Sixteen months, six national sports events — a stretch that drew more than 1.1 million attendees and created 46 days or nights of national TV coverage from Omaha.
The U.S. Senior Open golf championships that concluded Sunday wrapped up a remarkable run for a midsize city.
“I don't think any city in the country, and maybe the world, has had a string like that in that time frame,” said David Brown, executive director of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
“We don't want people to say Omaha is the best-kept secret anymore,” added Dana Markel of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We want them to say, 'That city is a happening place, and I want to go there.' ”
Said Creighton University economist Ernie Goss: “The impact on 'brain drain' is dramatic. The No. 1 thing that Creighton, UNO and Nebraska graduates used to think of was to get out of Omaha. That's no longer the case. Many now see this as more of a city.”
Those upbeat comments came this week after a compilation by Doug Parrott, a public relations executive who works with the Omaha Sports Commission and serves as a consultant to the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority.
The “big six” events, the crowds and the exposure:
» March 2012, NCAA Men's Division I basketball second and third round tournament games: Attendance of 50,878, with Friday and Sunday games on CBS.
» June 2012, College World Series: 338,873, with 15 games on ESPN.
» June-July 2012, U.S. Olympic Swim Trials: 167,048, with eight nights on NBC.
» January 2013, U.S. Figure Skating Championships: 90,760, with three dates on NBC.
» June 2013, College World Series: 341,483, with 14 games on ESPN.
» July 2013, U.S. Senior Open: 157,126, with two days on ESPN and two on NBC.
The total attendance was 1,146,168, and Parrott suggested that the economic impact may have reached $125 million. But economist Goss said that because of the multiplier effect of dollars circulating through the local economy, that estimate is very conservative.
“The CWS alone is now probably worth between $50 million and $60 million (a year),” said Goss, who has analyzed the College World Series impact in previous years. Last year, according to his study, the Swim Trials brought in more than $30 million.
What has made a big impact in less than a year and a half were all those network telecasts and commentators speaking highly of Omaha.
Markel said the convention and visitors bureau spends $1.5 million to advertise and promote Omaha, but that 46 days of positive national coverage was worth “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
With a metro population of about 880,000, the Omaha-Bellevue-Council Bluffs area is considered too small to support a major-league professional sports franchise. (Oklahoma City, with about 1.3 million in its metro area, has an NBA team. Green Bay, Wis., is small, but the Packers can draw from the 2 million-plus Milwaukee metro area.)
With a diversity of sporting events and enthusiastic corporate and community support, Parrott said, “Omaha is on the map as maybe the greatest non-major league city in the country.”
After the recent stretch, the question arises: Is that all there is?
No, there is more, though not so many nationally televised events in a concentrated period. But already booked are the annual CWS, an NCAA basketball tournament in 2015 and the Olympic Swim Trials in 2016.
Harold Cliff, Sports Commission president, noted that a 10-team international women's volleyball tournament will be played Sept. 16 through 21 at the Ralston Arena, as well as a Cuba vs. USA baseball series this weekend at Werner Park in Papillion.
Cliff attended the Senior Open golf tourney last weekend at the Omaha Country Club and said he heard nothing but praise for Omaha from visitors. (Another golf tournament, the annual Cox Classic, returns next month.)
The stretch of nationally televised events didn't take local officials by surprise. Brown, the Chamber of Commerce president, said the chamber used them as a major marketing tool called “Only in Omaha,” inviting corporate executives from elsewhere.
“We used these events to show off how Omaha is a big-event town,” he said, “with a unique quality of life and corporate and community support. When people leave, they have very specific memories about Omaha.”
Besides the six national sports events, he said, the chamber considers the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting in May to be a seventh event of great importance for selling Omaha.
Besides creating good will and perhaps buffing Omaha's image, does all the attention bring tangible results?
“We have set the table,” Brown said. “We anticipate projects coming out of it.”
Markel said booking conventions often takes a couple of years of work, and then they might occur two years later. She said the increased recognition of Omaha, including magazine and newspaper coverage, has helped to leave a bigger impression on convention planners across the country.
Omaha is more than a growing big-event city. An economic report for the convention and visitors bureau by a Philadelphia firm said that tourism in general in Omaha-based Douglas County last year surpassed $1 billion for the first time. That was a 10 percent increase from the previous year.
The six national sports events put Omaha in the spotlight, but the metro area also has scored highly in recent years in a number of national economic and cultural rankings.
Goss, the Creighton economist, noted that many of the big sports events relate to the creation of the riverfront complex that includes the CenturyLink convention center and arena, the TD Amertrade ballpark and nearby hotels and other attractions.
Without those major improvements, he said, it's unlikely that Creighton would have been invited to join the new Big East Conference, in which it will compete athletically with schools from New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and other major cities.
In his 21 years in Omaha, Goss said, he has seen “a remarkable turnaround.”
Removing a century-old riverfront lead-smelting plant and other eyesores and replacing them in the past decade with the gleaming structures there now, he said, has led to events with national exposure — and made Omaha more attractive to outsiders as well as to young people who grew up or attended college here.
“It has really just had a huge economic impact,” he said, “that goes well beyond the numbers.”