OMAHA, Neb. – As a mid-market Midwestern city, Omaha will never match the glitz and glam of Las Vegas, nor will it feature the white-sand beaches of Miami or the cultural pantheon of New York.
But as a player for major sporting events, Nebraska’s largest metropolis can match anyone.
Whether it’s the College World Series, which has been a fixture in the area for more than 60 years, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, U.S. Olympic Swim Trials or the upcoming U.S. Senior Open, Omaha – despite ranking No. 42 in population size among American cities as of the 2010 Census – measures up with remarkable community support.
The U.S. Senior Open, scheduled for July 11-14 at Omaha Country Club, has already enjoyed record corporate sales, and ticket sales are expected to reach 150,000 for only the third time in the championship’s 34-year history.
A year ago, the 2013 Senior Open had reached its maximum of 2,800 volunteers, another rarity.
“We’re usually asking for people [to volunteer] right up to the event,” said Tim Flaherty, the senior director of the U.S. Senior Open. “We had to shut it off here.”
Said Patrick Duffy, the general chairman of the U.S. Senior Open: “Our community understands volunteerism. Our Chamber of Commerce knows how to get the corporate community behind these things…There really is no better community than ours for supporting major events.”
The College World Series, which has been contested in Omaha since 1950, annually draws sellout crowds. The NCAA’s marquee competition moved in 2011 to the new 24,000-seat downtown ballpark, which sits across the parking lot from CenturyLink Arena, a 17,000-seat arena that is home to Creighton University’s nationally recognized basketball program. The arena also served as a regional host site for the opening rounds of the 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and the last two U.S. Olympic Swim Trials (2008, 2012).
Impressed by the support, USA Swimming recently announced that the 2016 Olympic Trials will again be held in Omaha. Since the city is devoid of any major sports teams, the trials never face potential conflicts with the NHL Stanley Cup finals or NBA Finals.
“We have to block out a lot of time,” said Mike Unger, USA Swimming’s assistant executive director. “We were in on May 21 and the trials didn’t start until June 25. We had a great vibe downtown. Omaha is smaller, but the people care. They embrace sport.”
The 2012 Swim Trials took in $5 million in ticket sales and had 65,000 spectators for the eight-day competition.
Even when the final two days of the College World Series and Swim Trials overlapped, both venues were packed with fans.
“They make you feel like you’re the only game in town,” said Unger. “It’s great. From the venue, to the Omaha Sports Commission people, they do it right.”
Dave Brown, the President and CEO of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, said a strong business community that can boast five Fortune 500 companies – ConAgra Foods, Mutual of Omaha, Union Pacific Railroad, Kiewit Corporation and Berkshire Hathaway – also makes Omaha attractive for big events. Berkshire CEO Warren Buffett, nicknamed the “Oracle of Omaha,” also helps attract business attention to the city.
None of the four major professional sports leagues – NFL, Major League Baseball, NHL and NBA – has a franchise in Omaha, so when big events like the U.S. Senior Open or the Olympic Swim Trials come to town, it’s a place people want to be. Residents are also very supportive of local franchises like Creighton men’s basketball, the Omaha Storm Chasers (the Triple-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals), and University of Nebraska football, which plays roughly 50 miles away in the state capital of Lincoln.
Creighton, which is moving to the revamped Big East Conference this fall, is among the annual leaders in attendance, while Husker football has had sellouts for several decades.
Enthusiasm for the U.S. Senior Open has been high since Omaha C.C. landed the championship. Because of the demand for corporate hospitality, the club decided to have a lottery party for its 10 biggest supporters. Tom Watson, the 1982 U.S. Open champion, even attended. Golf balls were drawn to determine the picking order of available hospitality locations.
“We think we’re one of America’s greatest cities and we want to prove that to people,” said Brown. “We have a Web.com Tour event every year (Cox Classic). It is very well-attended. They don’t have any trouble finding volunteers. There are thousands of people on the course every day.”
Added Duffy: “We really hope [the Senior Open] is one more notch and it positions Omaha for other [future] events.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.