Circle City attracting broader sports audience

By Etheria Modacure

INDIANAPOLIS—Flocking from all around the country and globe, fans descend upon this city once a year to see the world’s biggest sporting event, the Indianapolis 500. Thirty years ago, this was the one sporting event the city could tout as its own.

Fast forward to 2011, and the town hosted the Men’s (2010) and Women’s (2011) NCAA Final Four, NFL Scouting Combine and FINA World Championships. In February, Super Bowl XLVI will be held here.

These are a small sample of sporting events to come to a city that has seen its downtown area revitalized in the past 30 years. Conseco Fieldhouse, home of the Indiana Pacers and Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, are within walking distance of each other. It gives visitors and fans the ability to conveniently enjoy a sporting event no matter the season.

This wasn’t the case in the late ‘70s, when there was one professional sports team in town, the Pacers, and the downtown area was vacant after dark. With the help of an ambitious mayor and city leaders, Indianapolis has seen growth economically through sporting events and tourism dollars generated from visitors.

U.S. Senator Dick Luger, R-Ind, who was former mayor, had a vision to bring an identity to Indianapolis other than the Indy 500, according to Chris Gahl, director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association.

“He took four or five city leaders down into a log cabin, and they discussed the vision for Indianapolis,” Gahl said. “It was using sports as an attractant to grow economically.”

This was the beginning of the upward climb for Indianapolis’ sporting culture and economic development. The city has attracted more than games. Sporting governing bodies such as the NCAA, USA Football and USA Track & Field have relocated to what is one of the nation’s largest cities

When visitors come to the city for a sporting event, whether it is a Men’s or Women’s Big Ten Basketball Tournament game or the Final Four, they’re able to shop, eat and drink close to the arena and never have to leave the downtown area.

“[Tourism is]critical for a city that’s not a major media market,” Gahl said. “If you’ve been here, you know we’re sport minded. It’s crucial to have that fan-festive atmosphere—that natural gathering that occurs before a sporting event or even a home Pacers or Fever game.”

Helping the city receive these events is a nonprofit organization established in 1979 that has been a strong supporter of Indianapolis and the state: The Indiana Sports Corporation.

In the bidding process, John Dedman, vice president of communications for Indiana Sports Corp., said every step is different, as a city becomes competitive with other cities.

“We have to meet the specifications of the event owners put forward, saying at the very minimum, we can do what you ask,” Dedman said. “Many of them are big business; they’re great for city or regions. We have a volunteer base dedicated to doing any job possible and really takes a lot of work off that event owner’s plate.”

He said the hotels, restaurants and convention center in a downtown area that gives them the opportunity to explore other areas before and after games are helpful for visitors.

“All these other events have put us in the position to where now Indianapolis is hosting the 2012 Super Bowl,” Dedman said. “When you look back 30 years ago—even 10 years ago Indianapolis wasn’t in the conversation to host that. Now through showing what we can do and showcasing our city through these events, the NFL owners have a lot of confidence that the Super Bowl is going to be great.”

Helping the NFL showcase its marquee game was the Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee. Undeterred by not landing the game in 2007 when losing to Dallas, it returned in 2008 to the NFL owners meeting with an unprecedented $25 million on hand to show it was capable of hosting the Super Bowl.

Dianna Boyce, communications director for Super Bowl 2012, said they already had commitments from donors and charitable contributions for the event’s budget.

“When the NFL comes, they’re bringing $1 million to fund a youth education center.,”  Boyce said. “We’re taking that $1 million and adding it to our $11.2 million to build a 27,000-square-foot Legacy Center. This is a center going on our Near East Side, and it is an area served by 32,000 residents that don’t have a YMCA or Boys & Girls Club.”

Dedman said while Indianapolis considers itself one of the “Big Boys,” when the city sets its sights on an event, whether against regional, national or international competition, it’s done with a winning mindset.

“On the horizon, we want to look at these Big Ten events coming up and try to keep those,” Dedman said. “We’ve got Final Four, men’s in 2015, women’s in 2016; we’ll have regional’s in 2013 and 2014 on the men’s side, so it’s going to keep a lot us busy, but it’s a good problem to have.”