An upstart professional football league is high on Omaha as a potential expansion city, offering a possible new tenant to help fill a void in TD Ameritrade Park's schedule.
Six officials with the United Football League are in Omaha this week to brief community and corporate leaders on the discussions and try to confirm details to seal the deal, Commissioner Michael Huyghue told The World-Herald on Tuesday.
He said the league's analysis is 90 percent complete.
“If things work out right, we'd be very high on it as an expansion choice,” he said of Omaha.
The manager of downtown's TD Ameritrade Park, the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, confirmed Tuesday that it has held discussions with the UFL. But MECA President Roger Dixon said through a spokeswoman that no agreement has been reached.
The booking schedule at TD Ameritrade Park has been an issue since the City of Omaha decided to build a new baseball stadium for the two-week College World Series and the AAA Omaha Royals decided to play in Sarpy County rather than downtown.
The downtown stadium is due to open in 2011. Creighton baseball signed on to play some of its home games there next year, then its full home schedule — typically 20 to 25 games — starting in 2012.
The football league wants to expand before the downtown stadium opens and is considering Rosenblatt Stadium as the “most likely” football field for this fall, Huyghue said.
The league, he said, wants confirmation that the market would support the team and that the stadium arrangements would work. On the football front, the league also is looking at potential coaches.
The league, which currently has four teams, features former players from the National Football League and former college players hoping to get there. The league is considering three cities for two expansion franchises.
The league previously listed Omaha, Salt Lake City, San Antonio and Austin, Texas, as contenders. A report this week said Austin was off the list, although Huyghue would not confirm that.
One expansion city will be announced in two weeks, and the second in four weeks, Huyghue said.
After its first season, the UFL received better reviews about the quality of play than its finances, which reportedly included a larger-than-expected loss. Attendance was reportedly half of what the league projected.
On the field, former Nebraska running back Cory Ross led the league in rushing. Stat leaders also included former NFL quarterbacks Brooks Bollinger and J.P. Losman and linebacker Teddy Lehman, who played in college at Oklahoma.
Other local names included former University of Nebraska at Omaha lineman Chris Cooper and Northern Iowa punter Derrick Frost.
Overall, 30 players were elevated to NFL rosters, Huyghue said.
“Last year we proved that our product is high quality,” Huyghue said on the league's Web site.
It's unclear who might step forward as the local owners of a football franchise. Until recently, the Florida team was partially owned by Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays. The Sacramento team is owned by Paul Pelosi, whose wife is Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
But Huyghue said a local ownership group is not required upfront. He said the league could start out owning the team and add a local group later.
If the UFL played downtown, it would fill only a handful of dates at Ameritrade Park.
In the league's first season, teams played a six-game regular season schedule with three “home” dates each. But the Las Vegas team was the only one to play all its home games in one city. The Florida, northern California and New York teams played home games in multiple locations.
The league is changing that approach for 2010.
The New York team has resettled to Hartford, Conn., while the northern California team will relocate to Sacramento and the Florida team will stick with Orlando. The regular season schedule is expected to grow to 10 games this year, starting in September. The championship will be during Thanksgiving week.
Fitting UFL games into the local schedule of Husker Saturdays and high school Fridays would be a challenge for the league. Last season, games were spread out from Wednesday to Saturday nights, and the league says most of this year's games will be on Friday and Saturday evenings.
But Huyghue said games also could be scheduled on Thursday nights and easily would work around local schedules.
The league lost $30 million its first year $6 million more than expected, according to a SportsBusiness Journal article, but the league projects that it will break even by its third year. Other reports say the league is trying to bring in the NFL as an investor.
Huyghue said on the UFL Web site that officials have found that markets without NFL teams “reacted far more positively to our product than NFL markets.” Expansion franchises will continue to be located in non-NFL markets, he said.
“I think you're going to see real strong attendance because it's a good product,” Huyghue said.
UFL teams last season drew an average of 10,000 fans to each game, half of what the games were projected to draw, according to the SportsBusiness Journal article. That average would amount to less than half the 24,000-seat capacity at Ameritrade Park.
Meantime, MECA continues to look for other tenants. The American Association, an independent minor league baseball league, said it would play in Omaha if a local ownership group could be formed.
Asked to update those talks, Dixon, through his spokeswoman, said MECA continues to look at many options for the downtown stadium's schedule.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to mention that Creighton University would play some of its home baseball games in the stadium.