Originally Posted by Omaha World Herald
Omaha knows football, and the United Football League is betting that the city's passion for the game will carry over to an upstart professional team.
The UFL announced Thursday that Omaha will have the league's fifth franchise and join its experiment as a minor league to the NFL.
The year-old league is pitching its games as an inexpensive, family-friendly entertainment option comparable to a trip to the movies or a day at the zoo.
Tickets will cost about $20, and the eight-game regular season will offer Omaha four home games likely played on Fridays. The pregame events will include a kid-friendly party zone outside the stadium where players interact with fans.
“It's going to be a fun, exciting event,” said Bill Peterson, the league's senior vice president.
Commissioner Michael Huyghue told The World-Herald this week that the team will pump $10 million a year into the local economy, largely through its payroll and local marketing. It will offer 60 jobs, mostly seasonal.
Omaha's large football fan base with a Cornhusker-fed knowledge of what high-quality football is proved to be one of the main factors that sold the UFL on the city.
“In a sense, you already have a professional football team here,” Huyghue said.
Beyond tapping into that fan base, league officials said they expect to tap former Nebraska football players for the 52-spot roster.
“We've got some Nebraska guys in mind,” said Rick Mueller, the UFL's vice president and the Omaha team's general manager. “We want that to be important.”
The UFL's decision to choose Omaha reflects more than sports sense. League officials said they have a plan to succeed as a business and believe they have found strong partners in Omaha.
The Omaha franchise will have local owners, although Huyghue declined to name them because the deal has yet to be finalized. The UFL's structure calls for the league to maintain half the ownership of the team.
Huyghue said the league has found corporate support for such things as team sponsorship and group ticket sales.
Local officials also made an effective play for the team. Huyghue said he was influenced by a warm welcome from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Jim Suttle and others.
“Every point of contact we had in the city was positive,” said Huyghue, a former NFL executive.
He added later: “We feel there's enough support here locally to feel confident putting a team here.”
Huyghue said that when he met with business leaders, they vetted the league's plans, asking questions about financial backing, the quality of the play and even the reputation of the players.
Huyghue complimented the quality of Omaha's facilities, saying Qwest Center Omaha looked like a year-old facility because it was so well maintained. He praised the city for choosing to build the new downtown stadium.
“You folks do facilities outstanding here,” he said.
The president of the organization that runs the Qwest Center and will operate TD Ameritrade Park, Roger Dixon, said the UFL is just one of the tenants that will help fill the stadium's schedule, which he estimated eventually will have more than 100 dates of events.
Dixon said he believes Omaha will be successful in attracting an independent minor league baseball team.
The stadium also will host soccer and summer concerts, he said, and the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority is talking with the Big 12 and Missouri Valley Conferences about playing baseball tournaments in Omaha.
“Everybody's going to be surprised how active the facility is going to be,” Dixon said.
The UFL is expanding after one season of play. The four-team UFL, made up of ex-NFL players and former college players trying to make the big league, went looking for two expansion cities. It considered 12.
Salt Lake City, San Antonio and Austin, Texas, are the finalists for the second expansion franchise.
The four existing teams are from Hartford, Conn., Las Vegas, Orlando and Sacramento.
Omaha will be the UFL's smallest market.
Huyghue said some of Omaha's characteristics were outside the league's preferences.
The UFL set out to settle in a top 50 media market, which Omaha isn't. The venues — Rosenblatt Stadium this fall and downtown's TD Ameritrade Park for a two-year lease starting in 2011 — are smaller than the UFL had hoped for.
Omaha's lack of professional sports connections also influenced the selection.
The UFL says its success lies in tapping non-NFL markets.
Huyghue said Omaha also isn't weighed down by past failures involving major league teams.
“Sometimes it's hard to go there because there's so much baggage from the history,” he said.
Although the league is still young, it will need to prove its financial success to stick around.
The league is reportedly talking with the NFL about becoming an investor, although Huyghue wouldn't comment on that.
The UFL already has some notable investors, including NBA Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, former Google executive and current AOL CEO Tim Armstrong and Paul Pelosi, an owner of the Sacramento franchise and husband of Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House.
Until recently, Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays were a part owner of the Florida team.
Huyghue said the league expects to break even in its third year or the year after. The key, he said, will be a sustainable television deal — one promising national exposure for Omaha — although he wouldn't comment on what that might involve.
The league draws 10,000 fans a game on average in a season that runs from September through November. Huyghue said the league's success is not dependent on attendance.
Still, league official Peterson said, “We believe we can fill the stadium here.”