Home Field Advantage

By Kevin Tankersley

The Greater Waco Sports Commission brings athletic events to Waco and supports athlete's dreams

If you’ve never heard of the Greater Waco Sports Commission, don’t feel bad. When Mike Vogelaar applied for a job there, he didn’t know what it was either.

That was about three years ago, and Vogelaar is now the executive director of the commission, a nonprofit organization that brings sporting events to the Waco area. The commission is not part of the city of Waco or McLennan County, nor is it an arm of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, “but all three of those are critical partners with what we do,” Vogelaar said.

The commission is probably best known for bringing Ironman competitions to Waco, but it has also helped bring to Waco the CenTex Challenge, a youth volleyball tournament with 110 to 120 teams playing at three different sites. During the next CenTex Challenge, about 160 teams will be competing. It was also the driving force behind the Glow Over Waco 5K and Fun Run that took place last month as part of the city’s eclipse festivities.

Upcoming events include teaming with Camp Fimfo and Nightlight Donuts for the Donut Dash 4K and Fun Run, and the Beast of the Brazos competitive swimming event in the Brazos River.

“We try to help and assist and promote different events,” Vogelaar said. “We don’t run and operate every single sporting event in McLennan County. We can’t with just two people working for the commission. We want to be able to help, be a catalyst and be an additional resource for local organizations.”

Vogelaar said the goal of his organization is to “create economic impact through sports by recruiting events, retaining events or creating events.”

The Ironman — a competition which involves running, swimming and biking — has found a home in Waco each October. That event alone accounts for $6 to $8 million in economic impact, Vogelaar said. And when the CenTex Challenge volleyball tournament takes place, each team can bring up to five coaches and 15 athletes, who range in age from 10 to about 18. Each of those 15 or so players then bring along an average of 2.5 friends and family members to watch the competition.

And volleyball, Vogelaar said, provides the “biggest bang for your buck” as far as hosting an event.

“As for the square footage that you have, you can get two volleyball courts from (the space for one) basketball court,” he said. “So you can have more players, more visitors. Everybody’s going to come watch your 13-year-old in a volleyball tournament, and then you’re going to be there for multiple games, and then you’re going to need to grab lunch in between, you’re going to need to stay the night. And then you’re going to want to do something together as a team.

“There’s just all these ways for them to be able to have a great time and experience, but then also obviously to be able to help fill in the restaurants, the entertainment venues, the retail space and to be able to help generate those tax dollars for the community.”

The Beast of the Brazos, Vogelaar said, which will take place on Sept. 7, offers a either a 1.2- or 2.4-mile swim, designed at least partially for athletes who will be competing in the Ironman competition the next month. On Sept. 8, Waco will host the Waco Wild West Bike Race — also known as the Skittles Race — with routes of six, 29, 52 and 63 miles.

“People can come in, they can do the swim, they can go on a run in the afternoon on Saturday, and then Sunday morning, they can go on their long bike ride, and they can do all three disciplines for the Ironman that’s happening one month later [on Oct. 6]”, Vogelaar said.

The Beast of the Brazos drew about 240 swimmers last year, he said, and the bike race traditionally draws between 1,000 and 2,000 cyclists.

While the calendar on the Greater Waco Sports Commission website lists a number of events each month, for event organizers, “at some point, there’s a bottleneck,” Vogelaar said, caused by a lack of space and facilities.

Prior to running the commission, Vogelaar lived in the Dallas area and for about 15 years handled advertising and marketing with Daktronics, a company that specializes in LED scoreboard and other signage opportunities, mostly at high schools and small colleges.

“For a community this size, it is pretty incredible that there is not a dedicated sports complex,” he said. “Where I was from in the Dallas area — Plano and Allen — there was a sports complex everywhere you look, and there’s big green grass fields and every resource belonging to different athletics. That was one of the adjustments and surprises when I moved down here.”

The volleyball tournament, he noted, holds games in facilities across town, and will utilize both the BASE and the neighboring coliseum at Extraco Events Center when it returns later this year.

“Event organizers want to just be on one site,” Vogelaar said. “It’s a lot more difficult to organize an event when you’ve got multiple sites and you’ve got your staff and resources split off. You don’t have those economies of scale anymore.”

Organizers of some larger events require indoor spaces of 90,000 to 120,000 square feet, Vogelaar said. The BASE offers about 52,000 square feet, and the Waco Convention Center has about 144,000 square feet spread out over several rooms and halls.

“When you look at what you’re able to host, you have to look at what your facilities are that can host it,” he added.

Vogelaar and the commission try to utilize as many venues as they can, he said, and used Baylor University’s McLane Stadium for the Spartan Stadion 5K last year.

“It was basically a race through McLane Stadium with different workout stations along the way,” he said. “That was fantastic. But we want to be able to help grow those events, so the next biggest venue that we have is just honestly our natural resources, which is why Ironman and these triathlon events have been so great, because we get to utilize the unique setting of a downtown that is stationed on a river. It has county roads and has a part that you can run through it all right there together. I would love to be able to grow some more of those different events. And of course, the larger and more exposure we can get for Waco, the better.”

Vogelaar said that his dream event for Waco to host would be something akin to the San Antonio Corporate Cup, a series of events and activities that pit companies and nonprofits in friendly competition.

