If you’re even vaguely familiar with Iowa, you know that wrestling is one of the state’s most popular sports, which is why wrestling tournaments are among the most popular events hosted by the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs.
Hailed as “the Heartland’s premier entertainment and convention center,” the multi-purpose facility located in the Omaha, Nebraska, Metropolitan Area offers 90,000 square feet of usable space — including a pillar-free arena with house curtains for partitioning, a 64,000-square-foot exhibit hall and a ballroom with banquet seating for 1,500 — plus 1,700 free parking spaces.
“We can house not only the main event, but also the associated events, such as coaches’ training, banquets and awards ceremonies,” says Rob McCracken, marketing manager of the Mid-America Center, adding that the complex boasts its own food and beverage crew, production and event staff, and in-house marketing team. “We pride ourselves on our flexibility and capability of making everything right for event organizers.”
That kind of Midwestern hospitality is apparent in everything the Mid-America Center does.
The facility originally opened in 2002 as the home ice for Council Bluffs’ United States Hockey League franchise (which has since relocated to Omaha). The complex is owned by the City of Council Bluffs and for the past seven years has been managed by Nevada-based Caesars Entertainment, which also operates two nearby casinos, Harrah’s Council Bluffs Hotel and Casino, and the Horseshoe Council Bluffs Casino.
Mark Vacanti, general manager of the Mid-America Center, counts wrestling meets, along with dance and cheer competitions, as the three types of sporting events the Mid-America Center hosts the most.
Four major annual wresting events include the Heartland USA Elementary, Middle School & Girls National Folk Style Duals, the National Junior College Athletic Association Wrestling Championship and the Council Bluffs Wrestling Classic that Vacanti says, “has a state-tournament feel to it.”
Dance and cheer competitions include Talent on Parade, the Rockstar Championships “Battle of the Midwest,” Thunderstruck Dance Productions and the In10sity Dance Competition.
Since Caesars Entertainment took over operations — and despite the number of wrestling, dance and cheer events the Mid-America Center hosts — the facility’s management team hasn’t ruled out much of anything when it comes to welcoming new sporting events.
In addition to hosting traditional sports such as basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and hockey — mostly in the arena, which seats between 7,500 and 9,000 spectators for most sporting events — the Mid-America Center welcomes Arenacross, ice racing and monster truck events (with seating reconfigured for about 5,000), as well as rodeos and billiards. That’s right: the Midwest 8-Ball Tournament will bring over 100 pool tables into the arena for the annual four-day event.
Elsewhere within the sprawling facility, spaces are available to host martial arts events and robotics competitions, and on-site crews will even set up card tables in the ballroom for bridge tournaments.
“We embrace the diversity of events,” says property sales manager Amanda Kelley, adding that the center’s team of in-house experts helps organizers promote their events via the facility’s website and social media accounts, as well as advertising via local media outlets. “Your success is our success, too.”
‘Not Willing to Stay in a Box’
With that kind of can-do spirit, it’s no wonder that McCracken says more than 95 percent of the events held at the Mid-America Center return for the following year, and many events have multi-year contracts with the facility.
Credit that high return rate in large part to Caesars officials adding a second sales position to the lineup at Mid-America Center. Rather than one individual who oversees facility-wide sales, the venue now includes a staff member (Kelley) dedicated to sports, recreation and other non-business events.
“We are not willing to stay in a box when it comes to sporting events,” says Joe Volquartsen, the facility’s director of operations, in explaining that the center’s original management wanted to limit athletic events to the arena. “Now, if other parts of the facility are available, we’ll make use of them so we can run multiple events at the same time.”
Since Caesars took over management of the facility, the company has implemented many upgrades to the venue. Most recently, a new scoreboard/videoboard unit measuring 18 feet tall and 47 feet wide is expected to be installed in the arena by late June, according to Volquartsen, and it will feature 180 individual panels that can be removed and configured differently elsewhere within the Mid-America Center complex. For example, panels can replace a screen and projector in the ballroom to eliminate additional equipment and cables.
Another recent technology update included expanding bandwidth throughout the facility, in an effort to make it friendly for eSports competitions.
“With most gaming events happening on the East Coast and West Coast, we want to have a centralized location for the Midwest. That’s something we definitely want to be a part of,” McCracken says, adding the facility already is in the process of booking eSports events.
Other facility upgrades in the past five years include the installation of new lighting, which included replacing incandescent and metal-halide bulbs with brighter and more energy-efficient LED lights, as well as the addition of more than $200,000 in additional power sources throughout the building.
Also, two new pylon signs soon will be placed outside the facility, which together will be seen by drivers and passengers riding in an estimated 80,000 vehicles per day.
Located in far west-central Iowa — and nearly in the center of the United States — Council Bluffs is practically a suburb of Omaha, with the Eppley Airfield located about 10 minutes from the Mid-America Center.
“We jokingly say we’re just a stone’s throw away from Omaha, but it’s true,” McCraken says. “A large percentage of our visitors come from Omaha.”
That said, the Mid-America Center team works closely with local sports clubs and teams to help bring in tournaments, and the relationship with the Council Bluffs Convention + Visitors Bureau is a strong one.
“Obviously, we want to partner with them, because we’re on the same team for bringing events to our city,” Kelley says.
The Mid-America Center isn’t just home to sporting events, though, as it’s already welcomed a train show, a circus and a Lego fan expo in 2019. And the list of artists who have performed in the arena is an impressive one: Sheryl Crow, Pearl Jam, B.B. King, Chris Tomlin, John Mellencamp, Reba McEntire, Tom Petty, Foo Fighters, Styx, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Def Leppard, Journey, REO Speedwagon and Iowa’s own Slipknot.
An estimated 2,000 hotel rooms, both full-service and economy, are located within two interstate exits of the Mid-America Center — one on either side — Vacanti says. They include a new Courtyard by Marriott that opened last summer and the Country Inn & Suites by Radisson that is adjacent to the Mid-America Center’s property.
Many families involved in sporting events at the Mid-America Center opt to spend a little extra time in Council Bluffs, according to Vacanti. A movie complex is located across the street from the complex, and Council Bluffs is home to the Union Pacific Railroad Museum. There’s also Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium and Omaha’s Botanical Center.
The Mid-America Center has kept pace with the sports tourism culture, and 2019 is shaping up to be a particularly productive year.
“Not having a tenant in the building gives us a huge advantage, because we don’t have to squeeze in events between practices and games,” Vacanti says. “Sports tourism is very important to us and keeping a facility of this magnitude busy also is important to the community.” SDM