Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The NBA Considering Omaha for Expansion? Not Buying it at All

Gary Sharp of KOZN-1620 AM found this juicy little gem from former Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter Jim O'Donnell:
The NBA coming back to Omaha?  Really?

Probably not, but after the success the NBA has had in Oklahoma City, it's certainly behooves the league to cast a wide net.  O'Donnell's report probably is correct; I can see the NBA looking at Omaha, if it were on a list of a dozen or more potential targets. Certainly Kansas City is on that list, and probably much higher.  I suspect that Cincinnati, Hartford, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, San Diego, St. Louis, and Tampa are also on that list.

I suspect that Omaha ranks below most of those cities.  Omaha has an arena that'll work for the NBA, and with five Fortune 500 companies headquartered here, there's probably a workable business community here. Creighton has shown that people will attend basketball games here.  So why not?

For starters, I doubt that the Omaha market is ready to support 41 games of $40+ tickets. Of course, I'm not sure anybody thought Oklahoma City was ready either, until Hurricane Katrina blew the Hornets out of New Orleans temporarily. And the Hornets' success in Oklahoma paved the way for the Seattle NBA franchise to move once the Hornets were able to return home.

The Nebraska and Iowa television region is probably not enough to support an NBA franchise.  If anything, the television dynamics would make Kansas City a more likely destination, due to a larger (vacant, I might add) arena, larger metropolitan area, and a more centralized television market.  You can probably sell Kansas City basketball to Omahans.  It'll be tougher to sell Omaha NBA basketball to Kansas Citians.

Would Omaha jump for the NBA? That's debatable.  I'm a hockey guy who despises what the NBA became about twenty years ago, so that influences who I follow and who I talk to.  But I hear very little NBA talk, frankly.  The only media guy with any passion for the NBA seems to be Dirk Chatelain of the World-Herald, it seems.  Of course, if the NBA came to town, that would change in an instant.

Would the NBA be a good thing for Omaha? Hard to argue otherwise, unless the team didn't work out on the court and be profitable. It certainly raises the profile of the city to be mentioned along side Chicago, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. Bringing stars to town like LeBron and Kobe on a regular basis certainly spices things up.

So while it's fun to dream, it's about as likely as me winning the PowerBall jackpot. And frankly, if I were to win the PowerBall, I wouldn't waste my money on an NBA franchise in Omaha.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Steve Johnson Out at UNO; George Gwozdecky In?

Monday's report that Steve Johnson was leaving UNO wasn't a complete surprise. I had heard talk that it wasn't working out in Omaha for Johnson. What is surprising me is the talk of who might replace Johnson.
Whoa. That one raises some eyebrows.
At first glance, this one simply doesn't pass the smell test. A two time national champion coach doesn't step back to be an assistant coach.

Of course, most schools won't fire a two time national champion coach that's won at least 20 games the last twelve years. The thought process that led to that decision is about as dim as the lighting in Denver's Magness Arena...but I digress.  Gwozdecky has been mentioned for openings at UConn and Maine, but those schools either went (UConn) or appear to be looking elsewhere (Maine).  Gwozdecky says anything is possible, and even talked to CBSDenver  about going to the pros.

“We are in the discussion stage right now with a number of different people and a number of different organizations. It’s got to be the right fit for them, and obviously it’s got to be the right fit for myself and my family,” he said. “I’m examining and reviewing and making calls.”
So why would Gwozdecky even consider UNO? It doesn't make any sense, except in this light. Dean Blais always seems to be rumored to be retiring.  Talk last year was that he might be retiring after the 2014-15 season.  He quickly dismissed it, but it was out there. When Blais was hired, Mike Hastings was mentioned as the "head coach in waiting"...though he left last season for Mankato...and did a smashing job in year one with the Red Mavericks.

So what about Gwozdecky being UNO's next "head coach in waiting"?  Unlike Hastings in 2009, he's completely qualified.  But why would Gwozdecky want to be an assistant for UNO?  That's the puzzler.  It's hard to understand why.  One reason is that he could start building the foundation of his program by recruiting for Dean Blais. Recruiting starts earlier and earlier, much to my chagrin.  Gwozdecky could roam the high schools and pick his players now, selling them on the team of Blais and Gwozdecky with the assurance that at least one national champion coach will be coaching them six or seven years from now.  And if/when Blais does step aside, Gwozdecky ascends with his having a say in where the program stands.