“The Corporate Cup Challenge is essentially an adult field day to be able to build teamwork and networking for corporations, but then also activate the community while branding and creating awareness of the sports commission and our initiatives,” Vogelaar said. “A lot of different cities or organizations run these types of events throughout the year. San Antonio is probably one of the premier locations that runs and operates this event.”

One of the members of the Greater Waco Sports Commission board of directors is Russ Bookbinder, who was president and CEO of San Antonio Sports for 10 years before retiring and moving to Waco in May 2023. Previously in his career, Bookbinder was an executive with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs for more than 20 years.

“He has provided a tremendous amount of resources and insight, and we are going to try and duplicate that event for Waco,” Vogelaar said. “Our goal is to launch this in the spring of 2025, so there’s a lot of planning to do.”

Vogelaar said that KWTX-TV will partner with the commission to bring that event to fruition. Josh Young, KWTX’s general manager, is also on the commission board.

Vogelaar and others from the commission’s planning team will travel to San Antonio on June 1 to “watch and observe how they do it so that we can learn and apply it and run and operate that event here,” he said.

The commission has long worked with the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools to bring its championship events to Waco. Just last month, for instance, TAPPS events in town included the state tennis tournament at Waco Regional Tennis Center and a robotics competition at the Extraco Events Center. Vogelaar said he would like to see Waco host University Interscholastic League events as well. The UIL oversees athletic and artistic competitions for public schools throughout Texas.

Last year, UIL’s team tennis state championships were held in Waco, at Waco Regional Tennis Center and Baylor University’s Hurd Tennis Center.

“My goal will be to help bring (more) UIL here,” Vogelaar said. “Waco is in the center of the state and very easy to access. It’s a fantastic place to be able to host tournaments of all sizes and scopes.”

While a large, successful event can be an economic boon to a city, the Greater Waco Sports Commission has goals that extend beyond the financial realm. Vogelaar cites the commission’s quality of life pillar in talking about the successes of his organization.

The commission has worked alongside Waco Rowing Center and its executive director, Matthew Scheuritzel, to expand the sport of rowing from its traditional base of “rich, white and older people,” Vogelaar said. The center helped establish a rowing team at La Vega, a school district where more than 83 percent of the students are Hispanic or African American, according to the Texas Tribune. Besides the physical benefits of rowing — which offers both strength and cardio conditioning in one workout — scholarship opportunities are plentiful for rowing athletes in that sport.

“You have almost a 50 percent chance of getting a (college) scholarship if you’re a female rower,” Vogelaar said. “You have a two percent chance if you’re a male football athlete.”

Vogelaar cited Riley Shoots, a former China Spring High School athlete and letterwinner in cross country and track, basketball and softball for the Cougars, who was trying to walk onto a team at the University of Kansas. She didn’t make her team of choice, but the rowing coach offered her a scholarship even though she had never before picked up an oar.

“It doesn’t matter,” the coach said. “You’re an athlete.”

Shoots, now a junior at Kansas, earned Academic All-Big 12 honors, and her rowing team placed second in the Big 12 Championships her sophomore season.

“She has helped coach my kids and came down to Waco this winter with KU for a training trip right here in Waco,” Scheuritzel said. “She’s a great athlete.”

Kansas and other university rowing teams often come to Waco to train, Vogelaar said, because the Brazos River offers “16 miles of rowable river, which is a coach’s dream and a player’s nightmare, because you can go 16 miles without ever having to stop or turn around for a break.”

Another project put forth by the commission is TEAM Waco, “an initiative created in hopes to knock down physical, mental or financial barriers for five athletes wishing to compete an Ironman,” according to the commissions’ website.

A scholarship covers the cost of triathlon coaching, gym membership, equipment, consulting and race entry fees, which can total between $6,000 and $7,000 Vogelaar said.

One of the first scholarship recipients was Jessie Patterson, who took part in powerlifting in high school but also struggled with an eating disorder for 10 years. She used powerlifting as a motivation to eat more so she could get stronger, Patterson said on a Greater Waco Sports Commission podcast in 2022.

When she became pregnant, “I chose adoption for my son, and his adoptive family changed my life,” she said. “I woke up to loving myself and loving life again.”

She decided to do one big thing each year in honor of her son, and her first undertaking was a powerlifting competition. Her son and his adoptive family were in the front row cheering her on. While trying to decide what to take part in the next year, she saw a flyer for the TEAM Waco scholarship at her gym. She knew that her son’s adoptive father and grandfather had taken part in Ironman competitions, so she applied and was accepted.

“TEAM Waco and all the people I’ve met are like family,” she said on the podcast. “They believe in you and love you.”

When Patterson took part in the Ironman, the adoptive father came from South Carolina to compete alongside her, and 19 members of his family — including her son — were waiting for Patterson as she crossed the finish line.

“We have five other people (who receive scholarships) every year, and each one of them has an incredible story about their determination and character,” Vogelaar said. “As (the public) gets to know these people, they would be there cheering them on in the Ironman. So, this is a way to help promote the event, but more importantly, help make an impact. It’s more than just saying, ‘Hey, you did a good job.’ It’s fewer but deeper impacts that we are making in these different lives.”