As USA Swimming marches toward a planned decision in February of 2021 for awarding hosting rights to the 2024 US Olympic Trials, it’s worth taking a refreshed look at what the viable options are in terms of permanent arenas in the US capable of hosting such a large scale event.
When the US moved the Olympic Trials to Omaha in 2008, it marked a major pivot point in the event. While the Long Beach Trials in 2004 shattered attendance records drawing a 10,000 seat sellout on one night of the 8 night event, the move to Omaha nearly doubled that attendance. The CenturyLink/Qwest/Chi Health Center in 2016 sold out every session for the first time, with more than 200,000 tickets being purchased.
Now, USA Swimming is exploring options to grow the event even further. Much like they did for the 2016 Trials, they are taking bids from massive football stadiums that would have to be sized-down for a reasonable swimming experience, but that would still allow higher-still in person crowds for the quadrennial event.
The confirmed bidders for the 2024 Trials are:
- San Antonio (Alamo Dome)
- St. Louis (The Dome at America’s Center)
- Indianapolis (Lucas Oil Stadium)
Presumed to also be bidding is the four-time defending host city:
- Omaha (Chi-Health Center)
There are allegedly 3 other bidders, but those cities have not yet been revealed yet, and may never be made public if they aren’t selected as ‘finalists’ in mid-September.
With enough creativity, hosting venues could go a lot of ways. USA Swimming could construct an entire temporary venue, though at this size, that would be incredibly expensive. They could also go outdoors, though that presents a lot of risks, especially when television contracts are involved and when there’s not a ton of room for delays because of proximity to the Olympic Games and qualifying deadlines.
And, as USA Swimming is exploring, the possibility exists to use a football stadium and build a partial temporary stand in one corner of the venue to shrink it to a more reasonable scale for swimming.
This article will focus primarily on “arenas,” which is to say, indoor venues where the floor is about the right size for a pool and where no temporary stands will have to be built.
Because that’s what USA Swimming has chosen recently. The economics probably make the most sense in that kind of a setup, and it’s the simplest.
The benchmark right now is the Chi Health Center in Omaha, which seats between 17,100 and 19,000, depending on its configuration.
That arena is, essentially, the one to beat. Where there are parts of the Omaha hosting that aren’t perfect (including the overlap with the College World Series), and while I have expressed that I’m personally a little bored with Omaha, for its purpose, the venue has been pretty good.
So, that’s the target for anyone that wants to wrest the event from Omaha.. If you can’t provide a better setup on totality (attendance, total financial picture, hotels, ease of travel), you’re probably not the choice. This means that the IUPUI Natatorium is probably out.
One of the coolest upgrades that some of these venues offer are ‘luxury boxes’ or ‘luxury suites.’ That could start to draw in some bigger celebrity types to the event, and would add some cachet to the event.
- The venue can’t host an NHL or NBA team (or MLS team or MLB team, though that’s not explicitly relevant here). Some of you are going to ignore this, and propose this NBA arena in San Francisco or that NHL arena in St. Louis. But, that’s an absolute non-starter. The NHL and NBA playoffs run into late June, and with the US Olympic Trials needing a venue for about 6 weeks to construct the pool and run a test event, this just isn’t going to happen. Since the Tulsa Shock moved to Dallas in 2016, there are no WNBA teams that play in separate arenas from NBA/NHL teams that have a capacity big enough to make this list.
- Presume the venue needs to seat at least 17,000 in its largest configuration (though almost all would have to be shrunk for swimming).
- The city needs to have a major airport. We can debate how ‘major’ the airport is in Omaha, but at about 5 million passengers per year, it’s certainly more major than the approximately 1.4 million passengers served by Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport every year.
- It has to have room for at least one 50 meter warmup/cooldown pool (ideally more), plus a large convention space for the Aqua Zone. Some of this is rather technical and would be hard to know without some presentation from the city. For a point of reference, the Chi Health Center boasts 194,000 square feet of ‘contiguous convention space
- Hotel space. Omaha is building more hotels every year, but with the overlap on the College World Series, prices still get pretty high pretty quickly because of limited capacity. The general size of a metro, and corresponding availability of short term rentals like Airbnb, plays into this as well in the modern travel economy.