The other reason is simply revenge: there's no better way to prove to Denver that they made a huge mistake than to beat them time and time again. And the best way to beat them time and time again is to be a conference foe.

Money for Gwozdecky probably won't be an issue; Denver is on the hook for his contract for now.  And I suspect that if money is an issue for UNO, Trev Alberts can find a way to make it happen.  Nobody thought Alberts would be able to land Dean Blais in 2009...but he did.

And if George Gwozdecky does wind up in Omaha, UNO will boast the most honored coaching staff in college hockey.  Dean Blais is a four-time WCHA coach of the year, assistant Troy Jutting is a two-time WCHA coach of the year with Mankago, and Gwozdecky is a three-time WCHA coach of the year.  Blais and Gwozdecky have each won the Spencer Penrose national coach of the year award twice in their careers.

Is it likely?  No.  But the possibility is certainly intriguing. It never hurts to dream big, does it?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dean Blais Gives Us an Idea of What Went Wrong Last Season With UNO Hockey

After UNO's slide from first to seventh in the WCHA was completed, questions were clear about what happened.  My theory is that it was a conditioning issue, but we never really got much of an answer from the program itself.

For whatever reason, we now have something to chew on from Dean Blais, from an interview in Wednesday's Omaha World-Herald:
“What I saw this year was way different from the year before. We had good leadership and guys who were very committed, but we just fell short.
“Two years ago we were too young and didn't have the leadership. Last year, we had the leadership and the desire, but we just didn't have enough (depth) at the end of the year.”
More contributions from the third and fourth lines?  That would have helped.  I also suspect that Blais would have liked to have had more options on that fourth line than converting defensemen, and maybe give the upper lines a bit more of a breather in the games.  And that might be the root of the conditioning issue I suspected.

So what has Blais done to address the situation?  Three eligible players won't return in 2013-14; two are walkons.  That opens up a few more roster spots, and Blais seems excited about that.

“We're bringing in some high-powered scorers,” Blais said. “Jake Guentzel, Austin Ortega and Jono Davis all led their teams in scoring, and they should help our depth up front right away. Jake Montgomery is a good up-and-down winger, and Ian Brady was one of the top stay-at-home defensemen in the USHL.”

Considering that UNO only loses Brett Gwidt at the forward positions and defensemen Andrej Sustr (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Bryce Aneloski from the defense, it's easy to see where you could see the third and fourth lines able to make more of a contribution this next season.

Goaltender could still be an issue.  Ryan Massa and Dayn Belfour should be serviceable, though Blais will need a third goaltender available.  And he's likely still looking for one.

Is that going to be enough to get UNO over the hump? The schedule doesn't do UNO any favors with a fairly rugged conference and non-conference slate. Let's be honest:  when Michigan is one of the weaker teams you'll play, you know you have a fairly rough season ahead.  After October 20th, the only opponent that isn't in last season's PairWise "Teams Under Consideration" last season was Minnesota-Duluth. (Duluth was in the Frozen Four two years ago, so it's not like they are a slouch either.)

Is this the season that Blais' team finally gets over the hump?  This is his roster now, and these seniors are his recruits. And this year, there are eight of 'em.  Blais didn't think leadership was a problem last year; with a large senior class, it shouldn't be this year.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What to Make of the Alex Lewis Arrest

On Friday afternoon, Colorado offensive lineman Alex Lewis visited Bo Pelini in Lincoln and decided to transfer to Nebraska.  That night, he returned to  Boulder, and apparently had good time at a friend's graduation party.  About 15 hours after the news broke that Lewis was transferring out of Colorado, he was in handcuffs and headed to the Boulder County jail.

So what happened?  There was an altercation between Lewis, Colorado quarterback Jordan Webb, and Air Force Academy student Lee Bussey. Bussey ended up getting stitches for a cut to the head.  Lewis is alleged to have shoved Bussey into a brick wall; Lewis attorney said Bussey instigated the incident by assaulting Lewis first.

