Most years, on any given night during a two-week period in June, anyone patrolling the grounds of TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska, will hear the familiar metallic ping of a baseball bat meeting the baseball, see the giant inflatable beach balls bouncing around from person to person in the stands or witness the taunting match among fans sitting in the outfield: “LEFT FIELD SUCKS!” “RIGHT FIELD SUCKS!”
Each summer, Omaha transforms into the pinnacle of college baseball when it hosts the College World Series. From 1950 through 2010, the sport’s annual eight-team, double-elimination slug fest to determine the national champion, took place inside the historic Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, located next to the Henry Doorly Zoo.
When the CWS moved downtown to TD Ameritrade Park in 2011, many of the event’s traditions came with it. The annual pilgrimage to Omaha is a rite of passage for college baseball fans across the country, and locals often join in on the festivities.
For a two-week stretch each summer, TD Ameritrade Park springs to life. Locals, casual baseball fans and fans of the qualifying teams all converge on the stadium, creating a vibrant atmosphere bustling with energy.
That didn’t happen last June when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of sports across the country.
Instead of spending two summer weeks filled to the brim with cheering fans, TD Ameritrade Park sat silent. However, for its host city of Omaha, the CWS cancellation marked more than just the loss of a collegiate baseball championship — it dealt a serious blow to the city’s economy.
For Blatt Beer & Table — a local pub and craft beer bar with three Omaha locations, including one across the street from TD Ameritrade Park — business from the CWS comprises about 60% of annual revenue, according to COO and owner, Anthony Hitchcock.
Finding alternate ways to recoup that much revenue was an impossible task. Hitchcock said the location near TD Ameritrade Park is mostly driven by tourism and business travelers, so the pandemic caused a big financial strain because people weren’t traveling. He added that the government’s Paycheck Protection Program may help the company recover some of that lost revenue, but most of it won’t be made up.
“There were no events or business travelers, so we weren’t able to make it up at all,” he said. “From a day-to-day business standpoint, it was impossible.”
The loss stung more than just businesses near the ballpark; it affected Omaha as a whole. The 2019 CWS produced $88.3 million in total economic impact to the city, a combined $8.7 million in tax collections — $5.2 million at the local level and $3.5 million at the state level, according to a study from the College World Series of Omaha, the event’s local organizing committee.
Zhigang Feng, Ph.D., associate professor of economics at Creighton University, said the loss led to a “cascade effect” on the city’s economy. The initial stage, the cancellation of the event itself, results in a relatively minimal economic impact — the only real losses are lost revenue resulting from things like ticket sales or concessions within the stadium.
The real economic impact comes in the second stage; in 2019, 59% of attendees came from outside Nebraska, and season ticket holders to the event reside in 45 different states, according to the CWS study.
With so many people traveling to Omaha, much of the event’s economic impact on the city comes from travel-related costs — rental cars, motel rooms, dining. The lost revenue from the event itself and the lost revenue from travel-related costs combine to create the overall economic impact on the city, according to Feng.
Any lost revenue means a loss of income, which could translate to lower spending habits. In turn, that impacts other businesses within the city.
“Put yourself in their shoes,” Feng said. “If you just lost that income for 2020, what are you going to do? At a minimum, you’re going to cut your spending. You’re going to go out for dining less and you may not want to operate some electronics for your house, so on and so forth.”
Omaha felt the blow from last year’s CWS cancellation in other ways, too. Ernest Goss, Ph.D., professor of economics at Creighton, led the College World Series of Omaha’s study on the event’s economic impact on the city. According to Goss, Omaha missed out on the annual exposure the CWS brings to the city.
“It’s not just the loss of revenue,” he said. “You’ve got the loss of visibility that the College World Series brings. That impact is as much as $200-$400 million as measured by public relations impacts. It’s measured by the public relations firm that does the College World Series.”
In 2021, the Omaha economy should benefit from the return of the CWS. However, its overall impact may be limited due to reduced attendance this season.
On April 23, the NCAA announced a 50% attendance capacity for all outdoor spring championships. Despite restrictions, businesses around TD Ameritrade Park predict sales similar to past years.
Hitchcock noted that while the NCAA trumps the city as far as attendance inside TD Ameritrade Park, it doesn’t influence the businesses near the stadium, which fall under the jurisdiction of the mayor and the governor. Currently, he said, restaurants are operating from anywhere from 80& capacity to full capacity.
“Even if they say 50% capacity in the stadium, I have a feeling that the grounds around the stadium are still going to probably be at about 80 or 90% of what they were in 2019,” Hitchcock said. “I have a feeling there will be families and children, a lot of locals still in the area, taking part in activities. We’re certainly optimistic.”
June is typically a strong month for Blatt anyway, Hitchcock said, and the usual increase in foot traffic during the warmer weather should return as the vaccine becomes more readily available and things begin to open up post-pandemic.
The company opens Zesto’s, its ice cream window during the summer, which provides another source of revenue. The walk-up window used to be on the south side of the building, but after a remodeling effort enlarged the facility and created increased space inside the building, the window moved to the north side, which Hitchcock said is an access entry point to TD Ameritrade Park.
All these factors figure to combine for a strong June, even if the CWS doesn’t operate at full capacity.
“I don’t think we’ll see the same sales we saw in 2019, but we’ll be happy to do 70% of that,” Hitchcock said. “I think that’s an attainable number.”
While Goss said he didn’t think businesses needed to worry about dealing with another pandemic while preparing for the CWS, he did caution that the event has faced disruptions in the past. In 2011, for example, the city faced flooding concerns prior to the start of the CWS.
“Businesses have to have plans in place for ‘What happens if there’s flooding this year’ or ‘What if the NCAA limits attendance,’” Goss said. “You have to have those contingency plans in place, and that’s particularly the case for those in leisure or hospitality — that would be restaurants and hotels — where the direct impact is very significant.”
Despite the financial hit the pandemic dealt to businesses, Hitchcock said the past year offered an opportunity to learn and adjust the way business is done. Blatt now offers delivery and online ordering, for example, providing consumers with additional avenues to buy their product. Sales from online and delivery orders are incremental because third parties take a cut of the profit, but it’s better than selling nothing, he said.
Perhaps more importantly, Hitchcock said the pandemic forced improvements on the health and safety front. They started running wellness checks for employees, something he admitted probably should have been in place before the pandemic and will continue once things have returned to normal.
“Being prepared for such a situation, financially and mentally, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got a reserve set aside and you’re mentally prepared for a crisis like this,” he said, “because in our lifetime, it may happen again.”