Over the past decade, Lincoln, Nebraska, has established itself as a prime, centrally located sports tourism destination capable of hosting such major multiple-day events as the 2015 State Games of America and the 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games. The city also has welcomed the USA Roller Sports National Championships, the World Tenpin Bowling Youth Championships, regional rounds of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament and exhibition NBA games.
The momentum building in Nebraska’s capital city shows no sign of slowing down, either. In 2020, Lincoln will host the National High School Finals Rodeo for the first time. The week-long event is billed as the world’s largest rodeo and is expected to bring 1,700 contestants from 43 states, plus five Canadian provinces, Mexico and Australia to the Lancaster Event Center.
That 400,000-square-foot facility with five interconnected buildings sits on 160 acres, and it will debut a new outdoor covered grandstand competition area at next July’s NHSFR. More onsite campsites also are being added to help accommodate the estimated 50,000 visitors the rodeo will attract.
Previously held in Wyoming, the event is sanctioned by the National High School Rodeo Association and will return to Lincoln in 2021 and again in 2026 and 2027.
“We are a little more centrally located in the United States than previous host cities, and Lincoln also is larger in terms of the amenities we can offer — hotels, restaurants, attractions,” says Derek Bombeck, sales development manager for the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau, adding that the rodeo is expected to generate an economic impact of $16 million each of the four years the city will host the event. “This will be a great event for Lincoln. We’re bringing in so many visitors from across the world, and they will have the opportunity to see what Lincoln has to offer.”
Lincoln, indeed, has a lot to offer. The city is located in Nebraska’s southeastern corner, about 50 miles southwest of Omaha, and boasts a population of about 300,000. More sports event organizers — and athletes and their families — are discovering Lincoln every year.
In addition to the Lancaster Event Center, the 7,900-seat Bob Devaney Sports Center and the 16,000-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena, the city is home to Speedway Village. The privately owned indoor and outdoor sports complex offers nine outdoor sports fields, a 100,000-square-foot indoor turf facility and an indoor complex that features eight basketball courts or 12 volleyball courts, and it has accelerated Lincoln’s reputation as a top-tier sports tourism destination. The facility will host the Disney 3v3 Soccer Championships in April 2020.
Not far from Speedway Village, the soon-to-be-completed 93,500-square-foot Lincoln Sports Facility will boast eight basketball courts that will convert to 12 volleyball courts and accommodate pickleball, a 5,000-square-foot performance training center and a 15,000-square-foot multipurpose mezzanine. Slated to open in March 2020, the privately-operated facility also is expected “to corner the market on sports that don’t yet have a home in Lincoln, such as esports,” Bombeck says.
“We’re hoping the owners of both [Speedway Village and the Lincoln Sports Facility] can work together,” he adds. “We definitely have a need in Lincoln for all of that space, and those facilities enhance Lincoln’s opportunities to host more regional and national events.”
Operators of the Lincoln Sports Facility plan to make it the headquarters of Supreme Court Basketball and Volleyball Club Nebraska, and they expect more than 4,500 youth sports participants and high school student-athletes to compete there annually. Additionally, the Supreme Court league likely will expand the number of local and regional tournaments it hosts from seven to 10 or more, and Volleyball Club Nebraska is expected to host up to seven regional and two national tournaments every year.
Next year also will see the revitalization of a 100-acre space previously known as the Abbott Sports Complex. Rechristened the Lincoln Sports Foundation Complex (after the name of the nonprofit organization overseeing the overhaul), the indoor and outdoor venue offers 11 volleyball courts, four basketball courts, one indoor synthetic turf field and 60 acres of professionally maintained outdoor fields.
Next spring, the newly seeded and aerated fields (including a 2,500-seat championship field) will be ready for action, and plans call for upgrading the indoor amenities, too.
In addition to opening new and revitalizing existing multipurpose sports complexes, Lincoln also is enhancing its pickleball opportunities.
Tourism grant money will fund the expansion of pickleball courts at Peterson Park, bringing that park’s total number of courts to 10 by mid-2020 and increasing the city’s total number of outdoor pickleball courts to 22.
Meanwhile, Speedway Village offers 16 indoor pickleball courts, as will the Lincoln Sports Facility when it opens, and other facilities around the city also provide pickleball space. All told, Bombeck says, Lincoln boasts about 70 indoor pickleball courts.
No wonder Lincoln is hosting the regional Genesis/PLI Turkey Shootout Pickleball Tournament in November 2019, which is expected to bring in 100 elite players from Nebraska and surrounding states. An indoor spring tournament in 2020 also is possible, according to Bombeck.
“Pickleball’s demographics are changing,” he says. “It’s an inexpensive sport, and more young people are playing it. In fact, we probably could use even more pickleball courts.”
Lincoln’s historic Sun Valley Lanes (which hosted the 2016 World Bowling Youth Championships) will welcome the 2020 U.S. Open, a major event on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour, and the USA Roller Sports National Championships will return to Lincoln in 2021 and 2022.
But the flurry of sports tourism activity in Lincoln over the next few years doesn’t mean that 2019 has been a quiet one.
In June, the city hosted (for the second consecutive year) a four-team round-robin tournament of the FIVB Volleyball Nations League. The 16-country league replaced the FIVB World Grand Prix back in 2018 and features 15 preliminary matches over five weeks in five countries. The U.S. Women’s National Team, ranked No. 3 in the world at the time, hosted No. 9 Korea, No. 13 Germany and No. 4 Brazil at Pinnacle Bank Arena. As an added bonus, three former University of Nebraska volleyball players were on Team USA’s roster: Jordan Larson, Kelsey Robinson and Mikaela Foecke.
This was the third time in four years that Team USA played in Lincoln. “It goes back to we’ve had really great success here,” Melissa Weymouth, director of national team events for USA Volleyball, told the Lincoln Journal Star this summer. “We really felt that we wanted to come back.”
USA Wrestling likes to come back, too. Lincoln once again hosted the 2019 Final X event in June, which pitted the top men’s and women’s freestyle wrestlers vying for spots on the U.S. senior world team and the opportunity to compete at September’s 2019 World Wrestling Championships in Astana, Kazakhstan. Final X was held at the Bob Devaney Center, which opened in 1976 and has undergone multiple renovations.
With more than 5,300 hotel rooms available and an increasing number of restaurants and attractions, Lincoln is big enough to host world-class events yet not too big that it loses sight of why people come to the city in the first place.
“We’re trying to do things the right way and not grow too big too fast,” Bombeck says, adding that Lincoln’s leaders have been strategic regarding facility development and event hosting. “We’re easy to get to, we have impressive facilities and we offer Midwestern hospitality with lots of local volunteer support for events. That’s why once we get people here, we usually have no problem encouraging them to come back.” SDM