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Donors, UNO get the ball rolling at new $23.5 million baseball and softball complex
ATHLETICS

Donors, UNO get the ball rolling at new $23.5 million baseball and softball complex

As Jacob Mohler works this summer as a construction intern at the site of UNO’s new baseball and softball complex, he imagines what it would be like to take the field there one day.

But for Mohler, that’s not some kind of baseball fantasy. The University of Nebraska at Omaha senior civil engineering major is also a standout pitcher on the Maverick baseball team. And pandemic permitting, he will be out on that field when the Mavericks inaugurate play at their gleaming new home next spring.

“It’s going to be surreal,” said Mohler, wearing his yellow hardhat amid the dirt, mud and concrete of the complex site last week.

With construction work well underway, UNO officials provided a glimpse last week of the future Tal Anderson Field and Connie Claussen Field. Those are the names they revealed will go up at the $23.5 million complex, named respectively for a UNO booster who played baseball at the school and the woman who founded Maverick women’s athletics.

The complex, located just west of the school’s Baxter Arena near 67th and Center Streets, will feature a fan concourse and press box facility that serves both fields, the latest in artificial playing surfaces that should make the fields playable even after heavy rains, and sizable video boards for replays and advertising.

“This thing is going to be fantastic,” UNO athletic director Trev Alberts said.

Fundraising for the project, which is being totally funded with private dollars, is also on track, largely because it has been embraced by Walter Scott, one of Omaha’s biggest and most influential philanthropists.

A donor also has stepped forward in the event revenues from ticket sales, concessions and advertising fall short of projections. Alberts said the donor pledged to cover any operational shortfalls for the complex’s first five years.

Without that pledge, opening up such a facility could cause concerns at a time when COVID-19 has brought major budget uncertainty to colleges and their athletic departments.

UNO Chancellor Dr. Jeffrey Gold said the new facility will be a point of pride for the school’s championship-caliber ball teams and an asset to the entire community.

“This project — which is funded entirely through private dollars — is truly a testament to the strength and passion of our philanthropic community, who simply can’t be thanked enough for their continued support,” Gold said in a statement.

The public-private partnership behind the ball fields is also unique, largely driven and managed by the donors for the project.

The university has essentially leased the land at the site to a donor group that is raising the money, planning and managing the construction and then donating the finished complex back to UNO.

UNO’s Alberts and NU Regent Howard Hawks are part of an ad hoc group that has worked closely with the donor group on planning details.

“It’s a real simple concept: the university trusts that the donors can get it done,” said Hawks, a retired energy executive and university sports booster. “We are going to get this thing done.”

The plans for the new UNO complex were first unveiled a year ago, just as the Maverick baseball team was competing in its first NCAA Division I regional after winning the Summit League championship.

UNO baseball has long lacked a permanent home, having played its home games at a variety of fields around Omaha over the years — most recently the city’s Seymour Smith Park. UNO pays rent for its softball team to play at a Westside school district field.

Originally, the announced price tag for the new complex was $22.5 million, but that has been bumped up by $1 million with the addition of a number of amenities. The biggest-ticket items have been video boards and audio-visual equipment that are upgraded from the original plan. There are other smaller but meaningful additions, too, such as covers over the bullpens beyond the outfield to provide shade for players sitting out there.

“I don’t want to be around here five years from now saying, ‘Why didn’t we do this?’ ” Hawks said.

The video board for the baseball field will be 34 feet wide and 25 feet high. The softball board is smaller, 26 feet by 19 feet, simply because of the shorter distance between the board and the seats.

The dirt and grass of the ballfields will be artificial, but it’s the latest technology engineered to look and perform like the real stuff. The grass is made of filament fiber, the dirt a mix of sand and rubber particles.

The artificial fields cut maintenance costs and also reduce the chance for rainouts. Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays recently installed the same field.

The baseball stadium will have permanent seating for 1,500 as well as grass berms extending down both baselines that provide seating for hundreds more. The softball field will have permanent seating for 650 as well as berm seating.

UNO_Ballpark_Baseball_SS_20-0730

A shortstop eye’s view of what the new UNO baseball field would look like.

The complex includes a unique three-legged concourse and press box facility that serves both of the adjacent fields.

Fans will pass through a ticket gate and then enter the facility at concourse level. They will then go down from there into the seating bowls.

The lower level of the concourse includes concession areas and restrooms. The upper concourse houses the two press boxes and a premium seating area that overlooks both of the fields.

Below the concourse is a tunnel that runs between the two fields that will house restrooms for the players, a medical treatment area and a locker area for umpires. There are no player locker rooms, as both the baseball and softball teams will continue to use facilities in the school’s athletic department.

The fields will have ample parking, sharing the adjacent Baxter Arena lots. Alberts said the same university staff that operates Baxter will oversee operation of the new complex.

