Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Amateur Sports and Sports Business

BENNER: How the Indianapolis sports movement began

December 12, 2009

My friends and former colleagues at the Indiana Sports Corp. will have a little celebration this week. 

That’s because, on Dec. 18, 1979—30 years ago—the country’s first so-called “sports commission” came into being.

Thus, the amateur sports initiative began.

How has it all played out? At last count, the tally was approaching some 500 regional, national and international events with an economic impact closing in on $4 billion. While still the home of national governing bodies for track and field, gymnastics, diving and synchronized swimming, the NCAA became the big kid on the block 10 years ago, bringing with it the promise of men’s and women’s Final Fours.

The amateur sports strategy also had a professional payoff. The investment in facilities, in particular the Hoosier Dome, brought the Colts, and the presence of the Indianapolis Colts eventually put Indy in position to bid for—and land—the 2012 Super Bowl. The Indiana Pacers, meanwhile, have been a prime supporter of amateur sports, playing a key role, for instance, in bringing the Big Ten basketball tournaments to Conseco Fieldhouse.

And what all this did for the city’s image and psyche is, as they say, priceless.

But to really appreciate where we are is to know how it all came about. Thoughts on the subject led me to a dusty document on my bookshelf titled, “Beyond The Games: The Indianapolis Amateur Sports Strategy,” commissioned by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and published in 1991.

The history is written by Nancy Kriplen, a free-lancer and former writer for The Indianapolis Times (for you youngsters, the Times was once our third daily newspaper). Kriplen traces the actual beginning of the movement to 1969 when magazine publisher Beurt SerVaas joined bank executive and former Olympic swimmer Frank McKinney Jr. to form the Sports Capital Committee, raise funds and entice the Amateur Athletic Union to move from New York to Indianapolis. 

Kriplen cites a prescient quote from former Indianapolis Star Magazine Editor Fred Cavinder who, in assessing the move of the AAU, wrote, “Other tentacles of the sports world may creep through Hoosierland, bringing some little prestige.”

Yes, just a little.

The next domino was a study released in 1972 by a Chicago firm that revealed Indianapolis as a “somewhat straight-laced, unglamorous working town” largely invisible to the rest of the nation except for the Indianapolis 500.

Kriplen writes that the report led to a lot of soul-searching and a series of meetings and retreats among city leaders about how best to forge a positive image for Indianapolis. Four years later, one of those retreats took place in Boston and involved Indy’s new mayor at the time, Bill Hudnut; attorney David Frick; previous mayor Richard Lugar’s former chief of staff, Jim Morris, who was now with Lilly Endowment Inc. as vice president of community development; and Frank McKinney Jr.

The retreat facilitator was a man named Constantine Simonides, whom Morris had met a few years before.

Simonides suggested that Indianapolis should have a “signature.”

Morris and McKinney, Simonides recalled to Kriplen, kept raising the notion that sports could be that signature.

Inspired, the group began to grow its ranks, leading to the 1977 formation of the Corporate Community Council, which was composed of the city’s movers and shakers.

More strategy sessions ensued, mostly among a loosely formed group that called itself the City Committee. Sports and tourism became focal points, partly because of assets already in place: the opening of the Indiana Convention Center in 1972 and Market Square Arena in 1974; and the presence of the AAU, led by Ollan Cassell, a former Olympian and a powerful figure in national and international sport.

In 1978, Congress passed the Amateur Sports Act, creating autonomy for each of the national 28 sports governing bodies. Cassell told Morris, McKinney and others that opportunity beckoned for cities willing to carpe diem –seize the day. 

The vision was nearing reality.

Next week, the end of the beginning.•

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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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