City whiffs at College World Series

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vicfieldReading the news that TD Ameritrade recently signed a naming rights deal for Omaha’s new baseball park, made me wonder if Indianapolis didn’t miss a golden opportunity with the College World Series. That opportunity is going, going, gone.

When TD Ameritrade agrees to a 20-year deal that starts at $750,000 annually with escalator clauses, that says something about the rising value of this event. That’s pretty impressive in this economy, even if Nebraska-based TD Ameritrade says it did the deal partially to support a hometown event.

Since 1950 Omaha has hosted the 11-day baseball tournament. And it’s not going anywhere soon. Omaha sealed that future by agreeing to build a 24,000-seat $128 million downtown ballpark which is set to open in 2011. The NCAA and Omaha officials agreed to a deal that will keep the CWS in Nebraska until 2035.

But there were two key times that CWS organizers would have been open to a pitch from Indianapolis to host the event. The first came when the ribbon was cut on the 15,500-seat Victory Field in 1996. At the time, some were beginning to grumble that Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium was becoming outdated. Meanwhile, Victory Field was opening to great accolades.

The second opportunity came in 1999, when the NCAA moved its headquarters from Overland Park, Kansas to Indianapolis. NCAA executives, now perched just up the street from Victory Field, were more familiar with its fine amenities and were willing to at least discuss the possibility of putting Indianapolis into the CWS rotation if not outright moving the event from Omaha.

But there were downsides, as Indians Chairman Max Schumacher has explained on several occasions. First, the Indianapolis Indians would have to all but vacate the facility during the CWS, which is no small scheduling hurdle during the heart of the professional baseball season. And there were always concerns Victory Field was a bit too small for the growing event. Now, it appears, it’s quite a bit too small.

Since a significant number of seats can’t be added to the outfield (without closing West Street), that would mean adding an upper deck to some of the existing seating areas. And at this point, that would be expensive. It would have been a lot less expensive if it was done when the facility was built. But, without a guarantee from CWS organizers, that also would have been a risky investment for the city-owned facility.

If the city could have gotten the event, even on a trial basis, with little to no extra addition to the original Victory Field price tag, you have to believe, with Indianapolis’ track record of putting on big-time events, the city would have had a real chance of stealing it from Omaha. Then when it was secured, the cost of expanding the facility if necessary would have seemed a lot less daunting.

Victory Field, meanwhile, has no naming rights deal, in part, Schumacher has explained to protect the integrity and historical significance of the facility’s moniker. But there’s also no corporate name on the building, he admits, because with no regional or national TV/radio deal for the Indians, there’s little money in it.

That all would change of course, with the CWS. You can’t flip past either ESPN or ESPN2 in mid-June without seeing a college baseball game, and hearing about Omaha. The title sponsorship proves there’s value. But that’s mostly the Indians’ loss, since the team’s lease states it gets all the naming rights cash.

Annual exposure to the city from throngs of college baseball fans from across the country who attend the event live or watch on TV for almost two weeks each and every year—that’s the city’s loss.

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