In just thirteen months from concept to contract, the NCAA and the City of Omaha have reached an agreement to keep the College World Series in Omaha through 2035. Stop and think about that sentence. A twenty-five year contract for an NCAA championship just isn't even fathomable with any other sport or any other city. But that's a reflection of the special relationship between the NCAA and Omaha.
That special relationship between Omaha and the NCAA fueled a contentious debate in Omaha for much of the last year. Traditionalists felt the new stadium was unnecessary at this time; Rosenblatt Stadium is still a viable facility in the near term and it would be difficult for another city to make the same commitment that Omaha makes to the NCAA. Add in a 58 year history of the College World Series at Rosenblatt, and this debate fueled the passions of Omaha baseball fans.
However, as the city and the NCAA discussed the short-term needs of the College World Series, it became clear to leaders on both sides that further investments at Rosenblatt weren't a good investment. The NCAA wanted more control over the surroundings, which would have necessitated the purchase and bulldozing of many of the houses surrounding the stadium. Retrofitting upgrades to concourses and clubhouses would have required significant demolition and reconstruction of the stadium. $30 million would have addressed many of the NCAA's short term needs, and would have gained Omaha a five or ten year extension. After that, however, the picture became a little murkier. Much of Rosenblatt's skeleton dated back to 1947, and was nearing the end of it's expected lifespan. The NCAA had desires to make the Series more comfortable for their corporate sponsors by providing nearby hotels and restaurants and space for exhibitions.
With that in mind, the NCAA and Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey launched an ambitious plan to build a new stadium. A new downtown stadium had been proposed previously by the Omaha Royals, a triple-A minor league franchise, a few years earlier, but failed to gain any traction to move the plan forward. Now the downtown stadium idea moved onto the fast track with many proposals floated out there. Many trial balloons were floated, such as thousands of temporary seats that would be flown in and out of the stadium for the series. Multiple locations were proposed around downtown, and the stadium costs skyrocketed from $50 million to $90 million to finally $140 million as details were worked out.
Those trial balloons and the fast track of discussions served to fuel further dissention with the plan. Fahey's predecessor, Hal Daub, was a board member of MECA, which manages the Qwest Center and the parking lot where the stadium was proposed to be built. MECA and the Mayor's office waged a battle through the news media for months as negotiations progressed. Simultaneously, residents of the neighborhood around Rosenblatt protested the stadium plans and a recall petition drive began against Fahey.
But as spring began, everything began to fall into place. MECA and the Mayor's office came to an agreement on the stadium. The NCAA offered an unprecedented 25 year contract. The recall petition failed to garner 40% of the signatures they needed. And Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo announced plans for build a new signature exhibit for Arctic animals on the Rosenblatt property that would help drive additional tourism and development to the neighborhood.
The end of Rosenblatt Stadium will be bittersweet for Omaha. A lot of memories were formed during many College World Series. ESPN raves about the event. But the event has never been about the stadium...it's been about the fans who support his event year after year. And the fans will be the winner in the end. More parking for fans who drive to the game. Fans who wish to imbibe before or after the game will have many more establishments nearby to frequent. Out of town fans will appreciate being able to walk (stumble?) from the stadium to their hotel room. And nobody will miss the claustrophobic concourses and long bathroom lines at Rosenblatt.
Like it or not, the College World Series is changing. This year, it starts a day later on Saturday. The championship round moves to Monday through Wednesday the next week, meaning that barring any rainouts (and boy, has Omaha been getting plenty of rainstorms the last few days), the second weekend of the College World Series will be awkwardly baseball-free. That's the decision of the NCAA and ESPN, not Omaha.
Whether the stadium was really needed or not will likely be debated for years to come. Some traditions will end, but other traditions will continue. New traditions will develop. And most importantly, the College World Series will continue to be played in Omaha for years to come.