OMAHA, Neb. — The fear has long been that the Twin Cities would become “a cold Omaha.” At the urging of the always promotional Harvey Mackay, Hubert Humphrey invoked that condemnation 30 years ago when campaigning at the Legislature on behalf of backers of the Metrodome that was to bear his name.
This week, after spending a few days here at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials — with 12,000 people jammed into a multi-purpose sports arena to watch the nation’s best splashers in a $2 million temporary pool — I wondered if we risk becoming “a dry Omaha.”
I know the U.S. Women’s Open recently swept through town and the men’s PGA is due next summer. I know the Twin Cities have played host to many sporting events, such as this year’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
But there is a certain willy-nilly anarchy here to luring and promoting events, with Target Center and Xcel Energy Center competing, and with the fiefdom of the state-backed Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission bringing different soccer and hockey offerings to Blaine.
In little ol’ Omaha, the Omaha Sports Commission — backed by omnipresent Mutual of Omaha, a swimming corporate backer — grabbed the U.S. swim trials this week, and it’s a setting for a historic event.
Interest in swimming has attracted big corporate money
Olympic interest comes around every four years, but swimming has exploded on the corporate and endorsement front, mostly because of the broad shoulders and dipping times of Michael Phelps.
Even if you don’t give one spit of chlorine about the Olympics or water sports, you may have heard of — or NBC will surely pull your lapels to hear of him next month — Phelps. He won six gold medals and two bronze ones at the Athens Olympics, and he’ll be trying to make a similar statement in Beijing.
Sunday night, to start off the trials and, incredibly, prime-time TV swimming, Phelps broke a world record in the 400-meter individual medley.
It was as if Visa and Bank of America and Speedo and NBC and the rest of Phelps’ corporate backers fixed the race. It was too perfect. But, I kid you not, it was genuinely exciting to watch a swimming race.
And with 12,000 fans screaming a la a Wild game?
Right before our blind eyes, swimming — like other key Olympic sports — has turned pro. Phelps is set to make many millions this year, and it looks like he’ll be a fixture in the sport for another Olympics cycle to 2012.
Athlete branding a key to franchise success
The key to any franchise’s health is athlete branding. Phelps has become U.S. swimming’s leading brand, and there’s been trickle down for another handful of swimmers, men and women — those who can rake in $100,000 to $200,000 a year or more in prize money, support from the national governing body, USA Swimming, and an array of sponsors and swimwear companies.
A couple of issues are floating around here. One has to do with the effects of high-tech swimsuits, especially Speedo’s LZR Racer.
Just about every swim world record has fallen in the six months since Speedo introduced it. Phelps wore it Monday when he broke his mark, as did Katie Hoff, who broke the women’s 400 IM mark. It’s a NASA-developed, anti-drag, supertight suit.
Some Europeans are calling it “high-tech doping,” but historians note that swimwear through time has been designed for comfort and speed. We’re just at a new super-duper phase.
Money and newfound attention — prime-time TV and large crowds and corporate funding — raise new questions. The kind of questions that have dogged track and field, which is also conducting its trials this week.
It’s not high-tech doping. It’s pharmaceutical doping.
Veteran swimmer Gary Hall Jr., 33, is seeking his fourth Olympic team this week. (Another sign of money in the sport is that athletes aren’t all 17 anymore.) Hall worried aloud about this to journalists this week. Hall has forever criticized swimming’s leaders for their lack of marketing vision. Now, he said, he wonders about the direction of the sport.
“I have mixed feelings,” said Hall. “Back when I was making $1,200 a month as a ‘professional swimmer,’ I always argued that more money should come into the sport and was always an advocate for professionalizing the sport. Now I see this happening in foreign countries, and even here in the United States, where an athlete has the opportunity to make millions and millions of dollars, the incentive to cut corners, I think, is much greater, and it has presented a new problem … This new problem of doping in sports could potentially make us yearn for the good old days, when $1,200 a month was the plight of the swimmer and not the decision to have to take performance enhancing drugs to compete with the world’s best.”
A mark of this arrival is the setting here at Qwest Center. Imagine Target Center or the “X” with an Olympic-sized pool where the hockey rink or basketball court normally resides. It reduces the seating capacity a bit, but when Phelps broke that world record he said could hear fans from underwater the entire race.
Minnesota should get in the (Olympic) game for trials
I’m not here suggesting that Olympic swimming is the next NFL or even the next WNBA, but I do want to signal Minnesota sports leaders — whoever they are — that they might want to get in line for the 2012 Olympic trials, be they swimming or gymnastics or wrestling. St. Paul did bid for this swim event but lost out to Omaha. The Republican National Convention was landed instead. (No jokes, please.)
Timberwolves President Rob Moor has long believed Minnesota needs a sports promotion corporation to bring such high-profile events to the state in an organized, thoughtful way. I know this for a fact: The U.S. Olympic Committee is pondering new ways to stage Olympic trials. Exactly what the 2012 Olympic period will look like, I know not. But I’d bet my superfast, skin-tight Speedo that you’ll see Olympics trials’ hubs. For instance, along with swimming, perhaps tae kwon do and fencing trials could be staged, thereby getting more attention for the “minor” sports and creating a critical mass of media coverage at a time of media travel cutbacks. Gymnastics could be packaged with judo and table tennis.
Ponder this possibility: the Olympic swim trials — with Michael Phelps in his prime — at Target Center, with the Olympic judo and tae kwon do trials at Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus and the table tennis trials at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Or at Xcel Energy Center, RiverCentre and Macalester College.
Local arena operators and sports promoters should begin thinking this way. Right now. USA Swimming leaders are soon to begin talks with Omaha sports moguls to bring these trials back to Nebraska.
As one swim official told me this week, “We like the idea of owning a town.”
I think the Twin Cities should consider owning a collection of Olympic trials. It seems natural for the Land of 10,000 Lakes to build another, indoor, temporary body of water. Anyone with leadership capabilities willing to stick their toe into the pool and go for it?