The fields also present new revenue-generating opportunities for UNO.

In the past, UNO has not charged admission to baseball or softball games because the fields were open and not set up for collecting tickets. The school also hasn’t gotten any concession or advertising revenue from those sports.

But UNO also will incur new expenses to operate and maintain the complex. Current budget figures project the school would essentially break even operationally, after taking into account the $33,000 the school currently pays to rent its softball field.

Ticket revenue is projected at a modest $21,600 in the first year — roughly equal to a season total of 2,200 fans paying about $10 a ticket — along with $28,000 in concession revenue, $30,000 in advertising and sponsorships and $4,300 in facility rentals.

Offsetting that $84,000 in estimated revenue would be nearly $114,000 in estimated expenses, including game staffing, utilities, cleaning, field maintenance and security.

That makes for a net operating deficit of about $30,000 — slightly less than the current softball rent.

If those estimates do miss the mark, Alberts said he takes comfort in the anonymous donor’s pledge to backstop any operating deficits for the first five years.

20200801_new_unofield_pic_cm001

“This project — which is funded entirely through private dollars — is truly a testament to the strength and passion of our philanthropic community, who simply can’t be thanked enough for their continued support,” said UNO Chancellor Dr. Jeffrey Gold.

Like Gold, Alberts praised the donors who are making the facility possible. Since the school’s decision to move up to Division I in athletics in 2010, Alberts said UNO has seen more than $104 million in private athletic donations and pledges, including $43 million toward Baxter Arena.

Alberts says donors support such projects not so much because they think it will help the Mavericks win games, but because they see the benefits athletics provides in engaging students on campus, which helps the school meet student recruitment and retention goals.

At the donors’ request, UNO will also make the fields available to the community for youth and high school ball, and the baseball field will also likely become a practice field for teams coming to Omaha for the College World Series.

Alberts said the names that will adorn the new fields are more than fitting.

Tal Anderson, who died in 2009, was a UNO graduate, former baseball star, a UNO financial supporter and booster, and the owner of Baxter Auto Group. Baxter, now run by Tal’s son, Mickey, paid $4 million for the 10-year naming rights to UNO’s hockey and basketball arena.

Tal Anderson’s name will be behind home plate along with the number 12, his jersey number from his playing days at what was then Omaha University.

“This is such a special honor,” said Mary Joy Anderson, Tal’s wife. “Our entire family is grateful to know that future generations will take this field and discover their own opportunities for lifelong success.”

20200801_new_unofield_pic_cm010

UNO baseball has long lacked a permanent home, having played its home games at a variety of fields around Omaha over the years. The new field, constructed near Baxter Arena, will be named for Tal Anderson.

The naming of the softball field for Claussen really should come as no surprise for Maverick athletic fans.

Claussen founded athletics for women at UNO when she started a school softball team in 1969. For decades, she coached and served as an athletic administrator, including coaching the 1975 Maverick softball team that won the Women’s College World Series.

Alberts had previously hinted the field would be named for Claussen. Her name will likewise be behind home plate along with the number 1969, in honor of the founding year for women’s athletics at the school.

Just west of Baxter Arena, those fields are now taking shape.

Crews last week were pouring concrete for the seating bowls of both fields. The elevator shaft serving the concourse already rises above the dirt. And the tunnel between the two fields is in place.

Mohler, the UNO baseball player who is interning for Kiewit construction company this summer, was part of that concrete work, helping put in place the forms that create the seating tiers before the concrete is poured.

He said the prospect of playing games next spring on a new field has helped keep the Mavericks going after a disappointing spring cut short by COVID-19.

The 2020 Maverick baseball team was off to a fast 10-4 start, including two victories over Northwestern University and a rare win over Creighton’s traditionally strong team. A Louisville, Nebraska, native who served as the team’s closer, Mohler had already registered five saves, pitching six innings without giving up a run.

Jacob Mohler, UNO baseball player

Jacob Mohler, a UNO baseball player, has been working as a construction intern at the new ball complex this summer.

Then suddenly, it was all over.

As a senior, the fireballer whose fastball has hit 96 mph on a radar gun could have left school to pursue professional baseball opportunities. But Mohler said the chance to work on the complex this summer, finish his degree this fall and then play on the new field with his teammates in the spring made his decision to come back for a fifth year “a no-brainer.”

He recalled the first time at the construction site that he walked through the tunnel out toward the Mavs’ future home field.

“As (the view) opened up, I could see all the fans here opening day,” Mohler said. “It’s something I can’t pass up.”


The past 10 years of UNO baseball

Omaha World-Herald: Local Sports

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Reporter - Metro News

Henry is a general assignment reporter, but his specialty is deep dives into state issues and public policy. He's also into the numbers behind a story, yet to meet a spreadsheet he didn't like. Follow him on Twitter @HenryCordes. Phone: 402-444-1130.

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