- Geography. Omaha is located in the middle of the country, meaning that nobody gets stuck on a 6 hour flight. For the perfect location otherwise, this could be overlooked, but consider the cities being named as bidders. They’re all in the middle of the country. Afterall, we have to remember that this is an athletic event, and cross-country plane trips isn’t ideal for peak performance (especially if it involves layovers).
There are 50 arenas in the US larger than the Chi Health Center. Of those, only 10 currently don’t host NBA or NHL teams. A further 6 arenas hold at least 17,000 spectators at their largest capacities, plus we’ll round Des Moines’ Wells Fargo Arena up from 16,980.
So, that leaves about 18 venues that seem to fit those basic criteria, as we make the assumption (though USA Swimming hasn’t explicitly stated) that given the current ticket sales, organizers aren’t looking to go much smaller.
So below, we’ll look at those 18 venues, their pros and cons, and their chances. A good hint: a briefer section probably is indicative of my opinion that it’s not a realistic option. Arenas are ranked in order of maximum size.
1. Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, North Carolina (Max Capacity – 23,500)
This venue, built in 1959, hosts the Greensboro Spartans men’s basketball team, but generally only sees its full capacity as a host of NCAA basketball tournament games, concerts, and other events.
It’s part of the same complex as the Greensboro Aquatics Center, which in terms of total competitive-standard water space, is one of the largest aquatics complexes in the world. The aquatic center, while ‘next door,’ is probably still too far to be an actual warmup space, but could still serve a purpose for training at off times and hosting time trials races to generally relieve congestion on the main venue.
Pros: Proximity to other water, large capacity, 120,000 square foot convention center, familiarity with hosting large scale events means more hotel rooms than you’d think for a city with a population of 300,000.
Cons: The Greensboro airport offers challenges (only 2.1 million daily passengers. Charlotte and Raleigh, both about an hour and a half away, helps that a little, but that’s still not ideal, limited points of interest away from meet
2. Tacoma Dome, Tacoma, Washington (capacity: 23,000)
Built in 1983, the Tacoma Dome doesn’t have a permanent sporting tenant of any kind. Located not far from Federal Way, which is home to one of the largest permanent pools in the country, will give this some appeal to a lot of people, plus there’s a huge swimming community in the area.
While Tacoma itself has a population of only around 220,000, it is not far from Seattle, which will be a huge draw for those treating Trials as a vacation at a sporting event rather than a sporting event they’ve traveled for. The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is also only about a 25 minute drive to the Tacoma Dome.
That airport is key to this venue’s appeal. At 52 million annual passengers, it has 10x the capacity of Omaha, and can be flown to direct from almost anywhere in the country.
It’s not clear how much ‘other’ space there is at the Tacoma Dome for a warmup pool or the Aqua Zone, but the Greater Tacoma Convention Center is a mile down the road.
Pros: Size of venue, Size of airport (52 million), city size/hotel availability, general interest in Seattle
Cons: Challenges of on-site convention space, geographically a very long flight for athletes from Eastern US (6.5 hours from Miami)
3. KFC Yum! Center, Louisville, Kentucky (Capacity: 22,090
This arena plays host to both the Louisville Cardinals basketball team, which is a huge draw, and serves as a focal point for the local entertainment scene. Built in 2010, it’s the newest arena of such a large scale in the US (only 2 other arenas, including NBA and NHL, have been built in the US in the 2000s with larger than a 20,000 seat capacity).
Louisville is a fun city, with a good local swimming community to help support the event.
At 92,581 square feet of meeting space, it’s a little small on that end relative to the Chi Health Center. There are a ton of hotels, but the Kentucky International Event Center is only 2 blocks away. There are also a lot of hotels within very easy walking distance of the Yum! Center, which helps.
The 6,200 downtown hotel rooms are solid, if not spectacular. At 4.2 million annual passengers, the Muhammad Ali airport in Louisville isn’t any easier than Omaha, though it’s certainly driveable to a much larger percentage of the population than Omaha is. That includes Cincinnati 90 minutes away, which has a much larger airport.
Overall, this venue hits the same sweet spot as Chi Health Center in a lot of ways – an arena essentially built to serve college teams, but not pro teams, and locals in a city bigger than the average college town, but not big enough to support the NBA or NHL.
