OMAHA SPORTS COMMISSION
Wes Hall wasn't sure what he would be doing over a three-month internship with the Virginia Beach Sports Marketing team, but putting together a bid to bring a national event to the city seemed a bit more than expected.
But that was his charge the summer of 2002, and Hall sunk his teeth into working through specifications and budgets and participating in many meetings to help land the USA Judo Senior National Championships.
It kept Hall busy and engaged as he picked up the last credit he needed for his master's degree in sports management from Old Dominion. He was already on to working for the minor league baseball Potomac Cannons (now the Potomac Nationals) when he got word that Virginia Beach had been awarded the event for 2005.
"At that point, you're young, you're just out of grad school, you're like, 'Hey, that's cool,' " Hall said. "You don't really think a whole lot about it. But now looking back, if I dig through boxes, I think I have a copy of that bid."
What Hall realized later was how much he liked both the pursuit and the satisfaction that came with that process. Even though he tried a few different ventures over the next decade, Hall said he "always had the itch to get back into a sports commission-type entity, where I could have my hands in multiple events and do different things."
Hall, 36, will find all those possibilities and more as chief operating officer of the Omaha Sports Commission. It's the position that the Virginia native took in November and formally started on Jan. 25, leaving South Dakota after three years as president and executive director of the Sioux Falls Sports Authority.
"It wasn't as if I was itching to exit Sioux Falls," Hall said. "In the three years I was there we did a tremendous amount of work, we built a lot of great events. But an opportunity like this doesn't present itself often, so I wanted to explore that opportunity."
Coming aboard between Omaha hosting the 2015 NCAA volleyball final four and World Grand Prix Finals for volleyball and preparing for the 2016 College World Series and U.S. Olympic Swim Trials drove home to him the quality of event with which Omaha has become synonymous.
For Hall, what Omaha has been doing was hard not to notice while spending the last nine years in the Midwest, including six as assistant director for RAGBRAI — the annual bike ride across Iowa — before going to Sioux Falls.
"There are limitations in Sioux Falls," Hall said. "There are certain things we just could not go out and get because of an infrastructure that maybe 10, 15 years down the road they'll have. But it's stuff that we already have built here.
"We can go out and bid on Division I men's (basketball) regionals. We can go bid on the NCAA Frozen Four. These are significant events that I'd love to be a part of, and can bring to Omaha, which we just didn't have the opportunity to do up north."
Hall is walking right into the midst of it all with the Omaha Sports Commission, filling a COO position that was created so President Harold Cliff could turn his full attention to the U.S. Olympic Trials starting in June.
As of Feb. 1, the NCAA released its bid specifications for the next cycle (2019-22) for several sports. So Hall has started meeting with officials from several universities, along with MECA President Roger Dixon, "to see who will be involved, who wants to be involved with what, what facilities we can utilize."
And Hall said it's the expanse of facilities that helps with opening doors.
"I don't know that it was necessarily planned this way, but the great thing is you go from Ralston to Baxter to CenturyLink and you've got, what, 3,500, 7,000, 18,000 (seats), depending on the event," he said. "So it allows you to look at a host of different events that you can host at different levels, and that just provides a tremendous amount of opportunities."
Although there isn't much free time, Hall is trying to do some Omaha homework while adjusting to his new surroundings and learning from Cliff and Amy Hornocker in the Sports Commission office.
Hall said the traits that he hopes help him in the business are organization and the ability to build relationships and partnerships. And maybe, above all else, some creativity.
"You've got to be able to look at things differently, especially when you're competing with other cities," Hall said. "They're doing the same things, so in some ways you've got to be more creative than the next person."
TJ Juskiewicz, RAGBRAI director, said Hall brought that to the Iowa cycling ride. In particular, Juskiewicz said he was innovative with their RAGBRAI Expo, held annually at the starting point and including hundreds of vendors.
"I challenged him to look at it and make it better," Juskiewicz said. "It was there before, but it didn't have the attention it does now.
"He brought some new angles to things."
Juskiewicz said Hall has an ability to absorb himself fully into whatever he is doing. Kevin Lampe saw it immediately when Hall got to Sioux Falls.
Hall hadn't been in his new position for long when an NCAA bid cycle started. In a first meeting with Lampe, chairman of the board of directors for the Sioux Falls Sports Authority, Hall said they should go heavy and see where the chips fall.
"We ended up supplying proposals for 16 or 18 of them, and got nine over that four-year period of time," Lampe said. "It's not often that happens, so we were pleasantly surprised with that."
Sioux Falls will be hosting an NCAA women's basketball regional next month, one of the last things Hall was overseeing before heading down Interstate 29. The city also is again hosting the Summit League men's and women's postseason tournaments, which last year moved into the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center.
Hall knows he probably wouldn't be in Omaha if not for some of the work and resume that he built in Sioux Falls, even if that wasn't his intention. Still, he had to emerge from what Cliff called a good pool of candidates for the OSC position.
Cliff said it was important to find somebody who was both experienced and would be a good fit in the community, and a candidate who would not sit back and wait for things to happen but go after them.
It also is no secret that the Omaha Sports Commission will need an eventual replacement for Cliff, 65, so Hall was vetted thoroughly as the hire was being considered.
"I didn't want to go in with a mindset it had to be my way, because time marches on," said Cliff, whose contract runs through December 2017. "And if somebody has a better way to do things, so be it. We were pleased with his response to questions. It was a challenging interview for me personally, because you're looking at somebody who could take your job eventually."
There's so much to do before then. And after. Omaha hasn't sat still since the Sports Commission was formed in 2003.
Hall says he was watching from Des Moines and Sioux Falls. Before the U.S. Olympic Trials first came in 2008, Hall was amazed by the idea of putting a pool in the CenturyLink Center (then the Qwest Center) and thinking: "How do you do things like that? How do you make things work?"
Hall is thrilled to be in the middle of it now, settling into a mostly empty office in the Burlington Place building at 10th and Farnam. It's the corner where in recent years his wife, Annie, would drop him off during an Omaha visit so he could walk over to TD Ameritrade Park for the CWS while she took their two young kids to the zoo.
The stakes have been raised, too, and that's something that's not lost on Hall.
"I think we get post-Swim Trials and then everybody is going to start looking and going, 'OK, what's next? What's the next big thing we bring here?' " he said. "And obviously with the success of the Swim Trials, it's difficult to top."
Officials ponder SRO as Swim Trials ticket sales 'unbelievable'
Not only are there hopes for the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials selling out each session, officials are looking to explore ways of getting more people into the CenturyLink Center.
"We've actually talked about the feasibility of what standing-room-only could be, and them creating a number for us," said Harold Cliff, president of the Omaha Sports Commission and CEO for the U.S. Trials.
Cliff said Monday that ticket sales have been "unbelievable" for the eight-day event, which starts June 26. The launch of single-day tickets will begin next Monday after only all-session and four-day packages previously have been offered.
Fewer than 1,200 tickets remain for each of the eight days, and go for either $70 or $55 (and $50 and $40 for the final day, which features only a night session).
In the two previous U.S. Trials held in Omaha, total attendance exceeded 167,000 in 2012 and 160,000 in 2008. Capacity at the CenturyLink Center for the swimming event is more than 14,000, not including the temporary suites on the pool deck.
"I'd be totally shocked if we don't sell out every session," Cliff said. The single-day tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Monday and can be purchased at the CenturyLink Center box office, or by visiting ticketmaster.com or any Ticketmaster outlet.
— Rich Kaipust