What's the truth?  It'll all come out in the end.  Lewis may have instigated the fight, or Lewis may have been defending himself.  Right now, it's important to not draw a lot of conclusions over what happened.  The only one that is safe to make is that Lewis had too much to drink on Friday night and Saturday morning.

Will Lewis ever make it to Lincoln?  Probably not this summer.  If the charges stick, probably not.  If Lewis is convicted, he won't...if only because he'll be incarcerated.  But if the charges are reduced or dropped, what happens?  That will be a call for Bo Pelini and Shawn Eichorst to make, and it's premature to draw any lines in the sand at this point.  If it does turn out that Lewis is only guilty of overdrinking and defending himself, that's one thing. Pelini might let him on the team, but on a probationary status that he keep his nose clean moving forward.  Or maybe not, considering a potential issue with alcohol abuse.

If it becomes a misdemeanor charge, it might be something else entirely. It all depends on what actually happened and who instigated this incident.

There's no need to rush to judgement here.  Lewis' legal situation is his biggest issue at this time; football is completely secondary. Even if he does transfer to Nebraska, he's not eligible to play until the 2014 season. So there is plenty of time to let the legal system resolve itself first, and then Nebraska can act accordingly.

As the facts become better known, this situation will sort itself out one way or the other.  I suspect that, in the end, Lewis won't be a Cornhusker....but that's a gut feel prediction, not a verdict.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Omaha Is Better Today With Horseman's Park Instead of Ak-Sar-Ben

This weekend, horse racing returns (albeit too briefly) for it's miniature meet at Horseman's Park in South Omaha. For one weekend, fans of the horses get a chance to reminisce about the good old days when tens of thousands of fans jammed packed Ak-Sar-Ben to watch and bet on the races. It's an era that's forever gone.  It was good for Omaha while it lasted, but what has replaced it is even better.

Instead, we have an upscale midtown redevelopment with shopping, restaurants, corporate headquarters, and the south campus of the University of Nebraska Omaha.  It's definitely an asset to the city once again.

With the Kentucky Derby last week and the Horseman's meet this week, many people wax nostalgic about what was lost with Ak-Sar-Ben.  The Ak-Sar-Ben of the 1970's was one thing.  The Ak-Sar-Ben of the late 1980's and 1990's was something completely different.  In it's prime, Ak-Sar-Ben was the only place to legally wager between Chicago and Las Vegas in the summertime.  Suddenly other states built tracks.  The dog races came to Council Bluffs.  Then the casinos.  Only people who truly loved horses still frequented the tracks, and the glory days of Ak-Sar-Ben were over.

Legendary horse trainer Jack Van Berg told the World-Herald today that he's still furious over the end of the track at Ak-Sar-Ben.  I understand why horsemen feel that way.  But they are wrong.  Said Van Berg to Mike Kelly:

“It's terrible. I never run into anybody in Omaha who isn't sick that they tore Ak-Sar-Ben down. It could have been saved if it got slot machines.”
Certainly, slot machines would have kept horse racing alive at Ak-Sar-Ben longer.  They might still be racing now.  They wouldn't be racing for much longer, though. Eventually, the casino would trump the horses, because as the casino becomes more lucrative, the horse racing becomes less and less important to the organization running the enterprise. Eventually, the racing people would sell out to an offer they can't refuse, and that is the end of racing.

Look at the river boats.  They started off as tourist attractions for cruising the river, and added slot machines to be a side attraction.  Soon the boats cruised less and less, until they finally stopped cruising altogether.  Now Harrah's is scrapping their Council Bluffs boat and moving the gambling onshore. 

Look at Bluffs Run. The dog track that took the first big bite out of Ak-Sar-Ben added slot machines to subsidize racing.  And over time, the business model shifted and the casino became the important thing, not the racing.  Bluffs Run became Horseshoe Casino, and the owners are tired of subsidizing the races.  They want to shut down the dog track.

Same thing would have happened in Omaha at Ak-Sar-Ben.  Ak-Sar-Ben would have momentarily revitalized with the casino, but eventually the midtown casino would push the horses out.  And I suspect that there wouldn't be a Horseman's Park there to ensure at least a little presence for horse racing when that happened.

