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It took Omaha a while to catch on, but by the end of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the city was starting to look a little like a figure skating town.
Throughout the eight-day event at the CenturyLink Center, skaters, coaches and fans raved about the venue, the volunteers and the setup of the competition. But early in the week, local organizers were concerned about the number of empty seats in the arena, wondering what it might mean for the city's hopes of hosting future skating competitions.
On Sunday, though, Omaha Sports Commission President Harold Cliff said walk-up ticket sales had jumped — and that it was clear that swimming and baseball aren't the only sports the city can get behind.
“We're really pleased with the number of people who came out in the last three to four days. ... I think we really exposed the sport to a lot of people in Omaha,” he said.
U.S. Figure Skating said attendance for the event was 90,760. That's down from the 102,619 people who attended last year's championships in San Jose Calif., and well off the record-setting attendance of 158,170 at the 2010 nationals, held in Spokane, Wash.
But David Raith, U.S. Figure Skating's executive director, said big numbers aren't essential for a successful event — or a requirement if a city wants to host again.
Raith said his organization makes it a priority to bring its biggest event to communities of all kinds, even those that are only home to a few skating clubs and not many serious figure skating fans.
“In a market like this that's not overly familiar with figure skating, it's about developing an interest, promoting figure skating,” he said.
Cliff said there could be a number of explanations for why fans didn't turn out in the numbers they did for the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in 2008 and 2012.
For one, next year the U.S. Championships will serve as the qualifying event for the Winter Olympic Games. In Olympic years, interest is always higher.
Plus, this year's skating World Championships, held in March, are happening relatively close to home, in the Canadian city of London, Ontario. Cliff said many serious fans who normally would buy full-week passes to nationals may have opted to wait for that event instead of spending money on nationals.
And, he said, skating and swimming are just different kinds of events. The pyrotechnics and booming music that brought out many people to see the action in the pool just don't fit — and aren't allowed — in skating.
Still, both Cliff and Raith say they see potential for future skating events in Omaha.
Local organizers have talked about making a play for skating's 2016 World Championships, and haven't written off that idea. The U.S. Championships in 2017 and 2018 are still up for grabs, and Raith said Omaha could be a viable contender.
“Certainly,” he said. “No question.”
Raith said he expects that this year's event may have sparked a bigger interest in the sport. Lori Moehn, who helped run the event and is heavily involved in the local skating community, agreed.
Moehn said she expects that more people now know about the area's skating clubs (three in Omaha and one in Lincoln) and that young skaters have a new source of inspiration.
“It's had a phenomenal impact,” she said.
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