Every April, when spring wildflowers are still blooming but the heat of summer has not yet set in, scores of athletes descend upon The Woodlands with golf clubs, bicycles and swimwear.

This year, the annual Ironman Texas triathlon and Insperity Invitational professional golf tournament are joined for the first time by the Chevron Championship, a major championship for women’s professional golf. It also marks the first year Ironman Texas will be the race’s Americas Championship.

“Word travels throughout the sports world,” said Brad Bailey, a member of The Woodlands Township board of directors and chair of Visit The Woodlands, the township’s convention and visitors bureau. “Our natural setting just lends itself to be a perfect place [for] sports tourism.”

Tournaments also occur throughout the year for youth sports, such as soccer, lacrosse, football and rugby, on The Woodlands’ three townshipwide sports fields used by outside groups. The year-round availability of turf fields, golf courses and other unique amenities have become a growing focus for the township as it looks to increase tourism and bring in revenue from the thousands of athletes and their families as well as spectators who attend the events, according to township officials.

Major sporting events

The Woodlands is home to several sporting events which draw thousands of spectators and participants each year, contributing to sales and hotel tax revenue for the township and in turn fueling its ability to host more events.

The Ironman Texas triathlon has been held in the township since 2011, and this year it was also designated the 2023 Memorial Hermann Ironman Americas Championship, a regional championship that will attract athletes from Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and Central and South America on April 22.

The race draws about 2,400 athletes as well as their friends and family, spectators and media, said Scott Langen, regional director for The Ironman Group, which oversees the event. He said the economic impact for the region is about $13 million, and the event also generates $100,000 in donations to local charities.

“The Woodlands has a list of intangible items that make it the perfect location,” Langen said. “Each venue has a unique feel that makes the race special.”

This includes the swim course on Lake Woodlands, a bike route that starts at Town Green Park and a three-loop running course throughout The Woodlands Waterway. Bailey said more than 4,000 residents volunteer, and tens of thousands cheer the athletes along the route.

This year also marks the first year the Chevron Championship—a Ladies Professional Golf Association event—will be held at The Club at Carlton Woods from April 19-23. Tournament Director Jerry Harvey-Samuel said it draws around 132 players and their support teams. The following week, the Insperity Invitational will continue a tradition that began in 2004. As part of the Professional Golf Association Champions tour, it has been held at The Woodlands Country Club since 2008.

Insperity Invitational Executive Director Bryan Naugle said The Woodlands area had previously established itself as an attractive space for PGA tournaments when the Shell Houston Open was held there through 2002, and Insperity continues that tradition. The tournament’s 78 players are joined by caddies and family but also by television production crews, caterers, vendors and spectators, filling the region’s hotels for the duration of the event.

“It’s like coming home to a real familiar place,” he said. “The proximity of everything is so close here, it’s great for us and in running the event.”

In addition to sporting events for lacrosse, rugby and soccer clubs planned through June, the township will host tournaments such as the Copa Rayados soccer tournament in November and the Best of Texas lacrosse tournament in December.

Local investment

Chief Operating Officer Chris Nunes said the township has not established the economic impact of the individual sporting events, but as events and attendance increase, it is beginning to take steps to track it this year. Event organizers will eventually fill out information, including the number of hotel nights spent in the township, as the first step of that process.

Revenue from sales tax and hotel occupancy tax in the township reflects increasing numbers of visitors and lengths of stays. For the 2022 calendar year, which is also the township’s fiscal year, sales tax revenue was $9.95 million above projections, coming in at $64.56 million, according to township information. Hotel occupancy tax came in at $8.61 million, or $1.33 million above projections.

While 2020-21 saw lower revenues from sales and hotel occupancy taxes, the 2022 fiscal year numbers show sales tax revenue more than $10 million above any previous year’s revenue.

Hotel tax occupancy helps to fund Visit The Woodlands in its efforts to increase tourism through advertising and other promotion, and outside sales tax revenue can ultimately reduce the burden on taxpayers, officials said. Bailey said events like Ironman and Insperity sell out the hotels in the region.

“They’re all staying here at the hotel, so it really helps lower taxes for the residents,” Bailey said.

Major events which attract attendees from across the country are only one part of the sports tourism mix, however. Three sports complexes in the township—Alden Bridge, Bear Branch and Gosling—provide both turf and natural fields popular for use among regional sports teams and events, Nunes said. Each park will see improvements begin in 2023, including additional restrooms and lighting improvements, as part of $8.2 million in parks and recreation investments in the township’s 2023 budget.

Those fields generally host events with 500-1,000 players and attendees, although some are larger with over 10,000 players and attendees over the course of the weekend, Nunes said. For example, the Copa Rayados tournament happens during Thanksgiving break, when the community teams are not using the fields.

“That’s one of the best tournaments for us because all of the fields are vacated by all of the community teams, and sure enough we come in now with 200-300 teams from around the country and even internationally,” he said. “It’s also a good weekend for the hotels because ... it’s a slow business travel week.”

Future recreation needs

Players and organizers said the demand for sports facilities in The Woodlands at all levels of use is expected to increase.

A parks and needs assessment prepared by the township in 2022 identified a potential $100 million in projects that could be planned in the next 15-20 years. For the immediate future, several parks and recreation projects are planned in 2023, with a total of $23.44 million through 2024. Upcoming plans in the 2023 budget include pickleball courts in several village parks as well as LED lighting and restrooms at many facilities. Longer-range projects include building another townshipwide park on South Gosling Road, according to township information.

Simon Boddison, director of soccer operations for the Dynamo Dash Youth soccer club, said the organization has 9,000 participants throughout the Houston region, including 3,000 in The Woodlands area. It is rebranding as HTX Soccer this year starting June 1. The organization uses all three sports complexes in The Woodlands, with events throughout the year.

“We are growing, and the community is growing,” Boddison said. “There is some discussion behind the scenes of potentially adding more sports facilities in The Woodlands, and we would relish that opportunity because we’re continually growing, and we’d look forward to using any extra facilities.”

Other potential areas for growth include developing facilities for sports such as pickleball. Improvements at Falconwing Park totaling $4.2 million include new pickleball courts in this year’s budget. The sport draws users from throughout the region, said Adda Cuthbert, founder of The Woodlands Pickleball Association.

“We have added a few new programs to accommodate the growing interest in pickleball,” Cuthbert said. “However, sharing courts with the tennis programs makes it difficult to grow the sport. The new pickleball court at Falconwing cannot open soon enough.”