So the future of Omaha would have had no horse racing, no expanded UNO campus, and those corporate headquarters might have ended up elsewhere.  But we would have had a shiny casino exporting profits off to Las Vegas.

In the grand scheme of things, Omaha probably got the best it could out of Ak-Sar-Ben.  Could it have been better?  Maybe.  But I suspect, considering the impacts I've seen personally from horse racing, casinos, and the jobs that opened up because Ak-Sar-Ben was redeveloped, Omaha would be much worse off with a casino at Ak-Sar-Ben.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Nebraska Basketball's Sell-Out Can Be a Lesson to UNO Hockey

Last Friday's news that Nebraska had sold out the first season of basketball at Lincoln's new Pinnacle Bank Arena was quite the eye-opener. I wasn't surprised as much by the interest as much as the speed that it occurred.  It's early May, and it's a done deal. It reminded people of the best days of Nebraska basketball 20 years ago, when players like Strickland and Piatkowski regularly beat teams like Kansas in front of packed, sellout crowds.

Tim Miles' teams haven't done that yet, but fans are optimistic that Nebraska basketball is heading that direction. Then add in the interest in a new arena: bigger, shiner, newer.  People buy tickets to get in on the ground floor and to see the new place.  As the interest increases, people on the fence quickly realize they too have to join now or be left on the outside. It snowballs from there, and suddenly Nebrasketball is the hottest hoops ticket in the state.  When all is said and done, Creighton will sell more because of the bigger facility, but the momentum is on the Huskers' side at this moment.

That's what a new sports venue does for attendance. Sarpy County's "Trailer Park" is the exception to the rule, where attendance has only increased slightly.  The new, cool factor is offset by the smaller ("right-sized", "undersized") capacity.  It hasn't increased attendance as much as it's increased revenue, thanks to a sweetheart deal from Sarpy County and higher ticket prices.

UNO has plans underway to build a new 7,000 seat hockey arena near the site of the former Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum. The goal is to downsize the building to better fit their current attendance, which averaged 7,233 last season.  That was down from nearly 8,000 fans a game the last couple of seasons, apparently because UNO cut back on promotions this season so that future capacity was not significantly less than current demand.

There is an important lesson to be learned in Lincoln.  Nebraska basketball used to regularly draw huge crowds to Lincoln, but times got tough.  Fans dropped away, and some realized you didn't need to buy season tickets.  Tim Miles and the new arena changed that dynamic.  Hope for better basketball, and a surge of interest made basketball a hot ticket again.

UNO used to sell out every game in hockey, and then attendance increased even further initially when UNO moved to what is now the CenturyLink Center ten years ago.  But that also was UNO's worst season on the ice.  New fans realized that UNO hockey wasn't very good, and stayed away.  Some fans saw plenty of empty seats and realized that they didn't need season tickets either.  So season ticket sales fell.

UNO's hockey fortunes have improved dramatically in recent years.  An NCAA tournament appearance two years ago, and strong starts the last two years give Maverick fans hope that something big is going to happen with UNO hockey.

Except there is that little issue of the "too small" arena that UNO is planning to build. Yes, 7,000 seats would have held UNO's crowds most games last season.  Just like a 10,000 seat basketball arena would have held most of Nebraska's basketball crowds last season.

Boom... once the final student, faculty, and club seats are sold, Nebraska will have sold out their new 15,000 seat arena for the entire inaugural season.

Yes, I understand that UNO is unlikely to ever fill up the 17,000 seat CenturyLink Center on a regular basis. The availability of single game tickets is always going to be a disincentive for committing to an entire season ticket.  But the other extreme is just as wrong: assuming that interest in UNO hockey is all that it can ever be isn't correct either.

If you believe like I do that Dean Blais is going to make UNO hockey a national power, then 7,000 seats is laughably too small for the Omaha market.  UNO's attendance was 8,314 for six seasons in the Civic Auditorium with some rather uncompetitive teams playing.  There's no reason to think that UNO couldn't draw that, and a few more, in a new arena near campus with a championship contending team playing.

The example of what happened in Lincoln with Nebraska basketball ticket sales this year is just more evidence that UNO's building plans are way, way too small.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Sarpy County Built It, They Didn't Come

A couple of weeks ago, I happened to find myself out at Cabela's, and decided to head south towards the "Trailer Park"...aka Werner Park, the second baseball stadium built in the Omaha area. I've been teased about how "it's not really that far away" and how "you can see the light towers from the Interstate" over the years, so I thought, what the heck... let's take a second look.

