When the nation's top speedskaters took the oval at the Pettit National Ice Center this week to compete for a spot on the 2022 U.S. Olympic team headed to Beijing in February, they weren't greeted by the usual crowd of cheering fans.
U.S. Speedskating on Sunday decided spectators and media would not be allowed at its U.S. Olympic Team Trials event, which convenes more than 60 male and female athletes for five days of competition on Jan. 5-9. The decision came as Milwaukee's COVID-19 case rates surge as a result of the highly-contagious omicron variant.
When it received the news, the Pettit Center was ready to welcome sellout crowds three of the five days, with 4,200 tickets already sold. And based on its success hosting the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, which brought six days of sellouts, the venue had high expectations, said Randy Dean, executive director at the Pettit Center.
With short notice, the venue scrambled to offset some of the expenses it incurred to put on such a large-scale event. Those expenses, now sunk costs, included set-up and take-down of tenting, bulk orders of food for catering and concessions, as well as parking and security services. Not to mention almost two weeks without public skating - the Pettit's main source of revenue.
In an email sent to ticket holders, Dean said the move to no spectators was the "most difficult action" he had taken in his 13 years as executive director. Still, the Pettit is in full support of USSS' decision, saying it was the right one to make given the risk. After all, the event holds the same level of significance in the eyes of the competitive speedskating community.
"It would have been great for the (Milwaukee) community if people wanted to participate by being here, to have that chance, and I'm sure the athletes will miss them, too, having that type of energy in the building, but they get to compete and pursue their dreams to try and make the Olympic team," he said.
What's more, the team trials are airing live on NBC Sports, USA Network, NBCOlympics.com and Peacock, which means the national sports spotlight will once again highlight the Milwaukee and Pettit Center. Ironically, the event has gotten more publicity following the spectator ban than it probably would have otherwise, said Dean.
An official U.S. Speedskating training site with one of only two indoor Olympic ovals in the country, the Pettit Center attracts U.S. Olympians year-round.
And the venue is just as well known internationally. In January 2020, it hosted the inaugural Four Continents Speed Skating Championships, which drew 75 of the world’s top speed skaters from from North America, South America, Asia and Oceania. Dean said the Pettit's oval is considered one of the world's fastest tracks located at sea level, which is why it competes with the likes of the Utah Olympic Oval in Park City, where the altitude is higher, the air is thinner, and therefore, the times are slightly faster.
"We'll continue to look at events here and try and bring events here," he said. "Will we have the (Olympic) trials four years from now? That's a long way off, and certainly we'd love to consider it but we'll see what transpires over the next couple years leading up to the 2026 games."
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The 2018 U.S. Olympic Team Trials event at the Pettit Center. Photo credit: Pettit Center[/caption]