It was Gilbert Jones' debut appearance at the College World Series, and he was in a pickle.
Well past the lunch hour and into the day's second baseball game, the outdoor vendor had slashed the price of his 7-inch, all-beef hot dog — yet not a single customer had taken the bait.
The snow cone and cotton candy ladies next to him already had bailed. And Jones was contemplating doing the same but didn't want to miss out on a possible rally.
“They got too many vendors and it's pushing the little guys out,” said the owner of Wil Dogie Dogs-n-More. “I figured with my prices people would stop, but this might be my last night. I think I'm out.”
So went the first days of the inaugural downtown CWS, as the crowded yet scattered lineup of outdoor vendors learned either for the good or for the bad what they couldn't know a week earlier: where foot traffic and money would be flowing.
Even before the second weekend of the NCAA men's baseball championship, several vendor and beer tents on the outer ring of the “clean zone” had cut their losses and folded. Others were readjusting their game plan or scoping out better sites for next year.
Jon Hofer of Blue 84, which provides sports gear to about 20 CWS retailers, has traveled to Omaha each summer for more than a decade. This year, he said, vendors had higher overhead, more competition and more anxiety over the unknown.
Regulars were coming off record sales from the Rosenblatt finale, so even a decent season can seem less than satisfying. Also hampering sales this year, said Hofer, is the absence of Louisiana State University.
“When LSU is here, they just bring a lot more fans, 10 times more than anybody else,” Hofer said. “Texas probably has the second-highest — and they're gone now.”
It was not totally clear yet who this year's big money winners are, but several merchants and spectators said hot spots appeared to be the larger entertainment and merchandise clusters set up closest to TD Ameritrade Park. (Those include the Old Mattress Factory and Slowdown clubs, which offer a variety of food, beer, souvenir and entertainment tents.)
Part of the attraction to those areas is that fans are shuttled to the stadium and tend to stay nearby. Many who park in downtown lots head directly to the diamond without much meandering, vendors said. Once inside, they face a broad selection of newly available stadium fare.
A host of other fans settle in at private corporate tents or tailgate parties.
Activity at Old Market stores and restaurants also was down this week compared with other tourist-heavy events like the Summer Arts Festival or past CWS games at Rosenblatt Stadium, said Joe Gudenrath of the Downtown Improvement District.
“The assumption might be that the College World Series is taking over downtown, and that's not the case,” he said. “So we're losing out on some of the regular customers and the non-baseball crowd.”
Indeed, he said, merchants wondered early on how they were going to handle the expected throngs of sports aficionados. As it turned out, Gudenrath said, parking or waiting lines have not posed a problem, and the Old Market is not close to capacity.
He's hoping for a spurt as stadium food wears on fans.
“You can only eat so many hot dogs,” Gudenrath quipped.
While proximity to the stadium seems a top factor in drawing a crowd, merchants such as Chris Tribulato said he's exceeded expectations by featuring quirky or trendy items.
The manager at the Omaha-based DiGiorgio's Sportswear said one of his biggest sellers is a shirt that workers quickly pulled together after fans booed Texas in the opening ceremonies. Capitalizing on the Longhorn-Husker rivalry, the store's designer produced a shirt featuring a U.S. map that excludes Texas.
Another item flying off the shelves is a baseball jersey that jabs the California Bears. DiGiorgio's replicated the shirt worn by the original “Bad News Bears” Little Leaguers of television fame.
“We make it so people laugh,” Tribulato said. “They chuckle. They want to come in.”
Of course the store's two locations close to the stadium bring foot traffic. “You have to be within one, two blocks, at the most, to be successful. People don't want to venture out that much,” Tribulato said.
For O Dining & Lounge at 10th and Farnam Streets, it took only a weekend to know its beer tent was a bust. “We were kind of shocked,” said owner Lance Wang.
The restaurant closed down for two weeks in anticipation of hosting 1,000 people outside on a weekend night. Instead, Wang said, a total of 300 showed up Friday and Saturday.
O Dining has reopened the restaurant, but it's taking time for the word to get out.
Wang is considering a comeback next CWS, but “definitely not as large a scale as this year.”
Barley's Tip Top sports bar at 15th and Cuming Streets bought billboard space to help lure a CWS crowd but ended up scaling back live music and buffet specials due to mediocre turnouts.
A few vendors who had set up outside the club also packed up early, said general manager Kelsy Young.
The staff at Barley's Tip Top suspects that more teams are staying in hotels farther west (compared with years past) and that their fan bases are patronizing places in those areas. Last year, Barley's offered shuttle service to the Rosenblatt, and fans came back to celebrate.
“We miss them,” Young said. “We want to see the crazy Gator fans and hyped-up Virginia fans light up the place.”
But the general manager at DJ's Dugout sports bar on 10th Street and Capitol Avenue says it has seen “awesome” crowds, day and night.
“The days of the tents are over,” said Sunni Renner.
She said the Vanderbilt University team's downtown hotel fan base has boosted business at the 11,000-square-foot bar that can hold about 400. Plus, she said, “We're a comfort zone for the locals.”
Still others weren't so sure that CWS-goers were aware of all the options this year.
“They need a map, like the Mall of America,” said Leah Firestien, who was selling hair feathers for Salon Fusion in a tent.
Jones, who noticed many fans tailgating and firing up their own grills, suspected that pricey items in slow economic times were affecting overall activity. At least one downtown sandwich store upped its prices for the CWS.
Shoppers interviewed said they hadn't noticed a hike in basic souvenir prices. But the increased selection had out-of-towners like Kyle Bell, who was shopping with his brother and parents from Gainesville, Fla., sticking with the familiar.
He pulled his family into the downtown Nike store, as did 12-year-old A.J. Dominguez of Omaha. A.J. squeezed out a bat, a hat and two California Bears T-shirts from his dad, Albert.
Still, many sellers remain optimistic.
Virgin CWS vendor Johnnie Anderson of Tank Goodness didn't come with preconceived notions, and he expects traffic to ramp up as people hear about his Fat Sammy (ice cream sandwiched between chocolate chip cookies).
Veteran Mike Kudirka waited patiently this week for patrons to rediscover his Nitro Ice Cream stand that for years was planted across from Rosenblatt on the front lawn of Rosewater School. In years past, the bulk of vendors was concentrated in a strip on the west side of the old stadium.
“We're all learning,” Kudirka said. “The traditions at Rosenblatt didn't develop in one year either.”
Said Dean Miller of J.E.B. Enterprises: “We're down but picking up steam.”
Of his half-dozen sports merchandise tents around downtown, Miller said, the Slowdown lot seems to be his top spot. He's re-evaluating next year already, saying he likely would drop at least one tent on the north side of Cuming.
Meanwhile on the outer fringe — along 15th Street between Burt and Mike Fahey Streets — another veteran vendor, Rick Bezousek, encouraged newcomer Gilbert Jones to stick it out.
Bezousek was there decades ago when Rosenblatt vendors also thinned out. He weathered the storm, he said, and over 30 years his T-shirt business flourished.
“Sit back and watch, build the loyalty, see what happens,” Bezousek told a discouraged Jones, who said Thursday that his hot dog stand had cleared less than $1,000.
Bezousek and partner Mike Dittrich offered a discount to lure passers-by. They said families need a break in this economic downturn.
Their competitive edge, Dittrich said, is paying the property owner a percentage of sales rather than a set rental fee, as do many others. Dittrich expects the old welding site to be spruced up and become more popular each CWS season.
As of Thursday night, Jones was still at his spot near Dittrich and Bezousek.
The young women peddling hair feathers were between them. A neighbor selling sunglasses hadn't been seen since Tuesday.
“I'm just trying to get back the money I put into it,” said Jones. “I'm hoping it picks up.”
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