Sports tourism officials in Lincoln, Nebraska, know there’s something special about the state’s second-largest city. Lincoln, after all, has hosted the 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games and 2015 State Games of America, as well as the 2022 Nebraska AAU Grand Prix volleyball tournament, the 2021 National High School Finals Rodeo, the 2021 USA Wrestling Senior World Team Trials, the World Tenpin Bowling Youth Championships, regional rounds of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament and exhibition NBA games.
“We’ve always been at the forefront of hosting championship events in Lincoln, with Pinnacle Bank Arena, the Bob Devaney Sports Center and all the University of Nebraska facilities,” says Derek Bombeck, sales development manager for Visit Lincoln. “For years, we were lacking in youth sports facilities, but the additions of the Speedway Sports Complex, the Kinetic Sports Complex and the Lincoln Sports Foundation facility have definitely grown the market for basketball, volleyball and soccer. So, the one thing we were still missing was a youth baseball and softball complex. We had a large void.”
That void is about to be filled.
In August, ground was broken on the $27 million Sandhills Global Youth Complex, named after the Lincoln-based information technology company that contributed $4 million to the project. The facility will feature eight all-turf baseball and softball fields, two of which will be used by Nebraska Wesleyan University’s men’s and women’s teams, plus a field dedicated to Homer’s Heroes, a program for boys and girls with special needs.
A championship baseball field with fence depths of 330 and 400 feet will seat 500 spectators, while a championship softball field with fences at 200 and 225 feet will seat 300 fans. Both venues will be covered, and all other fields will feature shade structures over the bleachers.
Additionally, portable fencing will be available for smaller field dimensions, and 12 turf batting tunnels will be located throughout the park. Other amenities include a two-story building housing concessions, restrooms, an umpire room and a press box at the youth fields, as well as a one-story facility with concessions, restrooms and spaces for umpires and training at the championship fields.
The complex, scheduled to open in Spring 2025, will be located literally minutes from Haymarket Park and Bowlin Stadium, which are the University of Nebraska’s baseball and softball stadiums, respectively, as well as home of the Lincoln Saltdogs, Lincoln’s professional baseball team. Lincoln Airport and the Historic Haymarket district downtown aren’t too far away, either.
“I’ve been traveling a lot to national trade shows, and organizations like Triple Crown Sports, AAU, Perfect Game — they’ve all expressed interest in being part of this facility,” Bombeck says. “We actually consulted with baseball and softball organizations to make sure the specs were right for the tournaments we want to bring in. A facility like this is rare to find in the Midwest.”
The Sandhills Global Youth Complex, a joint venture between Visit Lincoln, Nebraska Wesleyan University, the City of Lincoln, Lancaster County and other community partners, has been in the works for several years, according to Bombeck. But, as it did with many sports developments around the country, COVID-19 slowed progress considerably.
“A lot of the funding went away, and a lot of hesitation arose about building at that time,” he says. “Obviously, as time goes by, expenses increased from what you initially thought a complex like this was going to cost to what it costs five years later, so more fundraising had to be done.”
That’s when Sandhills Global stepped in to help the project cross home plate.
“Sandhills was one of the initial funders for one of the five youth-specific fields in the complex,” Shawn Peed, chief executive officer for Sandhills Global, said when the company made its donation that put the project over the top financially. “As we looked more closely at the impact of the complex in its entirety, from an economic standpoint for the region and most importantly for the youth in Lincoln/Lancaster County, we decided we could do more.”
And now Lincoln can do more, too.
‘Volleyball Day in Nebraska’
Lincoln has been making sports-related news for other reasons, too. In late August, the University of Nebraska created “Volleyball Day in Nebraska,” packing Memorial Stadium with 92,003 fans for an outdoor volleyball match and setting a world record for the largest crowd to ever watch a women’s sporting event. (The previously recognized world record was 91,648 fans in a UEFA Champions League match in Spain in April 2022, while the previous U.S. record was 90,185 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, for the FIFIA Women’s World Cup Final in July 1999.)
“Women’s volleyball is big in Nebraska,” Bombeck says. “But to see 92,000 people converge on what is traditionally a sold-out football stadium to cheer on women’s sports –the excitement, the exposure it gave to women’s sports and to little girls growing up in Nebraska and all across the country to see what fan support can be like when an event is held in the right destination – it was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.”
Earlier in the summer, Lincoln hosted the NxtPRO16 Session 7 Finals, utilizing 16 basketball courts at the Speedway Sports Complex and Kinetic Sports Complex, plus four additional courts at area high schools. The three-day event brought in some of the best men’s basketball prospects in the country at the NCAA Division I, II and III levels plus NAIA and junior college players.
“When most organizations want to come to town, they want to be at two to three locations, if possible,” Bombeck says. “To get 20 courts before those two complexes were built, we would have had to make use of most of the high schools in the area, which would have put us at six to eight locations. A tournament director isn’t going to want that.”
Another event series that has helped propel Lincoln’s profile as a city for all types of sporting events is the Garmin Gravel Worlds® cycling and running treks. Held every August, the events range from 10K to 300 miles and take place on rural dirt roads just north of Lincoln. This year’s races attracted more than 2,000 participants from all 50 states, 15 countries and four continents, according to Bombeck.
“Obviously, the Midwest is great for gravel racing because we have a lot of gravel roads,” Bombeck says. “And people flocked from all across the world to come race on them. This has become a major event for us.”
Then there’s the publicly owned Lancaster Event Center, a 400,000-square-foot facility with five interconnected buildings on 160 acres that is the site of rodeos, equine shows, trade expositions, concerts and other events. It highlights the Lincoln area’s rich agricultural history and hosted the 2021 National High School Finals Rodeo. (The city will host the event again in 2026 and 2027.)
Sporting events as diverse as rodeo, “Volleyball Day in Nebraska,” Garmin Gravel Worlds and youth baseball tournaments reflect the characteristics of a destination that (as the Visit Lincoln website notes) “offers the exhilaration of a big city and the serenity of the countryside all in one place.”
The opening of the Sandhills Global Youth Complex will signal the beginning of a new era in Lincoln, but that doesn’t mean Bombeck and his team at Visit Lincoln will sit back and relax. Depending on the success of the new facility, expectations are that it eventually will be sold out every weekend between April and October, future expansion of the complex is possible.
“We’re not done yet,” Bombeck says. “We’d still like more.” SDM