Sports in Omaha has something for everyone

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As night falls over Werner Park in Sarpy County, just outside Omaha, the Storm Chasers give their fans something to cheer about. Courtesy photo by Andrea Stava of Werner Park.

Story by Madeline Clauff for NewsNetNebraska

A packed house, roaring fans and the aroma of grilled hotdogs all added up to a perfect night under the lights for 7,800 baseball fans. As the Omaha Storm Chasers opened their 43rd season with that April 5 evening game, they proved again how much Omahans love sports.

The minor league squad, which beat the Albuquerque Isotopes 8-4 in that home opener, hasn’t always had winning seasons. But over its four decades plus it has been a winning franchise for the city.

“Omaha is a great sports-event town and it is a great sports-participation town,” said Omaha’s ESPN radio broadcaster, Kevin Kugler.

The love affair hasn’t always been smooth. Indeed, the city’s involvement in sports has had extreme highs and lows. Some teams such as the Storm Chasers have thrived, while others — such as the Nighthawks football team and the Vipers soccer franchise — have flamed out or slipped quietly into oblivion.

“Usually when teams fail, it’s from a lack of interest from the community,” Kugler said. “It’s a lack of winning. It’s a lack of budgetary restraint.”

Kugler, a Lincoln native, has covered Omaha sports for over 20 years. He currently hosts “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” with Mike’l Severe on 1620 The Zone, Omaha’s home for ESPN radio.

A lot of effort goes into creating and maintaining a successful sports organization, he said. The Lancers hockey team and the Storm Chasers have put in that effort and have seen it pay off for both fans and owners.

The Storm Chasers, previously the Royals and before that, the Golden Spikes, exemplify a great sports organization, according to Kugler.

Why?

“They promote the event rather than the game,” he said.

Since the Storm Chasers are a minor-league team and have been a triple-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals for 43 years, they attract fans by endorsing family-oriented events during the games.

The Royals relocated from Rosenblatt to Werner Park in nearby Sarpy County in 2011 and changed their name to the Storm Chasers. Since Rosenblatt, home of the Men’s College World Series, was being torn down due to NCAA contract changes, Omaha found it cheaper to build an entire new stadium solely for college baseball.

Werner Park, a smaller venue, would be a better fit attendance-wise for the Storm Chasers. In Rosenblatt, on average 3,300 people attended Royals games, according to Omaha World-Herald writer Bob White. In Werner Park, about 4,200 people attend the Storm Chasers games. Rosenblatt had a 24,000-seat capacity while Werner has 9,000.

“There’s just something about minor-league baseball, not only in Nebraska, but nationwide, that still draws people in,” Kugler said.

The Storm Chasers have a strong fan base, a stable ownership and are heavily involved in the Omaha community. “That’s always key in minor-league franchise,” Kugler said.

Previous owner Alan Stein understood the community and constantly reached out. Marti Cordaro, now the General Manager, is continuing in his footsteps.


The Omaha Storm Chasers pitch their opening game into the win column. The team beat the Albuquerque Isotopes 8-4. Courtesy photo by Andrea Stava of Werner Park

“We have a very strong fan base. We would not be able to survive for 26 years if we didn’t,” said Dan Fremuth, vice president of business operations.

Along with baseball, football is another popular sport in Omaha, according to Kugler. Husker football that is. Omaha proved to be a weak place for the Nighthawks, a UFL (United Football League) team.

The Nighthawks, playing their home games in Rosenblatt Stadium and TD Ameritrade Park, only lasted two seasons before the team, as well as the entire league, shut down in 2011. Although the night of the inaugural game attracted 23,000 fans to Rosenblatt, fans didn’t seem to love the team and attendance dwindled to about 16,000 regularly, according to Nighthawk cheerleader Haley Ryan.

“I think that here in Nebraska we are so connected to college football that people aren’t as diehard about NFL teams,” Ryan said.

That wasn’t the only reason the Nighthawks failed, however. Players were not getting paid enough, owners couldn’t find financial partners and the organization wasn’t capturing the interest of the public, according to Ryan.

Similar occurrences happened to the Omaha Vipers, an MISL (Major Indoor Soccer League) team that collapsed after its inaugural season in 2010.

“Decisions weren’t thoroughly thought through,” former Viper player Ryan Junge said. Junge also felt like the fan base could have been a lot bigger and the marketing and advertising could have been improved.

If a team wants to succeed in Omaha, community involvement and proper marketing and advertising are a must, according to Junge. The Storm Chasers are successful in marketing and advertising. They promote the daily/nightly event rather than the game itself, whether it is T-shirt Tuesday or Dollar Drink Wednesday. More of the community gets involved with promotional strategies like those, according to Kugler.

Along with the Storm Chasers, the Omaha Lancers hockey team has proved to be a successful sports organization.

Fremuth oversees marketing and advertising efforts and is the team’s lead media contact. This is his fourth season with the Lancers.

Playing in the west division of the USHL (United States Hockey League), the Lancers are known as one of the most successful franchises in the history of hockey. Hundreds of their alumni have gone on to play division one hockey.

From 2002 to 2009, the Lancers moved their home arena from Aksarben to the Mid-America Center across the river in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Aksarben’s rink became far too old. This move severely hurt the program, however, because during that time their attendance decreased heavily.

“What we discovered was that the Missouri River might as well have been a giant fortress wall,” Fremuth observed.

In 2004 the Lancers made headlines when a new ownership came into place. The famed NHL player, Mario Lemieux, as well as the captain of the “Miracle On Ice” 1980 U.S. Olympic team, Mike Eruzione became part owners.

In 2009, the Lancers moved back to Omaha and played at the Civic. Over the next three years, they averaged 3,000 fans per game, a significant increase in attendance.

The Lancers have much to look forward to with the new Ralston Sports and Events Center being built. With 3,500 seats, the new arena is the perfect size for the Lancers.

“I think were going to be blessed with the best arena that the United States Hockey League has,” Fremuth said.

The Ralston Center, which will be finished in September 2012, will also be home to the UNO Mavericks hockey team and possibly the Denver Nuggets basketball farm team. Bringing in a team like that will add a “nice feather” to the sports landscape in Omaha, according to Kugler.

Omaha is showing signs of significant growth in the sports world. With the Storm Chasers continuing their organization in Papillion and the Lancers moving out to Ralston, Fremuth said that there is a bright future for both teams.

Everything that plays into having a successful sports organization — the fans, the ownership, the marketing, the partnerships — must all come together to keep a team thriving, according to Junge.

It’s all about consistency, Fremuth added. “If we just continue to do what were doing, in terms of getting out in the community, making sure that we stay in touch with our fans, continuing to build corporate partnerships,” he said, “then we’re going to be very, very successful for a long, long time.”