So I headed south...or tried to.  Tried a couple of roads heading south, and ended up at dead ends.  So rather than continue to waste time, I headed back to the Interstate and wound my way back to 126th Street and Highway 370.  So what's happening out in "BFE" as I like to call it?

"Pennant Place" in April 2013. Still a vacant field more than two years later.

Yeah, there's a baseball stadium there.  But that's it.  There are plans for development.  "Pennant Place" was announced two years ago, but despite multiple anticipated announcements, nothing is happening.  Real estate experts said at that time that while the area will eventually develop, it won't be because of the ballpark:
“When it comes to restaurants and retail,” [Trenton Magid, principal at World Group Commercial Real Estate] said, “commercial users ask ‘Where are the daytime customers and where are the night customers?' Right now, that location near Highway 370 and 126th (Street) needs both.”
Fast forward two years, the picture says it all. Nothing. Sarpy County was listed in the Top 100 counties in the entire nation for economic growth last year.  And still, nothing is happening out at BFE.  So I headed home.  My son fell asleep in the backseat as we drove back to Omaha; it's the same length of drive going from my home in West Omaha to BFE as it is driving downtown, despite the perception that the Trailer Park is a "west Omaha facility".

Friday night, I found myself back at TD Ameritrade Park.  I've been to baseball, football, and even hockey games at Omaha's new downtown stadium.  It's a great location.  After I finished up my post-game report on the Nebraska-Creighton game for CornNation, I walked past all of the new businesses that have been built around the new downtown ballpark.  GoodNights had a decent crowd.  Blatt Beer was jammed full of patrons.  (I hoped to get a Zesto's hot fudge shake for the drive home, but the sign on the window said that they weren't opening until May.  Boo.)

As I headed back to my car, all I could is wonder what could have been downtown.  The College World Series is great for downtown, but it's just two weeks.  Creighton baseball is nice, especially when Husker fans take over the ball park.  But after the Fourth of July, there isn't much scheduled at the downtown ballpark.  The Red Sky Festival only lasted two years.  The United Football League imploded despite setting great attendance numbers in Omaha.  Minor league baseball certainly would have filled a few more dates downtown, and probably led to even more growth downtown.

Eventually Sarpy County will develop around the Trailer Park...but it won't be because of the stadium, but rather because of the natural growth of the Omaha metro.  If it were actually because of the stadium, construction would have not only started, something would actually be open by now.

Maybe the people who said that the Royals' Triple-A affiliate would leave the area unless someone built them their own facility were right, and Sarpy County saved the day. I'm skeptical, because I still believe that Walter Scott and Warren Buffett would not have allowed the team to leave.  Once Sarpy County stepped in to give the team a sweetheart deal in exchange for a long-term commitment, Buffett and Scott no longer felt the need to maintain their ownership.
“When the wonderful decision was made by Sarpy County to build this terrific stadium — it’s the best stadium I’ve ever seen — it became clear that this team was going to be in Omaha forever,” Buffett said in a Tuesday press conference at Werner Park.
“And so Walter and I didn’t feel the same obligation any more because Sarpy County had taken care of our obligations.”
And as long as Sarpy County was promising to give the team nearly everything they wanted, there was no point in pursuing a compromise solution in Omaha.

So we now have two underutilized stadiums in the Omaha area.  One maintains a nationally prominent event in Omaha, but sits empty half the year.  It has led to moderate development, but it's not all it could be.  The other sits in outer reaches of the metro area, gets used a bit more, but sits in relative isolation.  Even more so, it is not all it could be.

And we're left to wonder... what could have been?  What if all of the interested parties (the NCAA, minor league baseball, the Zoo, and the associated government agencies) had worked together on finding the best compromise solution and found a way to make the downtown stadium work for everyone.

I understand why some of the organizations acted the way they did.  I suppose that's to be expected, to tell you the truth. But in the end, what the Omaha metro area got was less than what was possible when the whole Rosenblatt debate was going on.

Two stadiums are not better than one.