Pros: Bigger city than Omaha, but small enough to feel like the Trials would be a center-point, nearby convention center, good hotel room availability, good local swimming community, good driveability, large venue, new venue
Cons: Small airport
4. Rupp Arena, Lexington, Kentucky (capacity 21,500)
It’s big, and there’s plenty of housing to be had in an SEC college town in the summer. But, the Lexington airport is really small, and while the city is certainly not tiny (~350,000 population), it doesn’t feel like it would be a big draw.
My gut instinct is that Lexington is probably not the best fit. Doesn’t feel big enough to support the event at this point.
Most people would probably fly into Cincinnati and drive the last 90 minutes.
Pros: Large arena, ample housing in the summer
Cons: Small city, small downtown
5. Oakland Arena, Oakland, California (capacity 20,000)
Now that the Golden State Warriors have moved out, the Oakland Arena would be available. It’s one of the few places on this list that would be ‘newly available’ since the last time this happened.
It’s a huge city where there would be tons of housing options, though they’ll be expensive (they are always, regardless of capacity). there are tons of swimmers in the Bay Area, so it would be almost a guaranteed sellout.
It lacks the central geography of a lot of other places, which is the biggest knock, and it also isn’t clear that USA Swimming and the USOC want to try to compete in a market like that, though Oakland is smaller than its neighbor San Francisco.
This one feels unlikely to me.
Pros: Large arena, large city, plenty of hotel space, plenty of non-swimming options for entertainment, great local swimming community
Cons: Geography, expensive, too competitive for for attention?
6. T-Mobile Center, Kansas City (Capacity 19,252)
Still an upgrade in size from CenturyLink, though we’re starting to get closer on those numbers. Kansas City is a big enough city to host this event, though the downtown areas can be rather sleepy. While the city itself is not much bigger than Omaha, the metro is more than twice the size, which means more general support infrastructure like hotels.
It is centrally located, which helps, and fans wouldn’t have to go far for dining and entertainment – fans immediately spill out from the arena in to a large dining and entertainment area.
Kansas City must not have the interest in shutting down this venue for 6 weeks (from concerts, for example), though, because otherwise, this venue makes too much sense to not have been considered previously.
The Kansas City Convention Center and Municipal Auditorium are not far away either.
The airport sees about 12 million passengers annually with service offered nonstop to around 50 markets. That’s better than Omaha, to be sure.
Pros: Decent airport, good hotel/housing, larger city, proximity of venue to food/entertainment, centrally located in the country
Cons: Not obvious
7. BOK Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma (Capacity: 19,199)
It’s big, and it’s pretty, and since the Tulsa Shock moved to Dallas it’s only permanent tenant is minor league hockey, where the season ends in March.
In general, aside from a slightly larger arena and no conflict with the College World Series Tulsa just doesn’t offer much up that I would think would motivate a move from Omaha. What’s good about Tulsa already exists in Omaha, and what’s bad about Tulsa is a problem in Omaha as well, with an even smaller airport.
The only wrinkle would be this: Tulsa bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games. So, maybe they’d make a really attractive offer to get this little taste of what they could have had?
Pros: Good arena, swimming trials could dominate
Cons: Small city, small airport
8. Freedom Hall, Louisville, Kentucky (Capacity: 19,169)
The former home of the Louisville Cardinals now plays host to an arena league football team. You can pretty much copy and paste the Yum! Center onto here, except this is slightly smaller and slightly older. But, it might also be slightly more available because it’s older? Freedom Hall opened in 1956.
It’s also further from the downtown core, albeit closer to the airport.
Pros: KFC Yum! repeat
Cons: Age of venue, poor location within the city
9. Verizon Arena, North Littler Rock, Arkansas (Capacity: 19,000)
An even smaller airport than Tulsa, but otherwise, just plant Tulsa’s description on here.
There’s also not any nearby convention space big enough for the Aqua Zone, though it could be cool to have that in the Statehouse Convention Center to draw fans back across the river (it’s walkable) into downtown.
Little Rock is a good small city, but overall a bid here doesn’t feel like worth leaving Omaha for.
Pros: Good small city
Cons: Small airport, no adjacent convention space
10. Legacy Arena, Birmingham, Alabama (Capacity 18,977
Omaha has a bad habit of being hot during the Olympic Trials. If Omaha is hot, Birmingham would be hotter. They’ll have a G League team beginning in 2022, but that season usually ends in April.
