The noise came late Friday afternoon from Lincoln. Maybe it was champagne corks. Maybe it was a starter's pistol.
In the immortal words of Ron Burgundy, let the games begin.
They began on Friday, with the news that the University of Nebraska has sold out the first season of Nebraska men's basketball at its new arena, all 15,174 seats at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
It was a monumental day for NU and Lincoln. And it sent an unmistakable message: Lincoln and the PBA are ready to play ball.
Yes, the optimism around coach Tim Miles' program was a factor in the quick sellout. But if the Huskers were playing at the Devaney Center next season, they wouldn't be sold out.
This has more to do with the buzz of a new downtown arena and development. People like being part of something fresh and exciting. A downtown arena has that pull. It can transform a city. Boosts confidence as well as the economy. It can change the way a city is perceived — and how it perceives itself.
Lincoln will never be the same once Pinnacle Bank Arena opens its doors.
Nobody knows that better than the good folks of Omaha.
And you'd better believe the good folks at MECA and the CenturyLink Center are paying attention.
Coincidentally, MECA President Roger Dixon was touring Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday afternoon, at the time the season-ticket announcement was made. Earlier on Friday, Dixon told me that MECA was ready to compete with Tom Lorenz and Charlie Schilling of SMG, the company that manages the new Lincoln arena, for major sporting events and concerts.
“Are we going to compete? Yes,” Dixon said. “Both Tom and Charlie are good guys. We know them well and respect them. It's going to be a healthy, friendly competition.”
Lorenz, the general manager of the new Lincoln arena, echoed the sentiment, saying, “It's not about beating Omaha. Roger and Tom (O'Gorman) are class guys. We don't have a beat-them-up relationship. This is about Lincoln and attracting the best sports and entertainment events to Pinnacle Bank Arena.”
Including some that usually go to Omaha.
Here we go. Omaha vs. Lincoln. This will take it to another level for those who play the game. I've already heard some Lincolnites say they have the better arena for basketball, and they'll get concerts Omaha won't get because they're a college town. (Dixon laughs at that, saying Omaha is a college town with a Creighton and UNO audience.)
But how many Omahans bought season tickets to Lincoln's new arena? How many will make the trek to the Haymarket for concerts? With three lanes on I-80, you can get there in the time it takes Lady Gaga to change Halloween costumes.
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Omaha vs. Lincoln. I get it. But what does it really mean? It's not like we're talking about New York and Philadelphia.
In a state the size of Nebraska (1.8 million), we're not big enough to have factions and rivalries that get in the way of progress. In this case, two arenas enhance the future.
I see the Omaha-Lincoln area as one big region. The cities are growing closer together, geographically, all the time.
Whether an event or concert is at TD Ameritrade Park or Werner Park, the CenturyLink Center or Pinnacle Bank Arena, don't we all win?
What Lincoln ticket buyers are going to find out, if they don't already know, is that the real rivals are the ticket brokers, who snatch up so many good seats.
For the last 10 years, Lincolnites have driven 60 miles east to attend events at the Link. Now, Omahans will find their way 60 miles west to the “Bank.” Many Omaha autos already include automatic pilot to Memorial Stadium.
Omaha's arena. Lincoln's arena. The way I see it, we have two big-time buildings. And the competition will make everyone better.
But exactly what will MECA and SMG compete for? Probably more concerts than sporting events.
The Olympic folks and NCAA like Omaha for several reasons, but front and center is the convention center attached to the arena. You can put a giant warmup pool there. You can park eight team buses in there.
“A lot of facilities can't offer what we can,” Dixon said. “We're the exception. Other arenas, like Lincoln, are the rule.”
In 2015, Omaha will host its third NCAA men's basketball tourney since 2008. Omaha appears to be on a short list with Kansas City and St. Louis in this region. Des Moines isn't getting games. Neither is Wichita. Would Lincoln?
Lorenz said his group would probably seek NCAA women's hoops at first. Lincoln hosted NCAA men's tourneys in 1980, 1984 and 1988. But the NCAA wants at least four full-service hotels (with restaurant and room service) within proximity of the arena.
“We've got three new hotels going up around the arena, at 100 rooms each,” Lorenz said. “But they aren't full-service. So right now we have three full-service hotels (downtown).”
But NCAA men's hoops could find its way back to the Cap City if the arena's popularity spurs more development, and room service, in the Haymarket.
Until that time, Lincoln could certainly make a run at the NCAA wrestling and volleyball championships, which Omaha has hosted. Dixon said that while MECA has partnered with NU on those events in the past, he expects NU to partner with SMG for similar events in Lincoln in the future.
Meanwhile, Lorenz says SMG will seek Big Ten championships and the high school championships for Lincoln's new arena — including state wrestling, which has called Omaha home in recent years.
Pro basketball or hockey exhibitions? Dixon says those are hard to secure, and there's no predicting if a team would pick Omaha or Lincoln. But there's a new player in the game. And he's not afraid to think big.
Lorenz has been in Lincoln for 17 years. But before that he was at Iowa State, running Hilton Coliseum. He was there when acts like the Rolling Stones, U2, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Farm Aid would routinely come to Hilton or Jack Trice Stadium.
“I was there when a lot of things took off, during the Johnny Orr days,” Lorenz said. “Those were exciting times. Coach Miles reminds me of Johnny Orr. I think we're going to have a lot of fun.
“We'll probably go after the same concerts at times, but we may have different ones, too. I'm told this will be a very strong country market.
“what you might see is some promoters coming to one city here and then coming back to the other at the end of the tour. But we don't see it as having to be either-or. We both can do things. It's going to enhance the whole area.”
It already has, maybe. MECA is in the process of adding a new, larger video board and upgrading the club area and concession stands. Dixon, however, said MECA was already planning those improvements; they weren't prompted by the new kid on the block.
“We know we're not going to beat them all the time,” Dixon said. “Right now, they're the shiny new toy.”
The consumer with the most toys wins.
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