With the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials departing for Indianapolis, the Omaha entity that helped build the Trials into a marquee event is still here, and it has big plans for the future.
The Swim Trials were a prime example of Omaha’s ability to turn little-publicized sporting events into blockbuster occasions, said Lindsay Toussant and Kyle Peterson of the Omaha Sports Commission.
They are confident an event of that size can be brought to or shaped by Omaha again, but as the nonprofit stares down a future without its signature event, Toussant said changes are needed to move the commission forward.
“We want people to know who we are and that we can do so much more than the Swim Trials,” said Toussant, president of the Omaha Sports Commission.
Since 2003, the commission has worked to recruit and promote amateur sporting events in Omaha. With the pressure of putting on what would become a major sporting and tourism event, much of the commission’s time has been focused on the Swim Trials since its induction.
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Attendance records for the Omaha Trials were set in 2008, 2012 and 2016 before pandemic restrictions not only postponed the 2020 Trials by one year, but also limited capacity to 63% at the Wave I and Wave II Trials in June 2021
Even at limited capacity, the 12-day competition brought an attendance that exceeded 122,000.
A report produced by the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau found that Waves I and II in 2021 brought $34.5 million in economic impact to the city and state over the more than two-week period.
Without the Trials, the commission “needs to be a very different organization than it was before,” said Peterson, chairman of the commission.
“We have a lot of great history to build off of, and a big piece of that history obviously isn’t going to be there in a few years,” Peterson said.
The commission has had an economic impact of $373 million since 2008, according to the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Even without the Swim Trials, Toussant said there’s no reason that financial impact can’t continue.
Moving forward, Toussant said it will mostly be community interest that determines what sports are brought to Omaha and what events are created by the commission.
Diversifying events, assisting with events that already exist and bringing more national competitions to the city are all on Toussant’s list of aspirations.
Those goals come as events paused by the COVID-19 pandemic gradually regain their footing.
Peterson remembers the moment COVID precautions began to shut down the sports world in March 2020.
He was in the Atlanta airport on his way to Gainesville, Florida, to cover college baseball for ESPN.
“My producer called me to say, ‘Hey, don’t get on the plane to Gainesville yet. We’re not really sure exactly what’s going on,’ “ Peterson recalled.
Peterson took a seat to watch Creighton men’s basketball play in the Big East tournament. That game was stopped at halftime.
Another phone call and Peterson was on a plane back to Omaha. The college baseball game in Florida had been canceled. Three days later, the entire season was called off.
What followed was a cascade of cancellations and changes that continued well into 2021, and the Swim Trials were not immune.
The commission had always had a good idea of risk over reward when it came to hosting the Trials, but the pandemic changed the way the organization considers risk, Peterson said.
“We didn’t prepare enough for a rainy day, because no one knew that the rainy day would happen,” Peterson said.
Still, the sports world is bouncing back, Toussant said, pointing to a national tournament already planned for Omaha this summer.
Omaha will host a regional competition of a national basketball tournament, simply named The Basketball Tournament (TBT).
The single-elimination tournament features 64 teams playing for $1 million. Teams are mostly made up of alumni from universities and colleges across the U.S.
Omaha Blue Crew is a local team that Toussant hopes will draw a crowd.
TBT is good for the city, Peterson said. His goals are also set on hosting another Olympic event.
“I think there’s a power to crowning Olympians,” Peterson said. “There is a pride factor with having people leave the city of Omaha and know they’re going on to represent the United States.”
The commission’s ultimate goal is for Omaha to be one of the first cities to come to mind when organizations and associations consider the location for significant sporting events.
“I know all this sounds decent, but now we’ve got to do it,” Peterson said. “It’s a great opportunity to take the stuff that we learned from, and now let’s go, let’s figure out where we can grow it from here.”