The other night, as I watched Charles Barkley ride a horse to the Oklahoma City Thunder game, and 18,000 Oklahomans in white shirts celebrate a trip to the NBA Finals, several images came forth.
I thought of the former Big Eight football writer who once called Oklahoma City “the world's largest truck stop.” In the most affectionate, pull-over-we-gotta-stop-here way you could think of a truck stop.
I thought of Big Eight/Big 12 baseball teams, playing to the soundtrack of a Merle Haggard song wailing over the loudspeaker. The Cowboy Hall of Fame. Bricktown. The old newsstand in that sleepy downtown.
And good people. Regular folks, but progressive folks who loved their sports. College sports, mostly, and college football in particular. In OKC, you could find a conversation about college football at every corner store or honky-tonk.
Now, they want to know if Barkley is coming to town and what Sir Charles said about the Thunder's pick-and-roll game.
Oklahoma City is all grown up, in the national spotlight, with an arena full of college football fanatics romping and stomping about what looks like the NBA's best team.
Our longtime contemporary and peer has had a big-time makeover and wears the major league look well.
Don't you look at this and wonder if this could be Omaha?
It's an interesting question, particularly this week, as we prepare to welcome back our signature event, the College World Series, followed immediately by the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials. Is this as good as it gets in the Big O?
Could it ever get better?
The answer is yes. Absolutely. I believe in our lifetime that a major-league sports team could move to Omaha and settle in.
That's not a prediction. Omaha is not exactly on the radar screen of pro sports owners today, although last week there was a report in sports Internet land that one place the Oakland A's might look to move was Omaha. The ghost of Charlie Finley returns to the Midwest.
Oklahoma City got lucky. Oklahoma billionaire Clay Bennett bought the Seattle SuperSonics and moved them when the city wouldn't build him a new arena. Do Warren Buffett or Walter Scott have room on their portfolio for a big-league team?
This sounds crazy. But the idea was a lot harder to imagine 10 years ago, when Omaha was smaller and of smaller mind.
A few things have changed that could make this happen.
First, our facilities. The CenturyLink Center seats 17,272 for hoops, about 1,000 less than the Chesapeake Energy Arena in OKC (18,203). MECA President Roger Dixon said CLC would be on the “small side” but would work in the NBA or NHL. Omaha might have to add to the 32 suites, but could, Dixon said.
TD Ameritrade Park already has the look and feel of a big-league stadium. But at 24,000 seats, Dixon said, it would need about 10,000 more seats to attract a major league team — and that number could be added to the outfield seats.
Modern buildings are one thing. Attitude is another. Would Omahans want to dig into their wallets to pay big-league prices and keep on paying them?
That's hard to say. Right now, I would have my doubts. But you never know. In the last 10 years, Omaha has undergone a major transformation in terms of big spending and big thinking when it comes to sports.
Once upon a time, Omaha was a quarter-beer town. Now, there are long lines to pay $6 for a brew. Did you ever imagine 17,000 every night for Creighton basketball?
Omaha has the rep as a big event town, and the events keep getting bigger. Michael Phelps and friends come to town and it's a big deal. But our reaction now is nobody is surprised, like this is how it should be.
Other groups are seeing what the NCAA knew for years: Omaha knows how to run and support an event. One year before the U.S. Senior Open tees off, the USGA is overwhelmed by the corporate and community reaction here.
So we know how to pick our spots. But what about all the time?
Oklahoma City fans pay from $60 to $275 for a single-game ticket in the lower bowl and $40 for the nosebleeds. An average ticket to a Nashville Predators or Columbus Blue Jackets game will run you $48. You'll pay from $8 to $32 per ticket to see a Kansas City Royals game everywhere except behind home plate, which is around $40 per ticket.
Look, Omaha has its Fortune 500 companies, and there's money here, especially if it were concentrated into one team. Would Omaha buy in? I think it would, and I believe that willingness would only increase as Omaha — and Lincoln — continue to grow.
The OKC metro area is listed at 1.2 million. Omaha is over 800,000, but combine it with Lincoln, and you're over one million. A pro team here would have to be marketed as eastern Nebraska's team, but could draw from the entire state, as well as Iowa.
The most viable options for Omaha would be hockey or baseball. Dixon says the CenturyLink Center fits pro hockey more than pro hoops. The NHL is already in Nashville and Columbus. Creighton has a stranglehold on the hoops market here. UNO wants to play in a smaller on-campus arena.
There's nowhere for an NFL team to play here. But TD Ameritrade Park might work perfectly for a baseball owner looking for a new stadium. Imagine if “Fahey's Folly” ever resulted in major league baseball here.
The landscape of pro sports is changing. Smaller markets are seen as potential gold mines, with local citizenry willing to do what it takes. Unless they go international, sports owners may start looking at smaller markets for leverage.
It doesn't hurt when they see a Thunder game, and see the Oklahomans, all dressed in those uniform shirts, being called the loudest crowd in the NBA. Those college fans really get after it. Wouldn't Nebraskans, too?
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