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Lucas Oil Stadium offers uncharted waters for US Olympic Trials

Images: USA Swimming & Lucas Oil Stadium

Less than a month remains until Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, changes course from its usual fare and hosts what is expected to be the most attended swim meet and the largest Olympic selection event in history.

Taking place from June 15-23, Lucas Oil Stadium will host the 2024 US Olympic Team Trials – Swimming, as American athletes battle for a place in the squad for Paris 2024. First announced in March 2022, this year’s event marks a significant upgrade in scale for USA Swimming.

While Indianapolis last hosted the swimming Trials in 2000, its home of late has been Omaha’s CHI Health Center arena. “We are very fortunate to have hosted the Trials in Omaha at CHI Health Center from 2008 to 2020,” USA Swimming president and CEO, Tim Hinchey, told TheStadiumBusiness.com.

“As the popularity of our sport continued to rise and tickets sold out, it was clear that demand exceeded the capacity of a college hockey or basketball arena. So, we needed to accommodate the growing number of fans wanting to attend the Olympic Trials, and Indianapolis presented itself as the perfect stage for this momentous move.

“This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 1924 US Olympic Swimming Trials, which actually took place in Indianapolis at Broad Ripple Park Pool. Indianapolis has a strong resume when it comes to hosting world-class events, especially in our sport.

“This community’s passion for swimming will undoubtedly be on full display during the Trials. In fact, Indianapolis is within a day’s driving distance for 25% of USA Swimming members. This will maximise our membership’s easy access to the event.

“The 2024 Olympic Trials will be the first time a swim meet is held in an NFL stadium. This innovative approach stems from our commitment to pushing the boundaries for our sport and finding new ways to attract and engage fans.

“We anticipate this will be the most attended swim meet and the largest Olympic selection event in history. The Trials will reaffirm our position as a best-in-class NGB (national governing body) by making Olympic selection history and redefining the fan experience at the Olympic Trials.”

Adaptation process

In order to adapt an NFL stadium into a world-class aquatics venue, three temporary pools – two 50-metre and one 25-metre – will be installed over the field in Lucas Oil Stadium.

In order to achieve this, Lucas Oil Stadium is being split into two halves, with a tarp installed around the 50-yard line to separate the main competition pool and the warm-up facilities. The main 50-metre competition pool will be on the south side of the stadium, featuring 10 lanes and stadium seating. The other two warm-up pools, at 25 and 50 metres, respectively, will be on the other side of the tarp on the north side of the stadium.

The temporary pools’ construction began on May 12. Hinchey said the reported seven-figure build cost is being financed as part of the overall event budget, with USA Swimming using revenue from ticket sales and sponsorship to offset the expenses. The pools will be sold to be used as permanent aquatic facilities immediately following the Trials.

While CHI Health Center, and its temporary pool set-up, could hold around 14,500 fans, Lucas Oil Stadium is set to seat 30,000 in its swimming guise. “The planning for the Olympic Trials at Lucas Oil Stadium started well before March 2022, so this concept has been several years in the making,” said Hinchey.

“One of our top priorities for this historic meet is elevating the fan experience through new engaging and creative ideas, so we’ve continued to add activities in and around the stadium to enhance the fan experience.

“For instance, we will expand USA Swimming Live, a free fan fest on Georgia Street, which will showcase an incredible 69-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower to celebrate the road to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

“The Toyota Aqua Zone will also be expanded from previous iterations and will feature a USA Swimming Network Content Lounge, a space for creators to produce content surrounded by thousands of fans.

“In the stadium, a new 50-foot digital scoreboard will be added, displaying athlete video profiles as they enter the deck for semi-final and final races. There will also be theme nights and giveaways each evening in the venue. We aim to make the Trials as interactive as possible for fans.”

Making the most of an NFL setting

While CHI Health Center’s primary tenant is the men’s basketball team of Creighton University, the switch to Lucas Oil Stadium grants USA Swimming the opportunity to tap into all of the bells and whistles associated with an event at the home of an NFL team.

Hinchey said: “We are very excited to take advantage of the world-class space and facilities at Lucas Oil Stadium and the Indiana Convention Center. We have prioritised providing the ultimate environment for our athletes to perform at their best and enhance the athlete and fan experience during the Trials.

“We more than tripled the space available for athletes and coaches with 1,200 seats, the length of the pool, dedicated to them. This will provide participants with plenty of space to watch and cheer when they aren’t competing or coaching.

“Athletes will also have access to additional resources such as increased massage therapy stations, cold tubs, stretching mats, quiet spaces, and an expanded athlete lounge. We also added more pool space with additional lanes in the warm-up pools.

“Additionally, Lucas Oil Stadium has given us the opportunity to triple the seating capacity for fans. We feel this will create an electrifying atmosphere never before seen at a swim meet and will serve as a catalyst for the growth of the sport.”

Tackling challenges

With no natatorium in the United States deemed big enough to host a meet of this magnitude, USA Swimming has built up significant experience of delivering temporary pool facilities across the past five Olympic Trials. However, as Hinchey acknowledges, this year’s event ups the challenge significantly.

He stated: “We went into this move to challenge ourselves. As a leading NGB, we are used to being first-movers and innovators. Engineering the construction of three pools in an NFL stadium is no easy task, and there are unique challenges to any new venue, especially one of this magnitude. We were willing to take this risk and are confident the hard work will pay off.

“Certainly, the tripling of the seating capacity to accommodate an entirely new group of swim fans required the backing of strong marketing tactics and campaigns. The historic attendance of the upcoming Olympic Trials will be the direct result of a two-plus-year coordinated marketing plan. We are incredibly thankful to our partners at Indiana Sports Corp for their dedication to this project.”

Stadium-filling strategy

Prior to the pandemic, which disrupted the planning process for the Trials heading into Tokyo’s postponed 2020 Olympic Games, the 2016 event eclipsed all previous attendance marks with nearly 200,000 spectators across 15 sold-out sessions at CHI Health Center, and a 30% increase in tickets sold over 2012.

More than 36 million television viewers watched live primetime coverage from the eight nights of Trials on NBC, while the event generated more than $74m (£58.2m/€68.2m) in economic impact for the city of Omaha. Indiana Sports Corp is expecting this figure to rise to over $100m for the upcoming Trials, with USA Swimming having crafted a carefully tailored approach to marketing and ticketing. 

Hinchey added: “Our marketing and ticket strategy revolves around offering an enjoyable experience for each and every fan. With eight different price points and seating sections, we want to ensure everyone attending this groundbreaking event will be more than satisfied.

“Our bronze-level tickets offer access to the venue at a lower price point than any tickets in the 2016 and 2020/2021 Olympic Trials in Omaha. We are also offering poolside ‘splash zone’ tickets for the first time with VIP on-deck hospitality.

“Regarding sales, we are currently on pace to hit our goals but are certainly continuing to push hard, and our marketing plans will continue to ramp up as we approach the event. We cannot wait to see it all come to life.”