When Harold Cliff has the time to indulge himself in a hobby, he might want to consider cooking.
As president and executive director of the Omaha Sports Commission, Cliff has led Omaha’s charge into the arena of hosting big-time sporting spectacles.
How Omaha has become a destination for championship events sought out by governing bodies of a variety of sports is due in large part to how Cliff and other sports commission members and staff have designed a recipe for success.
The way Omaha has embraced the NCAA College World Series for more than 60 years laid a foundation that has helped the city host two U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials — and a third scheduled for 2016.
CenturyLink Center Omaha also has been the site of the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating national championships, NCAA basketball and volleyball events, and two major equestrian events.
More are on the way, including three events in 2015 — the FIVB World Grand Prix volleyball finals, second- and third-round NCAA basketball games and the NCAA volleyball final four, which the city hosted in 2006 and 2008.
Omaha also is one of the finalists — along with London, Hong Kong and a Dutch city call ‘s-Hertogenbosch — to host another equestrian event, the Federation Equestre Internationale’s 2017 World Cup Finals.
This recipe has specific ingredients — some can be shared, others understandably aren’t allowed to leave Cliff’s kitchen.
“When we look at large events, there are 10 or 11 things that are core group things that stand out from other bids,” Cliff said. “These are things we look to highlight in our proposals and bids.”
Though these events are one or two years out, there are many things that need to be done in advance. Cliff recently traveled to Indianapolis to meet with USA Swimming officials about decking and special effects plans for the ’16 Olympic Trials.
“We worked on concepts, the budget process for this area of work,” Cliff said. “We’re discussing some special-effects ideas to see if they are doable for the venue. Then we fine-tune it to a dollar level to see what is doable.”
Work also is underway on other aspects of the eight-day event in July 2016, including the overall budget, price of tickets and the dates the tickets will go on sale.
Cliff took a one-day trip to Las Vegas last fall for the Live Design International trade show to gather ideas about the latest in light, sound and special-effects options.
“We wanted to see what new things might be available and would be adaptable to a swimming pool,” Cliff said. “It’s fun to see what new and outrageous things are out there.”
Flames went off — accidentally — during one of the first finals races at the 2012 Trials. Seasoned veterans such as Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps continued on and laughed it off after the race.
There are some fun things that can’t be part of the entertainment package of an event because they could affect the quality of the television broadcast.
“With live television you can’t have smoke, so that eliminates pyrotechnic and laser possibilities,” Cliff said. “All of these kinds of things need to be taken into account.”
The hotel rooms are another piece of the Trials puzzle that has been finalized. Cliff said close to 27,000 nights have been negotiated with hotels near the CenturyLink Center, and the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau will manage those requests.
When it comes time to bid for any event, Cliff said there are some core elements that help Omaha’s bids stand out from the competition. Here are some of those elements:
“I won’t speak for others, but in Omaha we are very, very fortunate that there are so many people anxious to volunteer and help us with these events,” Cliff said.
For the 2012 trials, more than 90 percent of the people who volunteered at the 2008 event were back to help a second time. Cliff anticipates that when the requests for volunteers are made for 2016, the return rate will be “very similar.”
“You can’t run the event without the volunteers,” he said. “Their willingness to work that number of sessions, it’s very gratifying.”
Cliff said more than 1,000 volunteers are needed for the trials, and volleyball events usually require between 500 and 600.
“That’s a large number of people to volunteer their time and their expertise,” he said.
“CenturyLink Center is an incredible venue,” Cliff said. “With the convention center attached on the same footprint, athletes and coaches in all sports love that.
“It’s a strong selling point because no transportation is needed for practice. The hotel is right next door, you don’t have to go outside.”
For the swim trials, a warm-up pool was set up in the convention center, 100 feet from the pool. A practice/warm-up rink was installed for the figure skating championships in that same area.
Basketball teams can pull their buses inside and not have to deal with the elements when coming into or leaving the building. For the bigger volleyball tournaments, extra courts are set up in the convention center.
“Many locations, to get training courts or pools, people have to drive 30 minutes each way,” Cliff said. “Here you have the court, walk 100 feet to training court or second pool.”
“It’s amazing how much support we get from the media,” Cliff said. “We have a press conference, everybody turns out. It’s important for these events to know they will get covered.”
Cliff said sport officials like that they’re the only event in town and not competing with a lot of other sporting activities.
“It’s a real selling point for national governing bodies that they will get coverage,” he said.
“These events produce a great atmosphere that is family-focused,” Cliff said. “We try to put them on at a more affordable price. When you do that, people tend to bring children more.”
So many of the professional events in bigger cities have become unaffordable for families because of higher ticket, food and souvenir prices.
The Old Market
“This area may get overlooked by locals but it’s a very strong selling feature,” Cliff said. “For events that have morning and evening sessions, people can stay in the area and be entertained without having to travel.”
With the arena being part of the downtown core, the proximity of the Old Market to the arena bodes well for selling the event. Cliff said businesses there are busy all day, and visitors are happy they can walk somewhere to eat, go shopping and not have to move their car.
“A huge part has been corporate support, both philanthropic and business,” Cliff said. “People appreciate the sports commission trying to bring different types of activities to the community.”
The proximity of Omaha’s airport to the downtown area has been another aspect that receives nothing but positive feedback.
“In some other cities, it can take 45 minutes or more to get from the airport to the downtown area,” Cliff said. “Here it’s only five minutes, and so many of the hotels have shuttle service to and from the airports. They even will take people to attractions within a certain radius.”
A record of success
“The track record the sports commission now has on hosting events, people are more comfortable with a known product,” Cliff said. “We’re not promoting that, we’re just hoping to do well. When they’re familiar with your track record, they know you are able to deliver the goods you’re promising.”
Cliff is from Montreal, but has made Omaha his home since arriving in May 2007 to run the 2008 swimming trials.
“I‘ve come to appreciate being here over the last number of years,” Cliff said. “I get a big kick out of organizing these events, working with these people. I’m just fortunate I have been able to be a part of it.”