Within a three-hour driving distance of Waco live 18 million people. That geographic centrality has always been one of the city’s strengths, and it’s why more and more sports events are choosing Waco. Here are a few events that took place in town from July to September.
— Lone Star Championship, youth football (July: McLane Stadium)
— TriWaco (July: Indian Spring Park)
— Elite Barrel Racing Summer Sizzle and American Novice Horse Association Shootout Barrel Race (July/August: Extraco Events Center)
— Little League Softball and Baseball Southwestern Regionals (July/August: Little League Fields)
— Kayak for a Cause (August: McLane Stadium/Brazos River)
— USA National Wakesurf Championships (September, Brazos River)
And this month, October 28, is the biggie: Waco Ironman 70.3 triathlon, starting with a swim in the Brazos, followed by bike routes around town and a foot race through Cameron Park, ending on the Suspension Bridge.
“It’s a fun time to be here. There are a lot of people doing great things,” said Will Phipps, executive director of Greater Waco Sports Commission. With the help of board members, partners and volunteers, Phipps says the commission has “a centralized focus on making Waco the preferred sports destination in the state.”
The sports commission’s goal is to attract new sporting events, retain existing ones and “to generate positive economic impact and enhance quality of life in McLennan County,” according to its website, wacosports.org. Although the commission offices at Greater Waco Chamber, it’s a separate nonprofit. The Cooper Foundation gave a grant in 2016 to fund the executive director position, and the city of Waco also contributed to its early funding. The board is independent of city and county government, although it coordinates with them and with surrounding communities to bring sports events to the area.
Phipps grew up in Lubbock but continued the family tradition by graduating from Baylor. He worked with Baylor University men’s basketball head coach Scott Drew as a student coach for four years, then went to Valparaiso University in Indiana and worked for another four years under Drew’s brother Bryce, who was head coach of the men’s program at that time. Phipps and his wife, Lauren, (also a Baylor grad) moved back to Waco in 2015 with their two daughters, Laney and Riley, both born Easter Sunday.
Wacoan writer Megan Willome visited with Phipps by phone about the economic impact of sports, getting an Ironman race in Waco and how the city has changed.
WACOAN: You’re the first executive director of the sports commission, and you came to the job almost exactly three years ago, correct?
Phipps: I moved back here and started [September 28,] 2015, to be the executive director and president of Greater Waco Sports Commission. We were in operation all of ’16, ’17, so 2018 is our third year.
We’re a private nonprofit. We office at the [Greater Waco Chamber], downtown, but we have our own board. We’re funded totally separately. I started looking into sports commissions and saw the opportunity and decided to give it a go.
WACOAN: From what I’ve read, it seems like there’s coordination between the city, county and chamber in this venture.
Phipps: We work closely with the city and county in sports events of all kinds. We don’t discriminate against any facility — they can ask us to help find a sporting event for their venue. They can use us to find new sporting events that aren’t happening in Waco and help recruit them and that will improve the economy, bring people into hotels, restaurants, shopping. For local families, quality of life is improved because kids can participate in an event and not have to travel out of town.
A good example is the robotics regional tournament that we hosted last year at University High School. We partnered with Johnny Tusa [Waco ISD athletic director] and WISD. The teams, several were from out of state, and there were three teams here locally. Parents said, ‘I’ve never had the opportunity to see my kids compete in a robotics competition, so thank you.’ Some of these parents, they don’t get to see their kids participating in these events, whether it’s for financial reasons or what have you, so it was a great moment for us, that this can work and we can bring teams to Waco.
WACOAN: Waco is already known for hosting youth tournaments, and I’ve heard that travel teams, especially, bring in a lot of revenue.
Phipps: The way Waco is located on [Interstate] 35, statistics show that people with kids will usually only travel three hours for an event. So you take Waco, draw a three-hour radius, that’s 80 percent of the state population. So it’s beneficial to be here instead of Houston or San Antonio because we’ll capture more people. Dallas and Austin have higher hotel prices, and the traffic is worse. Can you imagine driving a bus in downtown Austin? But the buses, they love the ease of accessibility off I-35 here, plenty of restaurants or the zoo or the Mayborn [Museum Complex]. Waco hosts more high school football championships and playoffs than any city in the state.
WACOAN: I’ve also known kids to come to Waco from smaller cities for cross-country and track state championships, UIL and TAPPS.
