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

BENNER: I'm more interested in soccer all of a sudden

January 23, 2010

I must be honest.

Most of the time when it comes to soccer, I couldn’t give a kick less.

Other than to occasionally follow the fortunes of the Indiana University booters—ah, how I love the term “booters”—or the USA Olympic teams, it’s not a sport that commands my attention.

Like most Americans, I prefer football, not futbol.

I can tell you who won the last World Cup (vive Italia!) but as for the most recent Major League Soccer champion, sorry. I had to look it up (Real Salt Lake over the Los Angeles Galaxy … and it was news to me that Salt Lake City had a team).

Whenever the subject comes up, I always tell people there are two things that might make me become more interested in soccer:

One, double the width of the goal. And, two, eliminate offsides.

Just with those two, simple tweaks, scores would no longer be 1-0 or 2-1, but 18-16 or perhaps even higher. Don’t we all love offense?

Are soccer players great athletes? Without question. Those on the elite level have exceptional skills.

And despite my American bias, there’s no doubt that—even as we make great efforts to export basketball, football and baseball—soccer is the world’s game.

Which is why, when I gathered with others recently in a downtown watering hole, I exulted over the announcement that Indianapolis was among the 18 finalist cities as part of the USA bid to bring the World Cup to the States in 2018 or 2022.

That is a big deal, especially when you consider that more than 50 cities were under initial consideration, followed by a second list of 27 in the running before the most recent cut.

Understand, there is still a ways to go before Indianapolis crosses the finish line and can start preparing. If the USA is awarded the World Cup in either of those years—the decision is expected later this year, but the bid presenters at the Indiana Sports Corp. are bullish on the U.S. chances—there will be another elimination of six cities, leaving 12 that actually will host games.

Strikes against Indianapolis are its lack of ethnic diversity, market size and the absence of a significant soccer tradition (excepting the college variety). But that pretty much sums up the minuses.

Indy’s advantages are its central location, a robust youth soccer program that includes hosting large-scale events, the convenience and compactness of downtown and, at the top of the list, Lucas Oil Stadium.

It was also interesting to note that Indianapolis is virtually isolated geographically among the 18 U.S. bid cities, the closest being Nashville and Kansas City.

What’s not known is, if Indy is among the final 12, how many games it would host in a 30-day period. The best guess is that Indy would stage several of the early-round games and possibly a quarter-final.

Again, I’m not anti-soccer. Apathetic would be a better word. But even getting this far in the bid process is a victory for the city and the soccer community. And I really do hope that someday in 2018 or 2022, we hear the word “goooooooaaaaaaal” being shouted from the Lucas Oil press box.

For one thing, I enjoy international competition. The Pan Am Games left an indelible mark on our city. The world championships we’ve had—notably, gymnastics, men’s basketball and swimming—were artistic successes. Yes, basketball, with a bad USA team and a post-9/11 international atmosphere, tanked at the gate. But the gold-medal game between Argentina and Yugoslavia was one of the most passionate and intense I ever have witnessed.

The Solheim Cup allowed us to stoke up some patriotic fervor that was nonetheless respectful to the European opposition, as you would expect in the genteel world of golf.

The U.S. Grand Prix and now, Moto GP, have brought a distinctly international flavor to our mostly homogenous community, if only for a weekend.

And on a side note, I’ve heard people poke fun at Hizzoner, the mayor, for wishing for a Chinatown, or the sport of cricket, in our city. Hey, looking for a little spice to add to our mostly salt-and-pepper population isn’t a bad thing, is it?

The World Cup would be a tremendous event for Indy, not just for the exposure and spending it would bring with it, but because of the vibe it would create in our streets, hotels, restaurants and venues.

Why, just one game with the Brazilians and their exceedingly passionate and fun-loving following would be worth the effort.•

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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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