OMAHA – The path to the Paris Olympics pool in 2024 may lead through the eastern end zone at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Minnesota Sports and Events (MNSE) leaders flew to Omaha last week at the behest of USA Swimming during the trials for this summer's Tokyo Olympics to make their pitch about how they could put on a bigger, better event.
"They talked a lot about taking it to the next level," MNSE CEO Wendy Blackshaw said of swimming's governing body. "We can do that."
In recent years, the swimming trials in Omaha have expanded beyond a low-key event into a two-week moneymaker that attracts 2,000 swimmers, sells out 14,000 seats nightly and gets wall-to-wall television coverage. Thirsty for revenue, USA Swimming saw growth potential and courted other cities.
MNSE, a new nonprofit trying to attract major sporting events to Minnesota, eagerly entered the competition, became a finalist and was invited to Omaha.
USA Swimming officials had already scoped out U.S. Bank Stadium by visiting during the men's NCAA Final Four basketball tournament in 2018 and watching a Minnesota Vikings game as guests in the Wilf family's owners suite.
In Omaha, the Minnesota crew included Lester Bagley, a Vikings vice president, Matt Meunier, director of Sports Minneapolis at the city's convention bureau, and Ann Dunne, assistant general manager for U.S. Bank Stadium operator ASM Global. "We were one of the few cities invited so that shows a level of interest from USA Swimming in terms of our bid and what we have to offer," Meunier said.
The group doesn't expect to find out whether they won the bid until after the Olympics in Tokyo this summer. But during the Omaha event, local and national media reports suggested Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis would be the site of the 2024 trials.
That speculation jolted the Minnesota group, showing how stiff competition will be among U.S. cities trying to bring back tourists and reboot economies after the COVID-19 pandemic and in the face of the crime and social upheaval that followed the killing of George Floyd. The problems facing Minneapolis — rising crime and empty downtown spaces — aren't unique and won't hold the city back, Blackshaw said. "Everyone's in the same boat," she said.
The pandemic's fallout was evident at the CHI Health Center in Omaha. Attendance for swimming sessions was limited to several thousand, leaving more than half the arena's seats empty. The event still thrummed with energy, boosted by pulsing light shows, a nonstop stream of upbeat, popular music and emcees interviewing athletes and breaking down the action in the pool.
Tokyo qualifiers ascended on a mechanical platform as drumbeats heralded their arrival for a medal ceremony culminating with the swimmer proclaiming for the crowd, "I'm a Tokyo Olympian."
Most details of the Minneapolis bid are confidential, but putting the event in U.S. Bank Stadium would expand the live audience capacity to 26,000. The 50-meter competition pool would sit parallel to the eastern end zone. Two warmup pools would sit on the western portion of the Vikings playing field.
Organizers are confident they can transform the 66,000-plus seat football stadium into both an intimate venue and national showcase and boost profits for swimming.
"It's one of the strengths of our bid," Bagley said. "It has great energy and intimacy that will play well and allow them to maximize ticket and event revenue."
Being close to swimming's biggest stars is one of the allures of attending trials. Young fans were allowed right up to the pool deck to bump fists and pose for selfies with the swim stars. After a first-place finish, Olympian Caeleb Dressel flipped his goggles to a fan.
Retired swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, was there all week roaming the arena and obliging fans.
Three-time Olympic gold medalist-turned NBC swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines said that compared to the Olympics, the trials are a "completely different environment because you're so close."
Minnesota swimming was represented in Omaha, too.
In the water, Lakeville native Regan Smith delivered big time in the water, positioning herself as a star of the summer games. A contingent from north Minneapolis-based V3 Sports was there to watch the events, already having purchased the trials pool to install in their future facility at 701 N. Plymouth Av.
"This is an event that we really want in our city," Blackshaw said. "We've got a swimming community that would support it 100%."
MNSE officially launched in October. The private nonprofit's tiny staff is fortified by a board and financial supporters including executives from the state's pro sports teams, major corporations and convention leaders from St. Paul and Bloomington.
"The pandemic has underscored the importance of bringing these events to our community, bringing fan energy to our communities, bringing tax revenue to our public entities," Bagley said.
In recent years, Minnesota has played host to a series of high-profile sporting events, including Major League Baseball's All-Star Game in 2014, the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National Golf Club in 2016 and the Super Bowl in 2018.
MNSE has 22 bids pending for events from 2023-2030 and more in the works, Meunier said.
The young group is also trying to figure out a long-term operating model. Midsize cities across the country, including Indianapolis and Kansas City, Mo., already have similar established and well-funded organizations competing for events. In many cases, the groups are supported with tax dollars. That's not the case for MNSE.
"What we have in Minneapolis is corporate partners who understand the significance of big events; getting people into our hotels, flying into our airports, dining in our restaurants and shopping in our stores," Blackshaw said.
After returning from Omaha, Blackshaw turned her focus from the pool to the hard court. The NCAA women's basketball Final Four will be played April 1 and 3 at Target Center.
MNSE plans off-court events next year celebrating the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the federal civil rights law prohibiting gender discrimination in education and sports.
Blackshaw expressed confidence both in MNSE's ability to keep the events coming and in Minnesota's ability to host them. "We have built a reputation for doing amazing events," she said. "We know how to execute. We've got hundreds of years of experience on our team."
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747