Phipps: A lot of events end up here, and it’s a great economic benefit for us. There was a girl from Live Oak Classical School, [Celia Holmes], who won the cross-country individual title at the state championship [in 2015, 2016 and 2017]. Last year the cross-country championship was held at Cottonwood [Creek] Golf Course. You might not think that would be a good place —
WACOAN: Oh, I get it. My son ran cross-country.
Phipps: The grass is immaculate. It’s easy for spectators to be at the venue, hang out at the pro shop. There’s good parking. If she were in El Paso, who knows how many of her friends and family could be there.
WACOAN: I looked at the list of available venues in greater Waco on your website, and it wasn’t that I was unfamiliar with them, but that I hadn’t thought of them as venues that might be available for other events.
Phipps: That was part of the reason why the sports commission was started because these venues weren’t being marketed as sports venues. If the event was happening locally, great, but there were no organized efforts to bring in sporting events.
There are over 100 sports commissions across the country, many right here in Texas — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, but also Round Rock, College Station, Lubbock, our peer cities. They have organized efforts to recruit for these events, so we were missing out because no one looked at our venues as potential opportunities. [In the past] we did have a lot of individual groups doing their own things, but there wasn’t one group connecting them all. People were working individually and not working together.
I’d never heard of a sports commission until I got in touch with Rick Tullis [president, Capstone Mechanical, Greater Waco Sports Commission board chair]. He brought in facility managers and volunteer coordinators and coaches, and they hadn’t met each other but were all doing the same things. Now we can work together, so if an event doesn’t fit at McLane [Stadium], they can call to Waco ISD or Midway ISD and see if they want it to go over there instead of just letting [the event] go. We’re building a network of people in town.
WACOAN: You grew up in Lubbock. What role did sports play in your life as a kid?
Phipps: I grew up playing all kinds of different sports. I ran in a cross-country state championship in high school, here, out at the [Texas Farm Bureau] building on Highway 6.
My dad went to Baylor, always loved Baylor. It was a family school for us. Basketball was my main sport.
I worked for Coach Drew as a manager. I spent four years here, then got hired on staff at Georgia Tech [as video coordinator for men’s basketball] two years, then spent four years in Indiana [at Valparaiso University as director of basketball operations] with Scott’s brother, Bryce [men’s basketball head coach]. So I got a mixture of Scott and Bryce — different personalities. I got my master’s at Valparaiso in sports management.
I learned about sales, recruiting, marketing, leadership. And I’ve spent a lot of time going to tournaments and sitting in gyms and noticing the economic value that’s being spent in communities. I want the kids in Waco to have similar experiences that I had, to be able to compete in tournaments right here.
WACOAN: Why sports management? It sounds like you were on the coaching track.
Phipps: I wanted to stay in coaching, but we missed Texas. My younger brother had graduated from Baylor and stayed in Waco. He was telling me, ‘Waco has changed. There’s all this positive energy. Stuff’s happening. There’s connection with the community.’ I was like, ‘Waco’s not cool,’ but when I visited, things had really changed. I could see myself living here.
My wife’s from Fort Worth, so we’re kind of centrally located in Waco, between Fort Worth and Lubbock.
WACOAN: Only a Texan would call that centrally located.
Phipps: Yeah, it’s a five-hour drive.
We have a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old. My wife teaches first grade at Speegleville [Elementary]. Once we started having kids, we wanted them to be closer to their families. This job is a perfect fit for me with sports, my competitive nature and my ability to recruit and sell a product.
WACOAN: Tell me about the Ironman 70.3 triathlon.
Phipps: When the sports commission started, Todd Behringer [owner of Behringer Group and Bicycle World, Greater Waco Sports Commission vice-chair] — he’s big into triathlon sports and has competed in a lot of Ironmans — wanted to bring one here. It was on our long-term radar, but we didn’t think it would happen this fast.
February 17, I got an email. It looked like a generic form from Florida, Ironman headquarters, asking if we had any interest in hosting an Ironman. But there was already an event in Austin, so we thought it wouldn’t make sense to have one here so close to the same time.
I brought them out on a site visit. Once they saw our downtown, the river right beside hotels, they got it. We took them up in a helicopter to show them potential routes. They ended up moving the event from Austin to Waco because they thought it would be better for their participants and spectators to be here. We signed a five-year contract. So within two years we have an Ironman event here.
The event in Austin had 2,000 people signed up, so when they moved it, they saw a 50 percent increase in participants, to 3,000. We had to cap the event and not take any more reservations. They were afraid people would not come to Waco, especially from outside Texas. Austin’s [Ironman] had an international flair. Turns out we have no problem doing that — we have participants signed up from 20 different countries and 47 states. People have no problem flying into Austin or Dallas and driving or flying into Waco.
