion, and media outlets were contacted. During the event, hundreds of volunteers from Waddington and surrounding areas pitched in on tournament days. They handled parking, shuttles and picked up trash each night at the venue.
“Even our DPW (Waddington Department of Public Works) guys — all three of them — worked once until 1 o’clock one morning to be sure the site was clean and welcoming for the next day,” she said.
Giordano acted as the event coordinator. Like Otto-Cassada, he was elated when he heard the final crowd figures.
“The event not only exceeded my expectations, it exceeded everybody’s,” said Giordano.
The Waddington organizers took some initial direction from organizers of the previous attendance record-holder, Orange, Texas, he said.
“We looked at what Orange did,” he said. “We saw they were similar to us as far as being rural, even though they have a bigger population. We saw how we wanted to advertise and promote.”
Waddington’s economic impact study of the Showdown is under way, Giordano said.
“I can tell you now that all the businesses we talked to said it was very, very successful for them,” he said.
He already knows that fans from New Jersey, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Maine were there, in addition to New York residents. Otto-Cassada said she talked with people from as far away as the Midwest and the South.
“We also had a huge Canadian presence,” Giordano said. “We know that because people from Canada came up and talked to us. We also had a big turnout from Fort Drum (in Watertown, N.Y.) for Military Appreciation Day.”
Wounded Warriors Outdoor Adventures, of which Giordano is president, sponsored the wounded warriors derby. They flew in about 60 service members from around the country with the help of Hero Miles, a program that offers free airline flights to wounded warriors.
Giordano had a reason to volunteer so much of his time to make Waddington’s part in the Showdown a show-stopper. That reason goes back to when he retired from the Air Force. He settled just outside of Waddington village limits because he wanted to be near the St. Lawrence fishery.
“I wanted the world to know what I found when I came here,” he said. “The place is beautiful and the fishing is fantastic.”
Even more people will soon learn about Waddington and the St. Lawrence fishery on ESPN2. The Bassmasters coverage of the Showdown will air Aug. 18 at 8 a.m. ET, and again Sept. 7 at 6 a.m. ET. The ESPN Classic channel will air the show Aug. 18, at 10 a.m. ET, and Sept. 8 at 8 a.m. ET. In addition, The Outdoor Channel will present the Showdown Sept. 16. For times, check local listings.