‘A Massive Blow:’ Omaha Feels Impact Of 2020 College World Series Cancellation

Image credit: (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

The NCAA on March 12 announced the cancellation of the College World Series in an effort to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus, dealing the sport of college baseball a mighty blow.

In the blink of an eye, everything that the players and coaches in college baseball had been working toward was gone. There would be no 2020 national champion.


But the sport, its coaches and its players will bounce back, probably in 2021 with a fresh start. It might be much tougher, however, for business in Omaha to bounce back.

Omaha is an event-hosting city, but Omaha and the College World Series are synonymous. For two weeks in June, it brings in people from all over the country, to say nothing of those locals who might spend more money downtown while they attend games than they would on any average day. And for many people, it’s an annual pilgrimage.

“The College World Series, it’s the crown jewel of what happens in Omaha,” said Kevin Culjat, an Omaha native who owns the bar Lefty O’Toole’s across the street from TD Ameritrade Park. “Omaha is amazing in the way it supports events and sports and everything that it does, not having anything of our own, maybe the Huskers down the road in Lincoln.

“You don’t really have anything to attach on to, but my goodness, the College World Series has been a part of every one of our lives since we were kids. I started going when I was 10 years old, and even when I moved to Colorado, I came back 11 years in a row for the College World Series before my wife and I eventually moved back here and had kids.”

When you think about the business in restaurants, bars, hotels, and stores that disappeared with the March 12 cancellation, the potential revenue lost all around the city is staggering.

A study conducted for the 2016 event by CWS of Omaha, Inc., the non-profit organizing committee of the College World Series, estimated that those two weeks brought about $70 million into Omaha.

“There is a human side of all these cancellations,” Omaha mayor Jean Stothert said in a statement. “We have to consider the financial impact on the city, but also the individuals that will be affected.”

Culjat and his staff are some of those individuals. Although Culjat owns several different establishments in the city, “Lefty’s,” as it is known, and its neighbor Rocco’s Pizza and Cantina, share Mike Fahey Street with TD Ameritrade Park, making those locations particularly sensitive to the recent cancellations.

“The last few years, it’s probably 50 percent of your entire yearly revenue in about a 14- or 15-day period, which is obviously extremely amazing when you consider that half a year is made in literally two-and-a-half weeks” Culjat said. “It’s a monster chunk, and not just for me, but all of the people who work for me. I’m in a situation where I own other locations, and I’m able to bring all my people down there, and everybody gets to be a part of it, and get a piece of it, and people set their vacations off of it, they plan on things they’re going to buy because of it. It’s a massive blow.”

In a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CWS is simply one of a handful of events in the city that have been scuttled in recent days. Omaha was also set to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament at CHI Health Center Arena just down the street from TD Ameritrade Park. Additionally, TD Ameritrade Park annually hosts the Big Ten Tournament, which can draw well in the years when local teams like Iowa and Nebraska are competing for the title. That’s to say nothing of all the concerts, shows and festivals that happen in and around downtown Omaha on any given day that are now canceled.

The U.S. Olympic Swim Trials are also set to take place in June at the CHI Health Center Arena, and while nothing has been announced about that event yet, it’s not difficult to imagine that changing as time goes by.

For Culjat and other local business owners, it’s been one hit after another in a week where things escalated rather quickly.

“We had first-round NCAA Tournament basketball games here, too,” Culjat said. “I told my wife a few weeks prior, I said ‘You know, I don’t know if we’re going to get the fans,’ that’s what we really thought. They’ll probably hold the tournament here, but there’s a distinct chance that they won’t have the fans, and then we talked about (how) this thing seems to be a couple months-long process, if it does happen, they’ll wait on the College World Series to make a decision or maybe back it up a little bit. Those were all the things that everybody really thought was going to happen.

“For us, it was NCAA basketball tournament, then the Big Ten baseball tournament, then going to the College World Series and then the swim trials. It was a massive run for everybody here. When the NCAA kind of started going crazy with what they were talking about with basketball, and all of the sudden, you’re like ‘Well, okay, they’re definitely going to postpone the Series for sure,’ and then when they just dropped the bomb, it sucked the wind out of you.”

Unfortunately, the goal for so many of these businesses now is simply getting by until the big events, including the CWS, return.

“To be quite honest, you’re kind of in shock right now. You just really don’t know what to do or what to say, and now you’re just hoping that it gets back to normal at some point,” Culjat said. “We all held out a little hope, I think, that the NCAA would have waited and played their summer sports later in the year and possibly had the College World Series in August, right before football, but obviously it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen now. Now you just hope that we can all hold on and be a part of it next year.”

Anyone who has been to the College World Series knows the importance of the businesses that have cropped up around the event. Whether back at Rosenblatt Stadium or now at TD Ameritrade Park, the Omaha business community has always wrapped its arms around the CWS, and in return, the fans have wrapped their arms around local business.

With no College World Series this year, the health of that relationship, at least in the near term, is in peril.

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