Below is an Editorial that does not necessarily represent the views of SwimSwam.
So here we go again. For the 16th-straight year, the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials are on their way back to Omaha Nebraska’s CenturyLink Center in 2020 to select the team that will travel to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics.
And the swimming community yawned.
While the lack of build-up to the announcement that we saw in 2016 certainly hurt the *bounce* factor, our real-time traffic stats showed that even for such a huge announcement, the audience was just not that interested in Omaha and all that it has to offer.
We tend to agree.
When the Trials first went to the land of Corn in 2008, it was innovative. A temporary pool in a basketball arena that drew massive crowds. When they went back in 2012, people were still in awe of a meet in such a big event. 2016 rode the wave of Phelps’ comeback mania. But 2020? By 2020, Omaha will feel stale. This is not an assault on the city or the arena, which have done a phenomenal job in their hosting. Omaha have been great hosts. They’ve given us their full attention, once the baseball fans leave, opened their arms to swimming, they even let us watch the College World Series for free last year. But it’s time to move this meet elsewhere.
We’re Just Bored.
Swim fans have been to Omaha. We’ve seen the phenomenal zoo. We’ve eaten the food. We’ve walked the river. We’ve had the steaks. We’ve eaten at the cute ice cream parlors and candy shoppes in the Old Market, we’ve shut down just about every bar in town.
In a lifetime, the average person only gets a finite number of vacations. That’s doubly-so when so many of our vacation days and dollars are spent travelling to swim meets. We’ve seen Omaha. The Olympic Swimming Trials aren’t competing with Sectionals for a fan base. They’re competing with Disney World, or a trip to Vegas, or Caribbean Cruises. After seeing Omaha two or three times, people will want to use those finite vacations on new locales.
This one has always been true, but in light of point one above, the costs driven up by the conflict with the College World Series will continue to make it expensive to find hotel rooms near the CenturyLink Center. Is it worth $200/night and having to drive 20 minutes each way when you’ve been to the Olympic Trials twice and there’s no Phelps?
Not if you’re a “swim fan.” A certain portion of the audience is athletes themselves and their parents. There’s always turnover in that demographic, always a new group that hasn’t seen the spectacle yet. But, as an overarching theme of where the sport is at, it continues to rely on the athlete base to drive its economy. If we’re pushing for the fan who is no longer/never was an athlete, these concerns are very real.
There are logistical challenges to scheduling the Olympic Trials. They need a venue that’s around 20,000 seats, indoors, and most importantly – can be vacated several months in advance of the late July Trials. That means that most 20,000 seat arenas are eliminated because of their primary tenants in basketball or hockey. We don’t have a peak into how USA Swimming made the decision (even less-so than prior years), but sitting a few rows up, here’s a few viable candidates that seem like they’re worthy.
Author’s Note: We didn’t include Madison Square Garden, because New York would swallow the Trials up whole.
- Houston, Texas – this one is a bit of a longshot, but the old Astrodome has sat in purgatory south of Downtown Houston, with a decade-long battle as to whether the fabled ‘8th Wonder of the Modern World” should become a parking lot, a parking garage, an indoor park, a convention center, or tons of other out-there ideas. Perhaps a major tenant for 2020 would sway the “keep” crowd. Plus, Houston has two airports, tons of hotels after hosting the Super Bowl earlier this year, and is easily accessible on direct flights from most parts of the country.
- Kansas City, Missouri – Kansas City shares Omaha’s geographically-central location. In many ways, it has a similar vibe to Omaha, as a frequent host of major NCAA events and an agricultural history, but with a better music and food scene. 19,000-seat Sprint Center doesn’t have a permanent tenant, though there has been lots of discussion about welcoming the NHL or NBA there. There’s also the Kempner Arena as another option, though older and planned to undergo a conversion soon to make it a regional amateur sports facility. The airport is small though.
- Chicago, Illinois – The old Rosemont Horizon, now the Allstate Arena, seats 18,500 spectators – the perfect size. The arena plays host to the Chicago Wolves of the AHL and Chicago Sky of the WNBA, but those teams would be easier to shift to other arenas than would be NHL and NBA teams. It’s not in the city, but the public transport system makes it better. This is probably not a great option, but it could work.
- Louisville, Kentucky – the 19,000 seat Freedom Hall and Kentucky Exposition Center is a perfect setup for the joint swim meet/Splash Zone setup. Not as central of a location as the other cities on this list geographically, but it would be in a city that supports swimming. There’s a relatively low count of around 20,000 hotel rooms in town, but there’s a building boom happening too that would fix that up by 2020.
Memphis, Tennessee – Again, an east-coast favoring city when the country’s swimmers tend west, but the 21,000 seat Memphis Pyramid could do the job. Great food, great night-life, and very driveable for a lot of swimming hubs.The Memphis Pyramid is now a giant Bass Pro Shops.
- Las Vegas, Nevada – UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center holds 19,522, the MGM Grand Garden holds 17,000, and Las Vegas knows how to throw a part…host a large-scale event. Plenty of hotel rooms, plenty of entertainment. Probably too much competition for butts in the seats and too many temptations that USA Swimming would like for its athletes and coaches to avoid, but everyone else would love it.
- Seattle, Washington – Seattle has a 17,500 seat Key Arena that plays host to the Storm of the WNBA, which is a potential conflict. But, Seattle is a fun city that can hold everyone. The added benefit is that USA Swimming is well-established in town, things to the King County Aquatic Center, which could serve as off-site training to relieve congestion in the main pools
Other viable arenas, if in more off-the-beaten-path cities (because hey: you probably didn’t know much about Omaha before 2008 either, right?):
- Tacoma Dome, Tacoma, Washington – 23,000
- Meadowlands Arena, East Rutherford, New Jersey – 20,049
- BOK Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma – 19,199
- Verizon Arena, North Little Rock, Arkansas – 19,000
- Legacy Arena, Birmingham, Alabama – 18,500
- The Forum, Inglewood, California – 18,000
- U.S. bank Arena, Cincinnati, Ohio – 17,556
- Times Union Center, Albany, New York – 17,500
- Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena, Jacksonville, Florida – 16,301
This is an abbreviated list of the 40-or-more arenas with 14,000 seats that don’t host NBA or NHL teams. Each of these arenas has pros and cons, and it would be easier to cherry-pick why each one might not or would not work. The goal is to get it out of peoples’ heads that there’s only “a few” viable hosts.
The Olympic Trials have a lot of momentum. They’re going to be televised live every day in 2020. But they don’t have Phelps, and to keep that momentum and interest going, they need a shot in the arm. When an event is every year, like the College World Series, the vibe of the “home city” event works. When it’s every four years, the event doesn’t stake a claim to the city, they invade the city, and everyone forgets about us the next time we’re there. But we haven’t forgotten Omaha. We know it well. And we’d like to see somewhere else.