Sporting success

The Eastbay Sports Complex is on track for a record year since its inauguration in 2015. Part of the reason is that it’s hosting more than just soccer.

At the end of this month, the Eastbay Sports Complex in Wausau will be filled with people playing volleyball, flag football and soccer. There will be dance and singing competitions, and someone will be crowned Mr. Hmong Royalty over the course of the weekend.

All this is happening on what was once a landfill on the city’s southeast side, now converted into one of the premiere soccer fields in the state. With 15 fields ranging in size from the lighted 240 X 360-foot championship field down to the 75 X 125-foot small fields for youth or a pick up game rental, it’s the ideal place for a soccer fan. The complex is building a reputation as being one of the premiere places to play soccer.

So what might seem out of place is that the list of events this year includes not only the Hmong Wausau Sports Festival, but also bike polo and lacrosse, in addition to the two soccer tournaments and two soccer camps. But that diversity of uses is exactly the point, says Dan Fiorenza, Operations Superintendent of the Wausau-Marathon County Parks Department. To be successful, the fields need to support more than just soccer. After all, they did name it a sports complex, not a soccer complex.

Not only does that diversity of events help bring in more revenue to offset costs, but it also ties into the parks department’s outlook toward parks facilities in general. As new activities become popular, parks officials are transforming facilities to serve those new interests. Several aging tennis courts have been converted into pickleball courts, and officials are planning more; and the city took one of its underused parks and transformed it into a bike polo court. That paid off, as the bike polo club earlier this year hosted a regional tournament at the sports complex, at which a Wausau-based team qualified for the national competition.

The variety of uses isn’t just beneficial to the parks department, or the players participating in sports at the complex — it’s great for the local economy. Estimates show the Mountain Bay Cup, for example, which this year had 128 soccer teams from all over Wisconsin in a variety of age groups, brought in roughly $1.3 million in economic impact in that one event alone.

Not bad for a place where people used to dump their trash.

A park that generates money

Generally speaking, parks don’t typically turn a profit. In fact, most don’t generate any money at all. The idea behind parks is that they’re a public service to improve quality of life, making the area a better place to live.

The Eastbay Sports Complex is one of the few that does help pay for at least some of its operating costs.

The first year didn’t quite work out the way Parks Department officials thought. The complex, which opened in April 2015, ultimately cost $274,500 in its first year, about double what the department had projected. It also took in more revenue than had been expected— $74,000 versus the projected $60,000.

Those numbers changed a lot, as the Parks Department figured out both ways to generate more revenue and cut costs.

The complex now has 12 sponsors, ranging from large corporations and medical groups to restaurants. The most visible is Eastbay, for which the facility is named, and for which they pay $25,000 per year to secure.

Coupled with an increase in use, the facility expenses in 2016 were roughly $184,000. The complex brought in $104,000, covering more than half of its expenses.

This year should be even bigger and better. The tournaments have grown in size, and new events this year have brought in more revenue from facility rental. This year the Parks Department is also sponsoring the Tetra Brazil Soccer Camp, one of two planned this year. (The other involves the Major League Soccer team Chicago Fire.)

All told, while there aren’t exact figures for this year yet, Fiorenza says it’s likely the complex will generate revenue close to 70% of its costs—which was the ultimate goal when the complex started and something they’ve stated as a goal when they first opened the complex. “I think it has exceeded our expectations,” Fiorenza says.

Diversifying sports

Some Badger State Game participants last year looked a little different from the average athlete. Instead of ski helmets or curling shoes, they wore headsets and sat in front of screens playing video games. New for 2017, the Badger State Games introduced e-sports, and participants battled over Pokemon or Super Smash Brothers for a chance at a medal.

It’s all part of a strategy to diversify the offerings of sports in the area, says Nick Ockwig, sales manager and event developer for the Badger State Games. Each season the Wausau/Central Wisconsin Convention and Visitors Bureau, since taking over the games a few years ago, constantly looks at what new offerings can be added to keep more people interested in the Badger State Games.

That diversity approach bleeds over to the sports complex. The complex this year hosted a lacrosse tournament, which brought 28 teams to the Wausau area as part of the Badger State Games. And Ockwig says CVB officials are hoping that’s only the beginning.

“We would love to add more and more events there, and expand beyond lacrosse,” Ockwig says. The sports complex is in a good position to attract visitors because of the “reputation statewide of the facility and the fields,” Ockwig says.

A quick scan of the sports complex’s Facebook page shows the impact the complex is having. One reviewer called it “The best soccer complex I’ve been to in the state!”

All that from a place that was started as a landfill in 1957. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued abandonment orders in 1977, and the idea was first floated to turn it into an athletic facility in the mid-90s. It wasn’t until 2009 that the idea for a complex came back, and it took multiple cleanups and a recapping, and $6 million, to ultimately build the complex.

Now the facility boasts some of the top soccer fields in the state, in part due to a full-time turf manager and miles of pipe that run underneath the field, so that there’s never standing water on the fields. The fields are cut three times per week, and the irrigation, fertilizer and disease control all must be meticulously timed, Fiorenza says.

