The pallets started showing up at CenturyLink Center 10 days ago. Cardboard boxes of every shape and size containing all the brand-new supplies Kevin Sarver needed to host the maddest basketball party in Omaha history.
Floor mops and bench towels, uniform patches and officiating whistles, bench chairs and ball racks, credentials and banners, coolers and cups, mountains of officially sponsored drinks, 65 directional arrows to make sure All-Americans don’t walk into the wrong locker room.
Sarver had seen this dance before — he knew what to expect. Then came a few surprises. Four pairs of scissors. Two ladders. And, of course, one perfect trophy.
“That was big,” said Sarver, the Creighton associate athletic director. “To make sure that arrived and it actually said Midwest Region.”
CenturyLink Center is no stranger to elite college hoops. Creighton hosted two No. 1 seeds this season alone and NCAA tournament opening rounds have come to Omaha three times in the past decade. But this week’s Midwest Regional carries heightened prestige and responsibility.
Kansas, Duke or Michigan State — maybe even a Cinderella — won’t just pass a checkpoint in their postseason journey, they’ll cut down the nets and celebrate a Final Four berth. To Sarver and many local sports nuts, it’s an unprecedented stage for a city that is never going to host a Super Bowl, a Final Four or an Olympics.
“As big-time events go,” Sarver said, “it’s probably the greatest one that we’re going to achieve.”
Quite a declaration. This is the city, after all, that has hosted 68 College World Series, three U.S. Olympic Swim Trials and national championships in volleyball, wrestling and figure skating. But those are niche sports, Sarver said.
“There’s nothing niche about March Madness.”
The biggest TV audiences for College World Series games are about 2 million viewers. The 2016 USA Swimming Olympic Trials peaked at about 6 million, though the event is spread over eight nights.
A Kansas-Duke Elite Eight clash on Sunday would likely draw 15 million-plus, or about 30 times Omaha’s population. Considering regional sites are almost always in major markets with bigger arenas, MECA President/CEO Roger Dixon said, it’s a “huge” milestone.
“We’ve done a lot of good sporting events,” Dixon said. “This one is right up there at the top.”
The other three regional sites this year are Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta. Is Omaha punching above its weight? According to experts in the sports event business, the notion is pure folly.
“When you consider the success of the College World Series and the Swimming Trials, there’s absolutely no reason to consider Omaha a surprise host anymore,” said Don Schumacher, former executive director of the National Association of Sports Commission.
“Omaha has what the NCAA is looking for. It has an arena everybody’s comfortable with, a downtown that works for events and, more important perhaps, they have a group of people who have never disappointed.”
That may be Omaha’s trump card in this case, Dixon said. Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen is chairman of the tournament selection committee and his staff, starting with Sarver, has built a reputation for performing at crunch time. Which is good because this week presents more crunch than ever.
“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t know that there was added pressure,” said Sarver, the event director and manager. “The problem is a guy in my position knows the thousands of things that could go wrong.”
For instance, the four team hotels. What if a water main breaks. Or the showers are cold. Or the fire alarm goes off at 2 a.m. Or a hotel doesn’t reserve enough meeting rooms. Or doesn’t provide free high-speed Internet to the 32 team rooms. Or the restaurant closes before the team returns from the arena.
“That’s the type of stuff that gets back to the NCAA,” Sarver said.
And the NCAA has no patience for sloppiness. Creighton hosted tournament games in 2008, ’12 and ’15. After each event, the NCAA sends a review detailing things that could be better.
“You never want to have that letter be eight to nine pages long,” Sarver said.
In 2015, Creighton got dinged for the stickers on top of the backboard, visible only to the camera above the rim. They were spaced a few inches too closely.
Sarver has been meeting monthly with about 50 leaders — from the airport to the arena — to make sure those little mistakes don’t pile up. He can take comfort knowing Omaha’s big assets aren’t going anywhere.
Name another place where the arena is 3 miles from the airport, with ample parking for hometown fans and — for visitors — plenty of restaurants, bars and hotels within walking distance. Convenience is only part of the appeal.
CenturyLink Center’s adjoining convention center gives the NCAA plenty of space for operations, including press conferences, media work rooms and a second practice court.
Kansas coach Bill Self, who brought the Jayhawks to Omaha in ’08, ’12 and ’15, has repeatedly praised the configuration, which allows teams to drive their buses right into the convention center and avoid the cold.
“Are there bigger facilities? Yes,” Dixon said. “But there’s not many that are configured like we are with an 18,000-seat arena next to 200,000 square feet of exhibit space. We’re one big facility, and that’s what makes us a little bit different.”
The city’s hospitality and size are advantageous, too. Officials for USA Swimming and the NCAA praised Omaha’s attendance, community support and sportsmanship. Here, amateur athletes feel like stars.
“It is the full package,” said Mike Unger, chief operating officer for USA Swimming. “It is coming to a city that is actively welcoming you.”
The Swim Trials first came to Omaha in 2008, a breakthrough sports year for the city that included the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the NCAA volleyball final four. Since then, competition for big events has heated up.
New arenas have sprouted in Pittsburgh, Louisville, Brooklyn, Detroit, Orlando, Sacramento, Wichita and Lincoln, just to name a few. Even Madison Square Garden feels new again, thanks to a $1 billion renovation.
“There’s so many other communities that maybe weren’t there 10 years ago,” said Frank Viverito, president of the St. Louis Sports Commission.
Take NCAA wrestling. St. Louis has hosted the Division I national championships eight times since 2000. Back then, Viverito could count the competitors on one hand. This past cycle, 21 cities presented bids.
Competition is likely the biggest reason Omaha didn’t land another basketball regional in the 2019-22 bid cycle — CenturyLink will host first and second rounds in 2020. But there’s little disagreement about the city’s status as one of America’s amateur sports capitals.
“Everybody’s got an arena now,” Schumacher said. “It’s what you can surround that arena with. Omaha does just a brilliant job.”
Sarver, the city’s point guard this week, brings valuable experience from the CWS and three past NCAA tournaments. He still anticipates some surprises, like when he opened a little box last week and found tools for the net-cutting ceremony.
“I really thought I’d have to dig up some scissors from our trainer,” he said.
As the ladders are coming out next Sunday, Sarver will make sure the awards stage is wheeled in and set up at midcourt within 3 minutes of the final horn, as the NCAA demands. He’ll make sure the postgame coronation includes confetti.
Actually, that might be the last box he opens. Two bags of shredded paper are scheduled to arrive Saturday. One with each Elite Eight team’s colors. Rather than dump Powerade or water on a basketball court, the celebration calls for a cooler full of confetti.
“Somehow we gotta make sure the right confetti gets into the cooler at the buzzer and get it to the stage,” Sarver said.
Wait, why can’t the confetti go in any of 20 coolers available? Why does it have to go in one specific cooler? Because only one is stamped with a special logo.
The Final Four.