Benner/Sports and Indianapolis 500 and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and IndyCar Series and NASCAR and Sports Business

BENNER: A look 10 years into our city's sports future

January 9, 2010

After using the last columns of 2009 looking back, it’s time to look ahead and ponder what will take place between now and January 2020.

Q: Will the Indianapolis Colts win another Super Bowl—or two, or three—before Peyton Manning retires?

A: At least one, possibly as soon as Feb. 7 of this year.

Q: Will the Colts have success post-Peyton?

A: Manning is a once-in-a-generation quarterback. But if—a big “if”—the NFL maintains a salary structure that keeps smaller markets on a level playing field, the Colts will continue to chase playoff berths under the eventual direction of Bill Polian’s son, Chris.

Q: Will Colts fans hang with them if/when they’re not reeling off playoff seasons every year?

A: This is what will determine if we really have become a football town. If the response to the Pacers (The Brawl notwithstanding) is any indication, the answer is doubtful and the season-ticket waiting list could disappear. I still think we’re a fair-weather town.

Q: Will the Indiana Pacers—or, for that matter, the Indiana Fever—still be here?

A: It’s unfathomable to think we would let an institution such as the Pacers get away. But at some point, the NBA has to get real about its salary and contract structure and how it hampers small markets. We also should be concerned what might happen with the next generation of ownership post-Herb Simon. As for the Fever, I’m hopeful but not optimistic that either they or the WNBA will survive.

Q: If the Pacers remain, can they return to prominence?

A: There’s salary-cap light at the end of the tunnel in 2011 and a promising young nucleus upon which to build. Will the Pacers return to playoff status? Yes. Will they return to championship-contender level? Only if they can sign and retain at least one—if not two—players of top-20 caliber.

Q: Will Indy still be an amateur sports capital?

A: Not unless someone musters the energy, vision and—of course—the resources to do so. As mentioned in this space previously, the IU Natatorium needs millions in repairs and upgrades. IUPUI is eyeing the track stadium for other uses. The competitive environment to attract national and Olympic-related events is more challenging than ever. And other than the pursuit of World Cup soccer preliminaries, there seems to be no desire to pursue international events.

Q: Will the Indianapolis 500 specifically and open-wheel racing in general find a winning formula that results in robust fields, innovation and general fan interest?

A: The Indy 500 will survive, but for it to prosper it must have a strong series to support it. In my view, that means more (and affordable) chassis and engine options. And with all due respect to the likes of Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon, open-wheel must attract and retain more American-born racers—male and female.

Q: Will NASCAR choke on its success?

A: It’s already begun to with its “more-must-be-better” philosophy. That said, my greater concern is the long-term viability of the Brickyard 400. Like Indy, it will survive, but NASCAR needs to work with the local folks to make this race more entertaining.

Q: Will Tom Crean return Indiana University basketball to national relevance? Same for Brian Kelly and University of Notre Dame football?

A: Yes on IU, maybe on Notre Dame depending on whether it relaxes academic standards enough to allow the emphasis to be on “athlete” ahead of “student.”

Q: Will Matt Painter get Purdue University basketball to a Final Four?

A: Yes.

Q: Can Butler University hang on to Brad Stevens as coach?

A: I wish Stevens would follow the example of Gonzaga University’s Mark Few, but sometime soon, Stevens will be enticed by a big-school contract he may not be able to refuse.

Q: Will Purdue and Indiana play in an Old Oaken Bucket game that matters for something beyond possession of the pail?

A: Yes, but not often.

Q: What sports events might we see in Indy before 2020?

A: World Cup prelims. Post-expansion, a Big Ten (or whatever they will call it) championship football game. I want to see the Olympic Swim Trials in 2016 in portable pools on the floor of Lucas Oil Stadium. I want Indy to pursue a bowl game. Barring a blizzard in 2012, I think Indy could be back in line for another Super Bowl. And another Final Four (we already have men in 2015 and women in 2016) is possible before the end of the decade.

Q: What about the Indianapolis Indians?

A: Easy. They’ll remain the best family sports value in town.•

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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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