‘Mowing’ the way for the Hmong festival


Fong Moua, from left, Yee Leng Xiong and Thaying Xiong are all working on putting together the first Hmong Wausau Sports Festival coming up.

There had been a large Hmong sports festival for a few years in the Wausau area, once held at Marathon Park, and later at Wausau West. The problem? People will travel long distances to flock to these events, and as attendance grew, the festival outgrew both locations.

Ears in the Hmong community perked up when word of the Eastbay Sports Complex opening started to spread, says Hmong American Center Executive Director Yee Leng Xiong. When Xiong became director at the HAC, he quickly set his sites on the sports complex as a place that would give the Hmong community a chance to bring back the sports festival. It likely wouldn’t have happened without the sports complex, Xiong says.

Why does that matter? Organizers say the event is expected to draw at least 5,000 people, and those are conservative estimates, Xiong says. A consultant in Oshkosh helping to organize the event thinks it’ll see closer to 10,000 over the two-day event. And many of those people will be from out of town, using area restaurants and hotels.

One of the biggest draws of the festival is the Mr. Hmong Royalty pageant, Xiong says. The pageants are an important part of Hmong culture, Xiong says, and they’re about much more than looking good. The pageants offer leadership opportunities and winners have a responsibility for community service, typically between 100 to 150 hours. Pageant winners in other communities have even gone to Laos to give blankets or other aid to Hmong in that country.

Fong Moua, a volunteer with the festival and member of the marketing committee, is a good example of that. As the winner of a university version of the pageant, he was expected to perform 150 hours of community service. He’s already performed far more than that, Xiong says.

Xiong and several other volunteers visited The Hmong Freedom Celebration and Sports Festival in St. Paul the first weekend of July to hand out flyers and drum up interest for Wausau’s event. Sports festivals will draw visitors from all over the Midwest, Xiong says. If a player is participating in a festival, Xiong says, family members and friends will attend to watch. It’s a multiplier effect that has left Xiong and others pretty confident about good attendance at their sports festival in Wausau.

Maybe the best example of that is found with the flag football tournament. After top Hmong flag football team Black Venom announced it was attending the competition at the Eastbay Sports Complex, interest in the competition skyrocketed.

It’s unlikely that would have happened in Wausau without the sports complex, Xiong says.

Embracing new styles of sports


The complex hosted the regional bike polo tournament, which sent Wausau’s team to the national tournament in Maryland near Washington, D.C.

It should have been no surprise that parks officials bent over backward to make sure Wausau was the site of the regional bike polo competition, which sends qualifiers to the national competition in Maryland near Washington, D.C.

Seth Carlson, organizer of Wausau Bike Polo, said his organization won their bid to host the regional competition and was planning to hold it at their permanent location at Riverside Park. In addition to the parking lot rink they use twice per week, they also have a set of travel boards to set up nearly anywhere for demos, such as the one held behind the Marathon County Public Library during the Open Streets event earlier this summer.

It turned out the parking lot they were going to use as the second rink in at Riverside Park was too old and far too bumpy to host the regional tournament. Carlson and company were thinking they’d have to turn down the hosting duties. But then, “The parks department didn’t want us to cancel it,” Carlson says. “They gave us a bunch of options.”

The most viable turned out to be the Eastbay Sports Complex. With two large parking lots and access to bathrooms, it turned out to be the ideal place to hold the tournament. And the Wausau team, the Hardwoods, on which Carlson plays, earned a bid to the national championships in Maryland near Washington, D.C. If they make the top 8, they will qualify for the world competition held in Lexington, Ky. — which, believe it or not, is a hotbed for bike polo with lighted courts.

The diversity of sports is part of the parks department’s strategy, and the parks officials willingness to do what they could to make the tournament happen is a signal of their commitment to making sure parks facilities stay relevant — Carlson says they’ve embraced bike polo since day one.

That’s exactly the point, Fiorenza says. “I think our parks department is looking at that constantly, about how to stay relevant to the community. What does the community need?”

Fiorenza cites their changing tennis courts to pickleball courts. Embracing the Central Wisconsin Off-Road Cycling Coalition’s plans to increase mountain bike parks is another good example.

That logic applies to the Eastbay Sports Complex too, for which parks officials have embraced new uses, such as bike polo, the Hmong sports festivals and lacrosse. There’s even more in the works.

Later this summer the complex will host a drive-in movie night, on Aug. 27. The purpose? It all goes back to that diversity of uses, says Karyn Powers, recreation superintendent for the Parks Department. “It’s partially to let people know that even though it’s a soccer complex, it can be used for different things,” Powers says.

Diversifying sports helps make the area a draw; it benefits the local economy by drawing those enthusiasts to the area; and it helps the users here enjoy the newest and latest trends in sports.

Parks department officials are also in talks to host an ultimate Frisbee tournament. If that deal gets inked out, it would take place in September.

“Who is the next user group?” Fiorenza asks rhetorically. “Pokemon Go? Anything that gets people outside and active is a good thing.”