16360 KS-CWSSWIM

Omaha hosted the Olympic Swim Trials in 2008, 2012 and 2016.

When a local corporate sponsor cut its ties with USA Swimming, Omaha civic leaders worried that the city might lose its chance to host the 2020 U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.

Then somebody stepped up to secure the event — Omaha taxpayers. The city pledged $750,000 in general funds to help cover USA Swimming’s $3.1 million in fees for hosting and pool costs.

The Omaha City Council voted Tuesday to make the second of three annual $250,000 payments to the Omaha Sports Commission for USA Swimming. The item passed on the council’s consent agenda, with no discussion.

Also contributing to the 2020 Trials: Douglas County with $100,000 in tourism funds and the State of Nebraska with $400,000 in tourism funds.

Councilman Rich Pahls, who represents southwest Omaha, said Wednesday that city officials told the council the money was needed to ensure that the Trials would still be held in Omaha after Mutual of Omaha scaled back its support.

That understanding was echoed by the city’s Finance Department, which said USA Swimming previously covered the event hosting costs with donors and sponsors, and Mutual was one of the organization’s largest.

USA Swimming spokeswoman Belle McLemore declined to comment about the city funds. USA Swimming collected a hosting fee of $3 million in 2016. McLemore visited Omaha this week to promote the 2020 Swim Trials.

She referred questions to the Omaha Sports Commission, whose executive director, Josh Todd, said the city’s contribution and others offset a dip in sponsorships and donations that often accompany repeated events.

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Government and tourism contributions to draw sporting events and conventions are common, said Deborah Ward, vice president of marketing for Visit Omaha, the organization formerly known as the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Local sports boosters held their breath in 2017 after Mutual of Omaha ended its 15-year sponsorship of USA Swimming, the nonprofit that helps prepare American swimmers to compete in the Olympics.

Omaha had just hosted its third-straight U.S. Olympic Swim Trials, and regional tourism officials estimated the local economic impact of the 2016 Trials at $74 million.

Impact of that magnitude mirrors the local boost from a strong College World Series involving teams that travel well, based on estimates from College World Series Inc. Think one with LSU or Texas.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert stressed the local benefits of hosting the Swim Trials, a national event that drew 200,000 fans in 2016 and provides international media exposure.

“Omaha is proud and fortunate to host the Olympic Swim Trials for the fourth time in 2020,” Stothert said. “The city’s financial support demonstrates our pride and ongoing commitment to Olympic athletes and the fans that support their athletic achievements.”

City Council members Chris Jerram and Vinny Palermo, who represent south-central and South Omaha respectively, justified their votes of support by pointing to the Swim Trials’ ability to attract out-of-town guests.

Councilman Brinker Harding, who represents west Omaha, called the decision to invest $750,000 to secure $74 million in economic impact a “no-brainer.” Among the benefits: Seven nights of prime-time TV coverage.

The city expects to make its third and final payment to the Omaha Sports Commission next year, said Steve Curtiss, director of the city’s Finance Department.

Todd said the commission continues to attract private investment, sponsors and donors. Mutual of Omaha has no plans to sponsor the 2020 Swim Trials, company spokesman Jim Nolan told The World-Herald.

Todd called that water under the bridge: “We were never at risk of losing the Trials because of Mutual. It just made some people nervous.”