WACOAN: I assume the Ironman folks knew nothing about the Brazos River or Cameron Park until you gave them the tour.
Phipps: No, not at all. [They didn’t know] it’s the second largest urban park in the country, next to Central Park in New York City. People have no idea how beautiful it is until you take them through it.
I think one of the big things was that there was proof of concept. TriWaco has been a great event, run by the chamber for 10 years. Because it’s working and doing well and they’ve managed it so well, that helped put ease of mind into having [the Ironman] event here. They’ve gone above and beyond. Now we’ve just got to pull it off.
One benefit to Waco is for people to get to see a 70-mile race. They might think it’s a bit of an inconvenience, but 98 percent of the participants are not from here, so hotels, restaurants, retail, small-business owners will be inundated for four to five days with affluent people, people with disposable income. It will be a great weekend for Waco.
WACOAN: It surprised me that one of the reasons Scott Langen, regional director of Ironman’s Gulf Coast region, gave for choosing Waco was that it’s ‘beautiful and historic.’ Of course it is, but I didn’t think they cared about that.
Phipps: They do. The race is going to finish on the Suspension Bridge because of the history of the Chisholm Crossing and the artwork that’s out there with the cattle. It’s a very Texas feel. This is the only place in Texas where I-35 and the Brazos River intersect. There’s so much history downtown.
WACOAN: What other events are you looking to bring to town?
Phipps: It’s not only high school and local youth tournament stuff, but we’ve got our fair share of national-level events. We’ve already hosted the NJCAA [Division 1] women’s tennis championship [May, Waco Regional Tennis Center]. We hosted Xterra off-road triathlon national championships [June, Cameron Park].
The Nautique U.S.A. national wakesurf championships in September with 100 top wakesurfer events. It’s a 1,000-foot course. They go right under the bridges [on the Brazos River in Downtown Waco]. There [were] lots of Nautique boats on display. It’s just a neat setup. With the way the river trail is now, you can stand on the banks and watch these surfers do tricks.
WACOAN: Tell me more about BSR Cable Park becoming the official surf training location for the 2018 junior world championship team and the 2020 U.S. Olympic team.
Phipps: That facility is a world-class facility in, I guess you could say, far east Waco. The reviews have been nothing short of, ‘This is the best surf park in the world.’ The Olympic training team, the youth team will be training out there. They are bringing in some of the top surfers in the world.
I’ve been in the water, haven’t gotten up on a board. For locals, there’s no time slots because we have so many professionals spending weeks at a time here to get waves because where else can you get the same wave over and over to get your training reps in? It’s a really unique way to get tourists in town. Stuart Parsons [owner of Parsons Roofing and BSR], he doesn’t get enough credit for the tourists he brings to Waco, to see his resort.
WACOAN: When will the new volleyball and basketball courts be ready at the Extraco Events Center?
Phipps: When I got here, I looked at all of our facilities, like a roster, just looked at all of them on a list. One of the biggest holes was a basketball-volleyball facility. We had a task force. We needed a big indoor center, all the courts under one roof. Parents don’t want to drive from gym to gym to gym.
We passed a bond issue last year to increase the hotel tax and use that extra 2 percent to pay for this facility. The whole complex, let me get you some figures: It’s a $30 million renovation to the fairgrounds, 53,000 square feet of flat floor usable space — 80,000 square feet total, with 12 volleyball courts, six basketball courts. Plus concessions, kitchen, outdoor patio seating.
It opens a lot of doors to us in the market that we haven’t been tapping into. Those tournaments are really lucrative. For every 10-year-old girl who comes [to play], the grandparents come, the parents, the siblings. It’s a whole family event.
There will be a lot more activity at Extraco now, a lot of special events too. Think about table tennis, cheer and dance, wrestling — more unique, nonmainstream sports with the space that’s out there. It’s a great addition to Waco’s arsenal of facilities.
WACOAN: And that will benefit local school districts because those kids come onto teams with more training and experience.
Phipps: Think about local teams, select teams, [Amateur Athletic Union] teams that have no place to practice because they can’t get into school facilities on the weekends because of liability or scheduling. Now they can practice Monday through Thursday [at the new facility]. They can rent court space. More and more teams will pop up, and those kids will develop their skills and practice more.
WACOAN: There are already a lot of families in Waco who have a child playing on an out-of-town team.
