When more than 15,000 amateur athletes in 67 sports from 48 states (along with an estimated 30,000 spectators) descended on Lincoln, Nebraska, in July for the 2015 State Games of America, they were in for a very pleasant surprise.
“It’s always fun to see people come here who can’t believe how clean the city is, how safe it is and how evolved we are,” says Derek Bombeck, sports sales and development manager for the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau, only partially in jest. “One family from New York told me, ‘Wow, your streets are so clean you could eat off them.’ Half the battle is getting people to Lincoln for the first time.”
If Lincoln ever had a self-image complex, the State Games of America — the largest Olympic-style sports festival in the United States — took care of that. The city already hosts one of the country’s largest annual State Games competitions for Nebraska athletes, and Lincoln super-sized everything for the national games, held July 28 to Aug. 2.
Venues included Pinnacle Bank Arena (home of the University of Nebraska men’s and women’s basketball teams) and the university’s Memorial Stadium, as well as other public and private facilities, high schools and fields. And sports such as ice hockey and figure skating gave officials at the Ralston Arena in nearby Omaha an opportunity to host sports they don’t typically see in a Great Plains state.
“Lincoln staged the largest State Games of America competition in the event’s history, by far,” read an editorial in the Sept. 6 edition of the Lincoln Journal Star. This was the best-attended SGA ever, with the most sport competitions offered.”
In fact, Bombeck says, things went so well that he expects Lincoln to make a bid for the biennial national games in either 2019 or 2021; if the city earns the right to host again, you can bet more athletes will be willing to make the journey.
“We’re not a tier-one city, and we know that,” Bombeck says. “But any athletes who come here are going to get a lot of local support. Lincoln really comes together for its sports.”
Lots to Like in Lincoln
While the State Games of America allowed Nebraska’s capital city to show off its venues both large and small, providing world-class competition in a variety of sports, several other recent and upcoming events prove this southeastern Nebraska city is just as adept at hosting nontraditional sports — such as bowling, rodeo and roller sports.
The World Tenpin Bowling Youth Championships will be held next July at Lincoln’s Sun Valley Lanes and is expected to bring in up to 400 bowlers between the ages of 16 and 21 from 45 countries. With a history dating back to 1977, the 32-lane facility is among the smallest on the international bowling circuit, Bombeck says. Previous host cities for this even include Bangkok, Hong Kong and Helsinki.
Credit for Lincoln’s success in the bowling industry is due at least in part to one man who goes above and beyond to promote the sport. Sun Valley Lanes owner John Losito received the 2013 Lincoln Chamber of Commerce’s Celebrate Business Tourism Award for his efforts in hosting several national events — including the 2010 National Special Olympic Games, the 2012 and 2013 Intercollegiate Team and Singles Championships, the 2015 State Games of America bowling event, the 2016 World Youth Championships, the annual Nebraska High School Bowling State Championships, the Big Red Collegiate Invite and the Star City High School Open.
A Variety of Venues
Lincoln’s ability to host stems from the plethora of sports facilities that offer up all kinds of opportunities for sports planners. In other words, name a competition and there probably is a place for it in Lincoln.
The Lancaster Event Center, a 400,000-square-foot facility with five interconnected buildings on 160 acres, is the site of rodeos, equestrian events, trade expositions, concerts and more. Future plans call for a championship arena with bowl seating that would host a variety of sports events, potentially within the next five years, Bombeck says.
Something else in development is the new $18 million indoor/outdoor multi-purpose Speedway Village. One part of the complex that is scheduled to be completed next spring will be 10 outdoor fields (five with synthetic turf and five with natural grass), just perfect for soccer matches.
Inside, there’s an amazingly versatile 65,000-square-foot field house with synthetic turf that can be covered with a subfloor and then a wood surface. There’s also a 10,000-square-foot medical, rehabilitation and sports performance institute. Eight basketball courts that can be converted to 12 volleyball courts are slated to open in November in an adjacent facility. Speedway Village also houses Defy Gravity, an indoor trampoline park.
Speedway Village will serve as the host site of the USA Roller Sports National Championships in 2016 and 2017. The national championships include inline speed skating, rink hockey and roller figure skating competitions, and although the event has rotated between several cities (including Fort Wayne, Indiana; Philadelphia and Albuquerque, New Mexico), Lincoln has hosted more than any other locale. Bombeck says it’s possible that the championships may eventually be held permanently in Lincoln.
One reason the championships might consider the move is that Lincoln is actually a mecca for all things roller: the city is home to USA Roller Sports and the National Museum of Roller Skating, which contains the world’s largest collection of historical roller skates dating to 1819, as well as patents, medals, trophies, photos, art, film, costumes, archival materials and skating memorabilia. All that, plus plenty of hotels and restaurants, helps position Lincoln as a destination of choice for athletes and families.
Need Something Bigger?
For events that demand a big venue with impressive amounts of spectator seating, Lincoln delivers; in fact, Bombeck calls Pinnacle Bank Arena “the crown jewel” of Lincoln’s destination developments. The $179 million state-of-the-art multi-purpose center opened in late 2013 and is the cornerstone of Lincoln's $344 million West Haymarket Redevelopment Project, which is revitalizing 400 acres of land and transforming the city.
The facility can accommodate 16,000 spectators and has hosted everything from the Nebraska School Activities Association’s state basketball and volleyball championships, regional rounds of the 2014 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, exhibition NBA games, WWE wrestling matches and numerous University of Nebraska events.
Meanwhile, the recently renovated Bob Devaney Sports Center (which originally opened in 1976) also hosts many university events and is considered one of the premier volleyball facilities in the country. It also houses swimming and track & field amenities — including one of only four hydraulically-banked tracks in the United States. The 200-meter has the largest radius (67 feet) of any indoor track in the world. Several University of Nebraska, Big 12 and NCAA events have been held there.
For swimming events, Devaney has its natatorium. This venue’s 10-lane, 25-meter pool has hosted NSAA state meets and Big 12 championships, and features two 1-meter spring diving boards, two 3-meter boards and one 5-meter board, as well as plenty of spectator seating.
Off and Running
Need to hit the road? Lincoln’s prowess extends to running events, too.
Lincoln is the original city in the Market to Market relay series, a day-long relay race sponsored by Lincoln-based Pink Gorilla Events that took runners (in Lincoln’s case) on a 78-mile scenic route from Omaha to Lincoln. Relay teams consisted of six to eight runners each, who individually ran two to six miles per stage. More than 4,500 runners signed up for the early-October event, making Lincoln’s Market to Market run the largest day-long relay in the country.
Pink Gorilla Events also developed the Good Life Halfsy, a half-marathon held in November. The event was so popular that 6,000 runners from 45 states were expected to run through the streets of Lincoln in what Bombeck calls the “most entertaining half-marathon in the nation” — complete with music, cheering sections and costumes. And next year, Lincoln will be one of four stops on the inaugural 2016-17 Major League Triathlon Series, which Bombeck says will give the city a big boost in its efforts to host future USA Triathlon events.
“We call ourselves a big little city,” Bombeck says. “But we have some of the best facilities and amenities in the nation.”