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"Sailgating" Coasts into Waco, Quickly Becomes Tradition and More

In early 2014, when the $266-million McLane Stadium was still under construction, Baylor Athletic Director Ian McCaw had one particular vision in mind for the new stadium’s river-front setting: sailgating. That’s tailgating on a boat. KWBU’s Carlos Morales has more on the growing tradition and how its morphed into a business and recruiting tool. 

Flash-forward a year after the riverfront McLane stadium opened and at any home game – like the one I’m at now, against Rice University – you’ll hear the sounds of boats snaking their way through the Brazos River. Which isn’t too unusual, but these boats aren’t just taking in the scenic view, they’re here to sailgate. By the time sailgating became a fixture at home games in 2014, Alex Dixon had already set up Baylor Bearmada, partly as means to stir interest in the new tradition, and partly to brag.

“I just really wanted to create hype for it, because I felt like it was a really cool tradition that would make every Big12 School jealous and just be a lot of fun for a lot of fun for Baylor alumni," Dixon said. "I’m happy to be out here and everyone here along the Brazos is starting a tradition and it’s not every day you can do that” 

A boat, waving the Bearmada and Baylor Univeristy flags, docked at the tie-up wall, a few hundred feet from McLane Stadium.

But across the country, sailgating isn’t really anything new. Since, at least the 1960s – The University of Tennessee’s “Vol Navy” has sailed the Tennessee River before their home games. And even before that Washington University treaded their way into Husky Harbor.  But Dixon says, sailgating in Texas is a bit different and that’s what makes it better.

“Here you just tie up right next to the stadium, you tool around to the beautiful Brazos River," Dixon says. "You can’t get as close to the stadium as anywhere else in the country from the water. It’s definitely unique to Texas and definitely something you can only do at Baylor"

For this particular game, there are at least 30 boats that have filled the so-called Baylor Basin, looking at their options to dock. There’s a free, first-come-first serve tie-up wall and also a row of 18 boat slips. But to secure a spot for the year on this private dock – that’s run by the Bear Foundation – you’ll have to make about a $3,000 donation.  But not being able to find a designated spot hasn’t stopped latecomers and more enterprising fans from just shoring up along the riverbank.  Standing on her 51-foot Sea Ray Yacht, Lisa Spitz says the allure of sailgating is it combines the popularity of college football with the fun on sailing. 

"They really put a lot of thought into this. And I love the bridges that are lit up now," Spitz says. "The visibility from I-35 really makes a statement for Waco, don’t you think? I never knew this was here either. All I knew about Waco was Baylor is here and you can get a beer at George’s."

Spitz and her husband moved to Waco from North Texas to set up Waco River Charters and take part in the sailgating business. It’s been a hit, she says; and since last year she’s been sold out of boats to rent during the 2015 football season. But sailgating isn’t just a growing tradition or a bubbling business model. It’s also morphed into a recruiting tool to impress athletes and their families.

"They go to the Ferrell Center and look at the center and do a workout with the coaches," Spitz says. "We have a smaller boat that we then bring them over here and then they all go to the stadium."

Recruiting top-tier athletes, which can mean more wins, Dixon says, not only helps to further new traditions like sailgating but also just brings out more fans

“I think the enthusiasm with Baylor football has translated to the enthusiasm of the fans coming in and tailgating early and really enjoying Waco and the new beautiful stadium," Dixon added.

With an hour left until kickoff, the band and fans are heading into the stadium. Some, however, are settling in and watching the game on TV with snacks and beer -- all from the comfort of their boat.