Birmingham also has a population of only 200,000, though it has a pretty big metro of 1.2 million, which is larger than Omaha. Its airport is smaller than most, though it’s fairly easy to connect through nearby Atlanta.
Pros: Not obvious
Cons: Hot, small airport
11. Chi Health Center, Omaha, Nebraska (Capacity 18,975)
The old standby. We know Omaha works. It’s not perfect, it’s not glamorous, and when it’s announced it won’t excite many people outside of the state of Nebraska, but it works.
If we could just figure out how to avoid the College World Series and maybe build a few more hotels, I could get my head around going back there.
Mutual of Omaha is no longer a USA Swimming sponsor, so that might impact some of the financial attractiveness of Omaha as a host. That’s the biggest thing working against it.
Pros: It works
Cons: CWS conflict, no more Mutual of Omaha, not a big airport
12. Allstate Arena, Rosemont, Illinois (capacity 18,500)
Known in my childhood in Chicago as the Rosemont Horizon, the Allstate Arena would be free of any permanent conflicts. While it is, technically, Chicagoland and all of the glitz and entertainment that comes with that, don’t get too excited – it’s outside of downtown and with Chicago traffic wouldn’t be super accessible to everything that comes with downtown.
Lots of hotels immediately adjacent is a plus, in addition to plenty of other options around the city.
There’s not an obvious space nearby for the Aqua Zone either.
It’s would be cool to have it in a ‘big city,’ but this doesn’t feel like it works, to me.
Pros: Big city, big airport, lots of hotels
Cons: Far from downtown, no AquaZone space
13. The Forum, Inglewood, California (Capacity: 18,000)
Having the meet in southern California would make a lot of people happy, and with a recent $76.5 million renovation, it’s doing better than its age.
The venue is scheduled to host gymnastics for the 2028 Summer Olympics, so it’s already got that Olympic vibe to it.
Making east coasters fly all the way to California won’t be super popular, though. With the local competitive swimming community, it would be nearly a guaranteed sellout. With the Clippers’ new arena planned to open in 2024 next door, along with the Rams and Chargers, this could be quite a complex that might be in need of some summertime occupancy.
Still, at its size, and with the location all the way on the west coast, it doesn’t feel like this one would fit the bill.
Pros: Southern California vibe, recent renovation, huge infrastructure of LA/nearby sporting venues
Cons: Long flights for east coasters, cost
14. Heritage Bank Center, Cincinnati, Ohio (Capacity: 17,556)
Cincinnati is like Louisville, in that it’s a decent-sized city with no NBA or NHL team. It’s also middle-ish in the country, and easily drivable for a lot of other major metros.
Cincinnati’s downtown is still pretty sleepy outside of business hours, but they’re working on that, and there are other areas that could scratch that itch.
With over 9 million annual passengers, its airport is bigger than Omaha’s as well.
But, the fact that it’s not been considered before again makes me wonder ‘why not,’ like Kansas City. So, while I think it could be a good fit (although, again, it’s getting smaller), it doesn’t seem likely.
There was a hotel building boom there, but local news reports indicate that many projects have been halted, permanently, because of COVID.
Pros: Large city, large airport, hotel capacity, centrally located
Cons: Quiet downtown
15. Times Union Center, Albany, New York (Capacity: 17,500)
Why is there a 17,000+ seat arena in a city with a population of under 100,000? The city has a fairly large metro of over a million given its hub size.
But, given the challenges of getting there, Albany is probably a quick elimination.
16. MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada (Capacity: 17,157)
Letting the MGM Grand Arena on the strip sit empty for 6 weeks while you build a temporary pool? Not a chance. There is too much ‘other economy’ dependent on the venue being constantly full for that to make sense.
While swimming has grown up a little bit from its “appeal to the family”past, it’s a very little bit, and I’m not sure that the typical Olympic Trials demographic would love being on the Strip.
17. Intrust Bank Arena, Wichita, Kansas (Capacity: 17,000)
Same as Tulsa, another “Omaha but smaller.”
18. Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa (Capacity: 16,980)
Same as Wichita, another “Omaha but smaller.”