At its formation 10 years ago, the Omaha Sports Commission had a brand-new arena to offer, a city with some untapped and unknown potential and the idea that it wanted to do some big things.
It just had a lot of work ahead of it.
The commission had to paint a picture of what it could do and also show how Omaha could handle things. It had to be patient. Nothing was going to happen overnight, even with a big-time facility waiting on the edge of downtown.
Now, a decade later, commission President Harold Cliff said that part of the job is now easier for the non-profit organization that finances operations through donations, sponsors and events.
Yes, the word is out on Omaha.
“Now people are coming to us,” Cliff said. “When we go out, we don’t have to explain Omaha that much anymore, or its facilities. People know what we’ve hosted and that they have gone over reasonably well.”
The events Omaha has conducted have gotten the attention of a lot of people, Cliff said. “I think that speaks really well for the community as a whole.”
The commission reaches its 10-year anniversary this fall with some satisfaction over its accomplishments — it hosted or co-hosted its 25th event last month with the NORCECA Women’s Continental Championship volleyball tournament — and a clear vision of its future.
The commission recently completed a strategic plan for the next five years that was approved by its board of directors.
Omaha will continue to shoot for high-level amateur events, such as the U.S. Olympic Trials for swimming that it hosted in 2008 and 2012 and will hold again in 2016, and the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which it hosted in January. Those come from relationships with national governing bodies that Cliff said the commission will continue to build and cultivate.
Because Creighton, UNO and Nebraska take the lead with NCAA-related bids and hosting, Cliff said the commission can keep its focus on non-collegiate and possibly international events. It also can benefit from the addition of facilities such as TD Ameritrade Park and Werner Park, the latter of which was used for Team USA-Cuba baseball in July.
Cliff said the focus also will remain on quality over quantity, somewhat of a necessity since the commission is a two-person operation with Cliff and Amy Hornocker, its manager of operations.
“I think over the course of 10 years we’ve gotten established in a manner that I think people are generally satisfied with, and kind of established a pattern that works for Omaha,” said Cliff, who took over as commission president after serving as chief operating officer of the 2008 U.S. Swim Trials. “I think we’ve found a niche that people are happy with.”
Those involved, however, aren’t afraid to look at things from different angles going forward.
Lisa Roskens, the current chairman of the commission board of directors, said the board had some “very robust discussions” when it met recently. Between now and the end of the year, she said, the board is going to form various working groups to evaluate a number of matters, including the size of the commission office and a succession plan.
Cliff, 63, joked that “sooner or later there’s something called retirement.”
“We’ve really matured as an organization on a lot of fronts, and matured not necessarily by accident,” Roskens said. “It’s such a great organization. I like any entrepreneurial group that has the dare-to-be-great mentality, and that’s true of the Omaha Sports Commission.”
Now that the commission is established, Roskens sees another possibility among its goals.
“The other piece of it, to me, is building the brand of the Omaha Sports Commission and getting it more integrated in the fabric of our community,” Roskens said. “So it’s not just about what big, cool events we can do, but what we can do to have an impact beyond the obvious economic impact.”
The first 25 events hosted or co-hosted by the commission have included total attendance in excess of 1.1 million and were held at 10 venues. Former Chairman John Hildenbiddle said the last U.S. Swim Trials and U.S. National Figure Skating pumped nearly $60 million into the economy to go with hours of prime-time television coverage, “reinforcing Omaha’s positive national image.”
Roskens, Hildenbiddle and Harley Schrager are prominent Omahans who have chaired the commission since Mike Green served as the first chairman of the board of directors.
The board is a group of 33 to 34 members that meets three to four times a year, with an executive committee of 12. It serves in an advisory capacity, and the chairmen are picked for three-year terms.
“It’s a large board, but a functional board,” Cliff said. “It’s a real cross-mix of people. There’s no common denominator, and not all sports-related people.”
Cliff said the commission office is able to survive as a two-person operation because it contracts out some things such as public relations and financial work. Other commissions, he said, might have those as permanent in-house positions.
Recent discussions have included different models for how the commission could be run beyond its current structure.
“You’d be naive to look at the caliber and level of events that we’re looking at and think you’d be able to do this ongoing with only two people,” Roskens said. “But we’re lucky to have two people that are very dedicated and apparently don’t need a lot of sleep.”
There has been a definite evolution from where it started.
The Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority initially set up a committee to go after sporting events as the CenturyLink Center (then Qwest Center Omaha) was being completed.
David Sokol, then the MECA board chairman, appointed Green as the commission’s first chairman. After just more than a year, it moved out of the CenturyLink Center to an office near 50th and Dodge Streets and named Dan Morrissey as the first executive director.
Green said the potential the city’s new arena offered provided the first step. The initial success led to the realization that there were opportunities to host other events around the city.
“So we separated from MECA and hired Dan Morrissey, who did a great job as our first president winning the first Swim Trials bid and starting us on the road to success,” Green said.
MECA President Roger Dixon had come to Omaha in 2000 from St. Louis, where that city had established its sports commission in the early 1990s. Omaha officials studied both St. Louis and Indianapolis as possible prototypes.
Although the commission office has moved again to 114th and Davenport Streets and Cliff has replaced Morrissey, the relationship between MECA and the commission remains one of the most important.
“Do we have disagreements? Absolutely,” Dixon said. “At the end of the day, though, I’m on the executive committee and I consider Harold a good friend, and we work well together. We still have times that we disagree, but we work through them.”
Dixon said the amateur aspect of what the commission does will always be the key. He said MECA doesn’t need help in going after things such as NBA or NHL exhibitions, and MECA is involved with CU, NU and UNO on NCAA bids.
Dixon said the details of the recent strategic plan show how the commission has transformed over 10 years.
“Everybody has ideas, but the notion that they want the Sports Commission to be successful is unanimous,” he said.