The Waste Management Phoenix Open is a golf event like no other, known for its record-breaking crowds and raucous revelry.
It’s the furthest thing from the quiet sanctuary of a law school library. Which, for Travis Smith, made it the perfect place to do some studying.
Smith, a Navy veteran and first-year student at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, is working toward a career in the sports industry. And he was able to help manage this year’s tournament through a fellowship with Waste Management.
He served in an all-encompassing support role, helping coordinate with a marketing vendor and The Golf Channel, assisting with a VIP golf outing, shadowing zone supervisors for the 16th and 17th holes, monitoring command central, and helping manage the recycling and compost operations.
“It was a great experience where I got to see a little bit of everything,” Smith said. “It gave me insight that I wouldn’t otherwise have about managing a big sporting event, especially a unique event like this.”
The fellowship evolved from discussions between Sam Renaut, director of ASU Law’s Sports Law and Business program, and Waste Management Vice President Scott Bradley. Both organizations put a high priority on expanding opportunities for veterans.
Smith is among the inaugural students in ASU Law’s Veterans Sports Law and Business program. Launched in 2018, the 30-credit online program offers a Master of Legal Studies degree and is designed specifically for veterans and active-duty military personnel looking to transition into the sports industry.
“We launched VSLB as a way to help military personnel find purpose and meaning in their careers,” Renaut said. “Discovering their ‘why’ through hands-on experiences and in-class learning is critical to their transition back to civilian life, and we could not have asked for a better partner in providing such an opportunity.”
The program aligns perfectly with the corporate culture at Waste Management.
“We have a very veteran-friendly environment here,” said Jennifer Rivera, company communications director. “A good portion of our employees are veterans, and we thought this would be an interesting opportunity for veterans in the ASU program to get some behind-the-scenes access.”
ASU Law’s Veterans Sports Law and Business program is designed to make the most of veterans’ military skills, providing access to world-class learning environments in the sports world, while providing as much flexibility as possible for students who may still be working full time or continuing their service.
“I was grateful and excited about this opportunity,” said Smith, who lives in Maryland and flew in for the tournament. “The biggest thing I’m lacking is actual experience. I currently have a full-time job and a lot of things to juggle, so I can’t really do a full six-month internship. This was a perfect opportunity for me to get some meaningful experience.”
In the Navy, Smith helped manage big events, such as fly-ins and homecomings from deployment. But nothing quite like the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
“Friday morning I was over at The Players Course,” he said. “It was 6 a.m. when I showed up, and the fans were already packed in long lines and chanting. I’ve never seen anything like that, not even for a big football game with a noon kickoff.”
And the 16th hole made for a memorable assignment.
“There were people on one side dressed up like Big Bird and other Sesame Street characters,” he said. “It was a surreal scene, for sure. It was kind of a combination of a rock concert and a football tailgate, because they’ll be there two hours before the first group of golfers come by.”
Throughout the tournament, most of the challenges had to do with sheer size: both of the crowd and the course itself.
“We had to bounce around, getting from Point A to Point B, escorting VIPs and just maneuvering around the course,” Smith said. “And you have the added challenge on the operations side of managing a large team of temporary workers.”
He was impressed with the calm demeanor of the Waste Management organizers, most of whom have worked at the tournament for years. Smith said the confidence from their experience and trust in their preparation was evident.
Waste Management’s Rivera said that underscores the value of the fellowship.
“As a potential employer, I would highly value this kind of experience, because I think it shows a real-world understanding of what it takes to put on a tournament of this size and a demonstrated ability to operate in such a high-stress environment,” she said. “You have to be structured and flexible at the same time when working with such large crowds, so it’s an interesting balance between the two.”
It was exactly what Smith was looking for.
“I learned a lot, and I had some fun watching golf,” he said. “It was a wonderful opportunity to get an up-close look at the operations of such a unique event.”