• Check out Wednesday's World-Herald for an eight-page special section devoted to the Bluejays. Click here to find locations to buy a copy. See a PDF of the section here, and read Alyssa Schukar's photo blog post about working with the team.
• Pick up today's World-Herald for a special section that previews Omaha's matchups and the entire tournament. Among the goodness: Can you match each tournament team with its logo?
• Join our free March Mayhem bracket contest for a chance to win $1 million.
Times like this, Robert Watson loves managing the Hilton Omaha.
The NCAA is bringing eight of the top college basketball teams to town, with fans, pep bands, tournament staff and TV crews trailing along. The 600-room hotel is booked up for the rest of the week, and that includes 150 rooms that opened just a few months ago.
Today is arrival day for out-of-towners connected to the eight men's teams in Omaha's corner of March Madness, and restaurants, hotels, shops, sponsors and even the city itself hope for economic gain from hosting the NCAA-produced event.
The Friday and Sunday game schedule could produce better results than in 2008, the last time Omaha hosted part of the men's basketball tournament. That year, many fans went to the first games on Thursday, went back home to work on Friday and then came back on Saturday if their teams won. The result was a smaller number of overnight stays — and less cash dropped in Omaha.
This year's schedule means that even fans from nearby schools Kansas and Missouri won't have to drive home for a work day in between.
On Saturday, the Omaha area's Irish — true Irish and Irish-for-a-day — will fill the tournament's day off with the green-tinted festivities of St. Patrick's Day. And the chamber of commerce apparently figured out how to rearrange Omaha's weather pattern so that spring starts a month early.
"This is going to be great," Watson said. "The alumni are coming in. It should be good times. Everyone you're talking to is pretty excited."
Today, Chad Johnson is driving a carload of gold and black decorations 576 miles from West Lafayette, Ind., to Omaha, where he'll set up Purdue University's alumni headquarters in a tent outside the Old Mattress Factory bar and grill, just across a parking lot from the CenturyLink Center, where the games will be played.
If the team wins, he'll be here through Monday morning. If not, it'll be time to fold the tent.
A check of downtown hotels Wednesday found some hotels full and others with a few rooms available. "We need basketball fans," said Susan Madsen, general manager of the Embassy Suites hotel in the Old Market.
Room rates at the hotels near the CenturyLink Center are running about $219 to $279 this weekend. Many fans whose teams lose will cancel their Saturday and Sunday reservations, but often new fans stream in because their teams won.
Even though the event is downtown, the tournament's out-of-town visitors create what hoteliers call "compression" throughout the city, with the demand for rooms pressing outward from the center of activity.
Johnson expects a good contingent of Purdue's 450,000 living alumni to attend. Among them will be Jim Schultze, president of the Purdue Club of Omaha.
The club's email list has about 250 names from Omaha, Lincoln and other communities within a 50-mile radius. On Sunday when Purdue was assigned to Omaha, Schultze's phone lit up. "How can I get tickets?" the callers asked. "What are we doing?"
Omaha's merchants hope lots of folks show up with their billfolds full. Missouri and Kansas are in the neighborhood, as sports travelers go, and Florida and Virginia baseball fans were in Omaha last summer for the College World Series.
The 12-day CWS pumps an estimated $40 million-plus into the local economy each year.
"We think it's going to be busier these four days than opening weekend of College World Series," said Sunni Renner, general manager of DJ's Dugout Sports Bar. "We've got all the team flags. We're just celebrating basketball. People will literally come out of the CenturyLink and funnel right in here."
The bar will show all 48 of the weekend's games.
In Omaha, eight teams will play Friday starting about 1 p.m., with the four winners playing Sunday.
That leaves Saturday open for St. Patrick's Day events, such as the annual Lucky Charms and Guinness 6 a.m. breakfast at the Dubliner Pub, 1205 Harney St., followed by all-day, um, events.
"We just expect it to be like a three-day St. Patrick's Day," owner Frank Vance said. The addition of basketball fans might erase the occasional lull during the day.
If the downtown bars promise to be a zoo, Omaha's real Henry Doorly Zoo also expects big crowds, including some visits by the basketball players to relax during their free hours, said Dennis Pate, the zoo's CEO and director.
The basketball tournament is one-fourth as long as the CWS, but it still has merchants excited, said Sara Cordes, manager of the north downtown Holiday Inn, six blocks from the arena. The hotel is hosting the Norfolk (Va.) State Spartans and has a 15-foot "Welcome" banner for the NCAA tournament in its lobby. Rooms are booked through Saturday.
"It's almost like the teams have some butterflies, and we're having that same kind of anticipation," Cordes said.
Workers at the Shirt Factory in Council Bluffs cranked out 800 black T-shirts with the eight team logos under a contract with Russell Athletics. The licensed shirts will be sold from a tent near the arena by a traveling retailer who specializes in sporting event souvenirs.
The big tournament shirt sales in Omaha will be by Event One, the national retailer with the contract to sell inside arenas where NCAA events take place.
Midtown Crossing's "Midtown Madness" includes free admission to the Marcus Theaters to see Friday's Creighton game on movie screens, with refreshments for sale and shuttle buses to the CenturyLink Center. The theater will do the same on Sunday if Creighton wins. Midtown's retailers and restaurants also are offering weekend specials.
One sure beneficiary from this week's games is CenturyLink Inc., whose name is on the arena thanks to a $14 million, 15-year naming contract.
"It's really priceless. This is a huge, huge event for us," said Danny Pate, vice president of CenturyLink in Nebraska, which put its name on the downtown arena last spring after acquiring Qwest Communications. "We get instant branding for the city and for the company at the same time."
This week's games start a run of national sports exposure for Omaha that includes the 2012 College World Series, June 15 through 25 or 26, and the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials, June 25 through July 2.
"The value is the out-of-town visitors coming to our community and staying in our hotels and visiting the restaurants and shops," said Roger Dixon, president of the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority. "It's good for everybody."
National coverage of the events, he said, will show more people that "we have other things besides cows and snow in the streets."
Contact the writer: