When the Federation Equestre Internationale put out a press release  about bidders for the 2017 FEI World Cup Finals, lots of readers did a double-take to see Omaha, Neb., listed as a contender. Omaha is seeking to host both the Longines FEI World Cup Show Jumping Final and the FEI World Cup Dressage Final in 2017.
Omaha, located smack in the center of the United States, isn’t a known hotbed of English equestrian sport. So what is this Midwestern city doing going up against the likes of London, Hong Kong and ‘s-Hertogenbosch for the World Cup?
The answer is that Lisa Roskens, a member of the board of the 501c3 Omaha Equestrian Foundation, has a big dream: to bring world class show jumping to her hometown. Roskens is the chairman and CEO of The Burlington Capital Group, an investment banking, money management and real estate development firm based in Omaha. She’s also an avid amateur jumper rider.
For two years, the Omaha Equestrian Foundation has played host to The International Omaha , a two-day show jumping event in April that in 2013 had an FEI CSI** rating. This year’s show offered children’s/adult, low junior/amateur-owner and high junior/amateur owner jumper competitions on April 12-13, as well as the $50,000 International Omaha Grand Prix.
Roskens points out that Omaha is no stranger to top-level sport. The Olympic trials for the U.S. swim team were held there in 2008 and 2012 and will return in 2016. The city has also hosted the College World Series of baseball since 1950. The 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships were also held there.
“One of my favorite quotes is from Mike Unger, who is the Assistant Executive Director of USA Swimming,” said Roskens. “He said, ‘Omaha turns the question mark into an exclamation point.’ "
We talked to Roskens and John McQueen, the competition manager of The International Omaha, about the World Cup Final bid and how they hope to turn Omaha into an exclamation point for horse sports.
Chronicle: Why Omaha?
Roskens: A lot of people ask that question! The bottom line is that I love Omaha, and I love show jumping, and I think they two should meet.
The longer answer is that Omaha is a great regional city. We don’t have a professional sports team, [so] we don’t have a lot of what pulls energy and time and money out of people in larger cities. So we get excited about the things that happen here, and we back them in a way that’s really unique. I’ve lived here long enough to see the people of this city continue to amaze with their enthusiasm.
McQueen: When you think Nebraska, you think short buildings and cornfields. I will tell you the first thing I thought about Omaha as an outsider when I flew in the first time. I landed at the international airport and I was driven into a city that was as cosmopolitan as any place I’ve ever been in my life.
One thing about Omaha, as an outsider coming in, is that the people are far and above the most eager people I’ve ever seen about, “What can we do for my city, and what can I do, and how big can we do it?” As a city, they support things.
Chronicle: Do you think there’s a spectator base for the Finals?
McQueen: I think it would have a spectator base beyond what anyone can imagine. Everybody from Nebraska is going to come, and it’s dead in the center of the United States, so it’s easy to get to. When you are a tourist in Omaha, you’re met with smiling faces and a “what can we do to make your stay better?” attitude.
The city is excited about it. Omaha is a little-known gem. They’ve hosted the college world series for years, which is an enormous event. Twice they’ve hosted the Olympic swim trials, and they had national skating competition. Omaha is no stranger to top-level sport.
Chronicle: Is there a horse show community around Omaha?
Roskens: There is. We have a wide variety of horse sports in this area. Part of my mission with the The International Omaha was to bring a bigger base of higher level competitors to our region. We have a great schooling show circuit, a wonderful regional circuit, and then we have people like Karen Cudmore, who are based here but travel all the time to find the level of the competition they need.
My goal is to try and build something very much along the model of what Spruce Meadows has done for Calgary. They put a stake in the ground and said, “We’re going to have high-level events,” and made it happen. And lo and behold, they started to get high-level talent to come to the area.
One horse show a year obviously isn’t going to get that done, but it’s a start, and we’re hopefully going to have more “A” shows in the area. It’s a nice location because you can go either direction. Everywhere is equally far away!
Chronicle: Do you have support from the local community for show jumping?
McQueen: The horse community as a whole, that I’ve talked to, is out of their minds excited at the possibility.
At the International, we try to put on an international event that's also as user-friendly as possible. We’ve had some South Americans join us and a large contingent from Canada come. They’ve already said they won’t miss our show.
Roskens: Our first year of the International, 100 percent of our sponsors were outside of the equestrian industry. We really didn’t have any of the usual names that you see in show jumping. After the success of the first year, we built on that and had a couple more names come in.
My goal is to get commercial sponsorships. If you look at the sports that generate millions of dollars of commercial sponsorships, they’re not as exciting as ours. Golf has been marketed as the most gripping sport, and yet, it doesn’t compare to show jumping in my opinion. That’s been a sport that has been transformed by television, and I think our sport can have that same effect if we market our sport effectively.
We’ve had incredible support from the city. The number that shocks most people outside of Omaha is that for two nights, we sold 8,000 tickets to watch show jumping. We had 500 people come to the VIP party. That’s the kind of support we’ll bring to the World Cup.
Chronicle: Tell us about the proposed venue, the CenturyLink Center Omaha.
Roskens: The CenturyLink Center Omaha is five minutes from the airport, hotels and restaurants in the entertainment district are within walking distance, and there’s a 450-room five-star hotel connected to the arena by a skywalk. Riders and grooms can walk across and do night check in their pajamas if they want.
It’s a state-of-the-art, beautiful facility. The convention center, which is a two-story facility for stabling and a vendor’s area, is connected to the arena.
McQueen: It is very horse-friendly. Stabling and warm-up are in one hall, and you walk 30 feet down an alley to the main show ring. Everything is under one roof. Once they come up the ramp to the building, they’re on rubber matting and dirt for the entire time.
Chronicle: Where are you in the bidding process?
McQueen: Right now, we’re in the wait-and-see phase. We were approved to submit a bid application, and they sent us reams of paper asking every question you can think of. We have a fabulous committee and we’ve met several times to answer the questions. We’ve submitted videos of the city and the International. Anything we can do to boost our chances, we added to that application. [Allocation of the Finals will take place at the June 2014 FEI Bureau Meeting.]
Chronicle: If your 2017 bid isn’t successful, will you keep bidding for a Finals?
Roskens: Definitely. My goal is to try and help build the sport in this country in general, and in region in specific. The point of The International Omaha was to test the waters and see if we could pull something like this off. It was very successful, and the goal is to build toward the World Cup Final. That’s been the mission of the Omaha Equestrian Foundation since we started. I want to get 2017, but if we don’t, we’ll keep applying.
It’s not about me; it’s not even about Omaha; it’s about show jumping in America.