Phipps: Yes, in the DFW area and south of us. They travel to practices, travel to tournaments.
We brought in several event producers in basketball and volleyball, and they’re excited about doing the tournaments in Waco. Hopefully by the end of 2019 we’ll have that rocking and rolling.
One of the problems is that Extraco does $45 million of economic impact through their events, so to fit into their schedule for remodeling, you’ve got to be careful to not displace their events. That’s one of the issues we’re facing. You don’t want to inconvenience too much of that. It’s a good problem to have.
WACOAN: You’ve talked about economic impact of these sports events coming to Waco. How do you measure that?
Phipps: We’ve partnered with a former Baylor economics professor, [Dr. Tom Kelly], and developed an Excel spreadsheet, based on the number of people coming into town, what outcomes will be, impact on our community. We try to determine the value of an event, what’s going to be the return on our investment, especially if we kick in incentives. That’s to help us get a good handle on what’s a good fit for us.
So, for example, take Ironman. That will be right around $5 million on that weekend alone.
WACOAN: How would you describe the current state of hotel room availability?
Phipps: That’s one of our biggest issues, not having enough hotel rooms. A lot go to the Airbnb market or stay outside of our McLennan County area. But more and more there’s new hotels coming in — five or six by the end of the year. Waco is listed as having the highest hotel occupancy rate in the state. That’s because of not only Magnolia but the other events going on here, and we don’t have the supply of hotel rooms to keep up. It’s a condensed supply right now. As more become available, I think our rate will still stay very high. Demand is there for more hotel rooms for sure.
WACOAN: On the website you say you’re recruiting volunteers for Waco Sports Ambassadors. What is your vision for the program?
Phipps: One of my experiences from coaching is my team made the NCAA tournament several times. When we went to other cities, they always had someone meeting our bus at the hotel or the airport. I thought it was really neat. I looked around to see who was doing that here, whether Baylor or otherwise — who’s greeting these teams? No one was doing it. I started it with Cynthia Lewis, our lead ambassador.
I have a group of people now that will go and meet these teams. We talk with them in advance, meet them at the airport or hotel. We show up with goody bags, information on things to do, restaurants. The ambassadors have a business card with their cellphone [number], and they’re available through the course of the event. We want people to come here and have a great experience and then come back. So, here’s info about our zoo or our Silo District. Maybe they don’t have time while they’re here, but they can come back.
We build goodwill with these teams. Teams show up every year and used to be they were on their own. Now we have ambassadors meet these teams, and parents really appreciate that.
Some of these kids are in a high-level championship, like the Little League Southwest Regionals. Maybe they call an ambassador and say, ‘We want to hire a masseuse,’ and we can connect them with things that locals know the answers to. People in Waco are so good at that. They’re such good representatives of our community.
WACOAN: The alternative is going online, to Yelp or something, to search for information.
Phipps: They’re not always going to get a fair review all the time online. There are lots of hole-in-the-wall places here. [Recommendations from ambassadors] drive business, so when it’s a local small business, it stimulates our economy even more. If someone wants to spend money in Waco, we give them an opportunity to do that.
We hosted the National Collegiate Acrobatics & Tumbling Association national championships. They asked, ‘How can we get into the Urban Air Trampoline Park?’ So we got them all passes to get into the park, just try to connect them locally.
WACOAN: Do you need more volunteers?
Phipps: Oh yeah, we always need more, with more and more events.
We hosted the Texas Elite 7on7 [youth football] state championships here in July. It was at Dallas Cowboys’ [AT&T Stadium] the year before. We invited them to McLane, showed them it was cheaper to do business here. They had over 50 teams, and they’re gonna come back next year. The more teams we have, the more people we need to be available.
WACOAN: You were on ‘Fixer Upper’ as part of your move back to Waco.
Phipps: Season 4, episode 12. It was a lot of fun. They’re really great people. My wife and I watched the show from Indiana and thought it would be something fun to do.
WACOAN: Did you know the Gaineses?
Phipps: We knew people who knew them and were able to connect and go through the process and get on the show. It’s weird to walk into a dentist’s office and see yourself on TV.
WACOAN: You mentioned how much Waco had changed after you graduated. How do you see its future?
Phipps: A lot of people think it will be hard to sustain, but I don’t see it slowing down. From a sports perspective, I get more and more calls on a regular basis. I used to cold-call, but people are now calling us. We have so much to offer here, and now people know. I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon. We have some great large-scale events in the near future, and we hope to have some announcements soon. It’s amazing the people who want to come to Waco right now.