By Rich Kaipust
World-Herald Staff Writer
Maybe it will take until the Qwest Center Omaha pool fills, because nothing says different like a million gallons of water.
The last time Qwest Center Omaha hosted the NCAA volleyball tournament, 17,209 spectators saw Nebraska win the national championship. The final four returns to Omaha on Dec. 20.The U.S. Olympic Trials-Swimming sit right in the middle of a something-for-everybody sports year in Omaha. They promise world-class talent, major crowds and network television.
But in a stocked 2008 lineup for Omaha, it’s the event that hasn’t yet carved its niche. It lacks familiarity. It isn’t played with some kind of ball – big, small, brown, white or otherwise.
Did we mention the construction of a temporary pool and a million gallons of water? And the Olympic rings all over town?
“Coming to a community that isn’t renowned for swimming, and putting it in a very unique venue, you just have so many opportunities to say, ‘Wow,’” said Harold Cliff, chief operating officer for the Olympic Trials. “People have been to basketball games, and they’ve been to hockey games, and they’ve been to volleyball games – which the Qwest is great for – but they’ve never been there for a swimming event. So you have to really set a good stage for people to have a great experience and to come away saying, ‘That was fantastic.’”
The NCAA basketball tournament returns to Omaha for the first time in 30 years, but it is one of the more known and followed events annually. Plus, the Qwest Center already offers a steady diet of basketball.
“With basketball, baseball, volleyball . . . people know what to expect,” said Harley Schrager, chairman of the Omaha Sports Commission. “The swim community is rather small here, so the general public might not know what they’re in for. But I think it’ll be second to none in terms of excitement and exceptional performance.”
Several years of bidding, negotiating and courtship bear their fruits as the calendar flips to 2008 and Omaha prepares for a major run of events.
Forty-five swimmers will use the Olympic Trials as their springboard to the Beijing Olympics. NCAA baseball and volleyball national champions will be crowned. Two basketball teams will go from Omaha to the Sweet 16. One Nationwide Tour golfer will pocket a nice winner’s check.
In all, some 600,000-plus fans will pass through turnstiles to watch the five marquee events, with NBC, CBS, ESPN and Golf Channel trucks parked outside.
“We’re certainly gratified that things fell into place the way they did,” said Dan Morrissey, president of the Omaha Sports Commission, the organization behind landing the basketball, swimming and volleyball. “We put out a lot of bids. We’ll continue to put out a lot of bids, and you just hope more of them stick.
“We would love for every year to be like 2008. That would be the ideal.”
The CWS can remain the anchor at least through 2010, with a 20-year extension still in the negotiation stage. The Cox Classic is locked up until at least 2010. Omaha’s support will make it a consistent contender for volleyball final fours.
The NCAA basketball committee already has named sites for 2009 and 2010, with future bidding only becoming more competitive as more cities build quality arenas. The Olympic Trials only occur every four years, and Omaha had to withstand challenges from San Antonio and St. Paul, Minn., to host in 2008.
“Our goal is to go out and get more events like these,” Schrager said. “Now, will we ever get another year where we have NCAA basketball, the College World Series, swim trials and NCAA volleyball all at once? I think we will. Will it be 2009 or 2010? No.”
The national exposure for Omaha starts in March when the Qwest Center will be one of eight sites for first- and second-round NCAA basketball action. Omaha last hosted NCAA games in 1977 at the Civic Auditorium.
On Selection Sunday, Omahans who gobbled up tickets in a hurry last spring will watch with a stake in finding out which eight of the 65 teams start their Road to the Final Four on the banks of the Missouri River.
“I think people will get a big kick out of that,” said Kevin Sarver, a Creighton assistant athletic director who will serve as tournament manager. “It’ll be fun to kind of guess, ‘Who’s coming here?’ Even for us to say, ‘It would be nice to have this team or that team.”
“There’s only eight sites, and to have one of those eight is a big deal. I think people in Omaha and surrounding communities get that, and understand what a great opportunity the city has and what a great opportunity we have.”
As required by the NCAA, nine full-service hotels will be in use, one for each team and one for NCAA staff and news media. NCAA staff and at least one member of the basketball committee will be in Omaha for the games on March 20 and 22.
“We want them to leave here on Sunday the 23rd and say, ‘That’s how you do it,’” Sarver said. “Obviously we think we have a good chance of getting another one if things go well and there’s not too many fires that would cause them to reconsider.”
The impact of NCAA basketball on Omaha will hardly compare to the back-to-back summer punches landed by the College World Series and U.S. Olympic Trials, if for no other reason than duration.
The CWS runs 11 or 12 days, from June 14 to 24 or 25. The Olympic Trials then follow June 29 through July 6.
Together, they have the potential to draw close to a half-million fans. For the Olympic Trials – last held in Long Beach, Calif., in 2004 – the Omaha Sports Commission is projecting totals of 10,000 visitors to Omaha, 300 news media and 20,000 hotel nights.
“It’s just going to be a three-week buzz,” said Cliff, hired last summer to run the Olympic Trials. “I think people will be pretty exhausted at the end of that time. The merchants and the restaurants and the police department . . . for all the people involved, there will be no down time. So I think the community will be in for a bit of a breather come the first week of July.”
Cliff said the Olympic Trials aren’t trying to supplant the CWS as the anchor event in Omaha.
Far from it. They’re just coming to the table with something different to offer.
Finals will be held during every night session, with the top two in each event advancing to the Summer Olympics a few weeks later.
“It’s wonderful to be first and it’s great to be second, but the emotion of finishing third is devastating,” Cliff said. “This is the ultimate step in a person’s career. It’s hard to express without being through it or seeing it.
“I’m certainly aware of the fact that people view the CWS as being the showcase event in town, and it’s earned that right. What we’re going to try and project is an event that has a totally different look and feel, and level of athlete.”
The eight-week gap between the Olympic Trials and the Cox Classic will test the pool of volunteers in Omaha. Swimming is expected to need 450 to 500, while Scott Athy of the Cox Classic said the four-day golf tournament requires at least 1,000 but closer to 1,200.
The NCAA volleyball final four puts its 2008 tickets on sale Jan. 19. When it first came to Omaha in 2006, the final four set two single-match attendance records, including 17,209 for the championship.
Morrissey said a full plate was the vision of the Omaha Sports Commission when it was formed four years ago. In the process, he acknowledges that Omaha also must remember not to overdo it.
“There can be a burnout factor,” Morrissey said. “Even the folks at the Qwest Center have to say, ‘How many concerts in a year is enough?’ How many majors are enough? You don’t want to saturate the market.
“But, realistically speaking, I don’t think we’d be able to do that. Two or three things along with the College World Series, and other things we have going, is what we aim for.”
Some other sporting events coming to Omaha in a busy 2008:
- The high school state wrestling tournament, Feb. 14 to 16 at the Qwest Center.
- The NCAA women’s bowling championships, April 10 to 12 at Thunder Alley.
- The Junior Olympic national track and field meet, July 21 to 28 at Burke Stadium. Held three times in Omaha since 1999, Junior Olympics attract an estimated 6,000 athletes.
- The National Veterans Wheelchair Games, July 22 to 30.
Cliff has seen enough of Omaha to realize the city can handle the load. He has run major swimming events in both Montreal and Melbourne, Australia.
“What it does to me is it shows that Omaha is a support city, that it’s interested in doing things at that level,” Cliff said. “And I think one of the biggest things going for it is the fact that it doesn’t have professional sports.”