June 16, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Just as it has been for the past 65 years, Omaha—especially downtown—will be hopping this summer.

Since 1950, the city has been known as home base for the College World Series—first at Rosenblatt, and for the past five years at TD Ameritrade Park.

But throughout the past 10-plus years—largely since downtown welcomed the CenturyLink Center in 2003—events and entertainment opportunities have exploded.

During that time, Omaha has hosted two (soon to be three) Olympic Swim Trials for USA Swimming at the C-Link, bringing thousands of people from throughout the country to River City.

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Prior to their arrival, many swimmers, visitors, and family members think of Omaha as a cow town (seriously, some think cows literally walk the streets). But once they arrive and see the majesty and versatility of the arena, complemented by the restaurants, shops, and other activities within walking distance, they gain a new perspective about the city.

So what makes Omaha such a growing Mecca for events like the College World Series, Swim Trials, or USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships (coming to town this August)? Or first- and second-round NCAA men’s basketball games? Or the NCAA Women’s Volleyball National Championships last year and in past years?

Why Omaha instead of sports towns like San Antonio or St. Louis?

Maybe the better question is “Why not?”

“Omaha is the perfect host city for these kinds of events for several reasons, but the biggest reason is the people who live here,” says College World Series of Omaha Inc. Director of Marketing and Events Dan Morrissey. “People in the Omaha area embrace events like the College World Series and Olympic Trials even if they aren’t sports fans.

“During the CWS, there is always a small contingent of fans cheering for their teams, but TD Ameritrade Park seats 24,000—and the majority of spectators are from the area. They are there because they enjoy and support the event. It’s really a matter of pride for people in Omaha.”

Omaha is also considered a jewel for big-name events because of geographic location, ease of
traffic and transportation, and proximity to the airport, among other amenities.

But buildings like the Century Link Center and TD Ameritrade Park—versatile, state-of-the-art venues—have opened doors to top events that would have been too big or sophisticated for the Civic Auditorium to properly host.

After many years at Rosenblatt Stadium, the NCAA considered relocating the CWS to another city if the powers that be in Omaha didn’t upgrade to a bigger, better facility—one that was closer to the action in downtown. TD Ameritrade Park opened as the solution in 2011 and has been a tremendous draw for fans—local and not-so-local—ever since.

The city’s commitment to keeping the CWS in town has made it possible for millions of dollars in hotel room rentals, food, transportation, and entertainment sales to impact the business community.

“Downtown is really the heartbeat of the city, and when the CWS was at Rosenblatt, it was very isolated from everything else that was happening in the growing downtown,” Morrissey says. “Moving the event to a new stadium within walking distance of restaurants, bars, shopping, and hotels greatly enhanced the overall experience. People love  coming to Omaha for the CWS.”

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People from coast to coast also have loved coming to attend the Olympic Swim Trials at the CenturyLink Center. The economic impact of the swim trials in 2012 was in the $30 million range, and this year’s trials—which has sold out almost every session and is welcoming a record number of athletes—could be around $40 million.

According to USA Swimming Assistant Executive Director Mike Unger, when USA Swimming was looking for a new spot to host the swim trials in 2008, a committee scouted several cities—and Omaha came out on top.

“We narrowed the search to two or three cities, and ultimately Omaha provided everything we needed and wanted to host a world-class event,” Unger said. “The versatility of the venue (CenturyLink Center) was a huge factor. Having a warm-down pool just steps away from the competition pool in an indoor facility is amazing.

“Very few arenas have that capability, and then having a 4-star hotel attached to the arena, and other hotels within walking distance of the arena, was a big selling point. Omaha has it all. We always feel very special when we come to Omaha.”

Another event calling Omaha home for several days this summer (and again in 2017) is the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships. Centered around competition at Carter Lake (swimming), the Missouri River trails (biking) and TD Ameritrade Park (finish of the marathon), Omaha was a great fit for the triathlon after Milwaukee hosted the past three.

A big selling point for the event to come to Omaha was the proximity of the airport to Carter Lake, where the event will be headquartered, as well as the city’s central location–within a day’s driving distance or less for the majority of the competitors and their families. Plus, the city’s ability to host larger events like the CWS and the swim trials proved Omaha could handle an event of this scope.

“Omaha really knows how to roll out the red carpet for these kinds of events; everyone involved definitely knows what they’re doing,” said USA Triathlon National Events Senior Manager Brian D’Amico. “Hotels and restaurants are all within close proximity to the lake and, with upwards of 5,000 total athletes—not to mention families, friends, officials, etc.—we needed the availability of between 2,500 and 3,000 room nights for everyone. Omaha was able to provide that and then some.”

D’Amico also referenced the tremendous backing and support from city officials in USA Triathlon’s decision to hold its event—which is expected to contribute between $11 and $12 million to city and business coffers—in Omaha.

“We received letters of support from the mayor, local sports commission, police, and other city departments committing their support to us and our athletes,” he said. “We need to have roads completely blocked off for the marathon section of the triathlon, and that takes full city support. Omaha brings that.”

Omahan Susie Sisson, who recently bought tickets for the July 1 session of this year’s Olympic Swim Trials and has attended the past two trials at the Centurylink Center, says the reason to choose Omaha begins and ends with the people and their enthusiasm for sporting events.

“People here love sports, especially amateur sports, and will buy tickets, even if they don’t know much about that particular sport,” said Sisson, a teacher at Marian High School. “These types of events always seem to be sold out, or nearly sold out, and I think that’s because people here love to feel like they’re participating in something important and exciting.

“On a practical level, the city also has a built-in infrastructure of hotels, convention space, restaurants, and tourist attractions. It’s easy for organizers and fans alike to feel welcomed and accommodated.”  Encounter

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