ADULT SWIM: The setup for the 2024 U.S. Olympic Swim Trials feels seamless at Lucas Oil Stadium, the first time the event will be held at an NFL venue. (Courtesy Indiana Sports Corp.)

Test case for future Swim Trials at stadiums

INDIANAPOLIS — USA Swimming unveiled the biggest stage for its sport on Wednesday, the transformation of Lucas Oil Stadium into a massive aquatics center for the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.

Ten days ahead of the event, which takes place June 15-23 at the 70,000-seat facility, local and national media got a sneak peek at the setup for the Trials. It’s the first time the event will be held at an NFL venue.

“It is incredible; it looks compact and cozy,” said Patrick Talty, president of Indiana Sports Corp. and a former NFL facility manager at University of Phoenix Stadium, now State Farm Stadium. “This is what Lucas Oil Stadium was designed for, to be multipurpose, and this (event) delivers on that aspect. It feels like it was built for this.”

USA Swimming, the governing body of amateur swimming in the U.S., partnered with Indiana Sports Corp., a group whose mission is to bring world-class sports events to Indianapolis, and Lucas Oil Stadium to make it happen, six years after discussions started about the possibility of staging the Trials at the building.

For USA Swimming, it’s a step up for the event after the past four Trials were held in an arena setting at CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska.

“It’s a chance for us again to amplify our sport, more than just the nine days, twice every four years,” said Tim Hinchey, USA Swimming’s president and CEO and a veteran NBA and MLS executive. “This is a chance for us, for the first time ever, to get beyond just the swim families, from an attendance perspective and interaction perspective.”

In some respects, USA Swimming follows the model set by the Super Bowl and NCAA Final Four, using the event to drive ancillary business, such as the Toyota Aqua Zone, amateur swimming’s fan fest booked for the Indiana Convention Center, next door to Lucas Oil Stadium. Admission is free and there will be athlete appearances. It’s another piece of USA Swimming content that’s grown over the past several years, along with the event itself.

Downtown streets in Indy will be closed for nine nights of live concerts during the Trials, a new programming feature for the event. Officials are building a 66-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower to mark the event’s ties to the 2024 Paris Olympics, set for July 26-Aug. 11.

Similar to the Final Four in stadiums, the Trials will feature a center-hung video board hanging above the competition pool. It’s supported by LED ribbon boards running along the perimeter of the competition pool. A 70-foot-tall LED screen in one corner serves as the backdrop for swimmer “walkouts,” where they’re introduced to the crowd.

Multicolored LED sport lighting from above the pool, including some cool blue hues showcased for Media Day, lends a Hollywood feel to the layout.

“There’s a lot of other equity that we’ve built into the overall experience for our families and hopefully we’ll have people get inspired by the sport,” Hinchey said. “It’s a risk; I’ll either be a hero or zero, depending on how it turns out, but our sport deserves something bigger. It’s an opportunity to give the athletes and coaches something they’re not going to get anywhere else.”

STAGE IS SET: A 70-foot-tall videoscreen designates the athletes’ “walkout’ routine at Lucas Oil Stadium. (Don Muret/Staff)

Logistically, construction started on May 12, one week after the George Strait/Chris Stapleton concert at Lucas Oil Stadium, said Eric Neuburger, the venue’s director.

The multimillion-dollar project encompasses two million gallons of water, 6,000 feet of piping and an elevated pool deck spanning more than one acre to contain the 50-meter competition pool. An adjoining warmup pool, the biggest of its kind in the world, is separated by a black curtain on the event floor.

Capacity runs 30,000 for the Trials in the lower bowl and stadium officials will keep the upper deck open in case it’s needed, Neuberger said. As of this week, ticket sales were running at half that total, Hinchey said.

In Omaha, the Trials averaged just under 14,000 a night. Drawing crowds doubling that total is a big lift, Hinchey acknowledged, but if opening night can top the indoor attendance record of 16,000 at the Rio Olympics in 2016, the momentum should help carry USA Swimming the rest of the week, he said.

For the first time, USA Swimming is offering tickets for individual sessions to help spur sales and fill the lower bowl. Previously, the whole event sold out in Omaha because there was so much ticket demand.

“I’d like to see us (sell) a little more,” Hinchey said. “It’s another test case. Can we sell this event to beyond swim fans? Could it be Olympic fans, sports fans, the local market that wants to support a major event?”

Apart from ticket sales, more advertising partners are on board for the 2024 Trials than in the past. Ely Lilly, a hometown brand, signed on as presenting sponsor, the only Trials across all U.S. sports to secure one.

In 2022, OneAmerica Financial Partners signed the first-ever deal to brand USA Swimming’s warmup gear.

USA Swimming sold 36 suites for the Trials. Two field suites will be converted into the Dive Bar presented by Bulleit Whiskey, a VVIP space. A second pop-up premium hospitality space on the main concourse overlooking the warmup pool will accommodate 300 to 400 people.

Those are a few examples of activation and revenue generation that USA Swimming officials weren’t able to consider executing at smaller venues, Hinchey said.

BUILT TO LAST: The pool construction team at Lucas Oil Stadium has 30 years of experience with temporary builds. (Courtesy USA Swimming)

What’s not new is the pool development team. Between the three primary vendors, they’ve supported multiple swimming events held in non-traditional venues across the globe for the past 32 years.

Myrtha Pools, an Italian builder of competitive swimming structures; Shiel Sexton, a local contractor; and Dodd Technologies, another local firm and a producer of “aquatic theater,” are all experienced in creating temporary structure to accommodate the sport. Myrtha Pools is also involved in the construction of the pool for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, which involves converting an indoor rugby facility.

“Dodd has been doing this since 1992 for the Olympic Trials,” said Neuburger, a high school swimmer and manager for Indiana University’s men’s swim team. He’s worked five Trials in various capacities.  “I can recollect Dodd building scaffolding in the diving well at the IU Natatorium to build a platform to get more deck space. It’s nice to have these local companies involved. There’s such a swimming nexus in Indianapolis.”