Final Four and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Opinion and Sporting Events and Notions

HETRICK: Much more than economic impact from a Final Four

April 10, 2010

Last April, a friend asked if I’d talk with a Butler University assistant basketball coach and one of the team’s players.

The coach had lost his girlfriend in a plane crash and wanted to discuss love and loss. He also wanted to preface my conversation with his player, who was seeking career advice about my profession.

Having worked with Butler President Bobby Fong, his trustees and staff, and having come to admire the school that practices the “Butler Way,” I readily agreed.

But I gotta confess: A year ago, I had no idea I was talking with the Willie Veasley, senior starter for the Butler Bulldogs—soon-to-be contenders for the NCAA men’s basketball crown.

What a ride!

Because of my close encounters of the Butler kind, and because Indianapolis was host city for the Final Four, I took great interest in this year’s NCAA tournament.

Months ago, I bought tickets to the Final Four. But doting uncle that I am, I gave them away so my niece the Butler graduate could see her team firsthand.

Besides, the games were only part of Final Four weekend.

On Friday night, my wife, Cherí, and I walked to White River State Park for the free Stone Temple Pilots concert. The place was packed with a stand-up crowd of more than 20,000.

Having had our ears assaulted by a few hard-rock numbers, our eyes dilated by psychedelic backdrops, and our lungs choked by secondhand smoke, we decided to explore the rest of downtown.

The place was hopping.

Long lines had formed outside nearly every bar. Steak joints and other restaurants were filled with diners. Motorcycles and their leather-clad riders lined Monument Circle.

Storefronts and lots that had stood vacant days before were filled with T-shirt shops, temporary bars and bandstands.

Hotel lobbies were crowded with guests, most of them men. Many were clad in the team colors of Michigan State, West Virginia, Duke and, yes, Butler. More than a few stood 6-feet-4 or more—a sure sign of current, former and would-be hoopsters.

On Saturday afternoon, we donned Butler T-shirts and returned to White River State Park for concert encounters of a tamer kind.

First up was Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish fame, now making his way in country music.

Rucker was followed by rock’s Chris Daughtry, who at one point announced, “We’re going to be on TV!”

During Monday night’s championship game, we and millions of other viewers learned what he meant, as CBS broadcast a Coke Zero commercial featuring Daughtry, Cherí, me and 20,000 other concert-goers.

As Daughtry drew to a close, we strolled through the crowd around Lucas Oil Stadium, past once-again jam-packed pubs and eateries, then walked home to focus on the televised games—and the glowing network reviews of our community and hospitality.

On Easter Sunday, we learned how events like these touch Indiana far beyond downtown Indianapolis.

Hiking through Turkey Run State Park 65 miles west of here, we found fans in out-of-state team attire wandering Indiana during the break between games. A Michigan State fan stood deep in a canyon, his camera aimed at Wedge Rock. All were happy to talk about the tournament, our state’s beauty, and, yes, Butler’s chance at a championship.

On Monday, I wore jeans and a Butler T-shirt to work. At lunchtime, some colleagues and I walked to the Butler pep rally on Monument Circle.

As if Bobby Fong weren’t hero enough, he announced to the masses assembled—including the school’s pep band and cheerleaders—that classes would be canceled the next day.

After work, I met up with a sports reporter friend from New York. Having attended a multitude of major sporting events all over the nation, he told me why Indianapolis is such an ideal host.

“People want to be close to the action,” he said, “They want to be together. They don’t want to be spread out all over the place.

“In Indianapolis,” he said, “everything’s in walking distance. Few cities can match that.”

Folks driven by hard data and quantitative measures often second-guess the economic impact of events like the Final Four. They crunch numbers, doubt multipliers and otherwise question the value of stadiums, tax breaks and assorted incentives.

But this year’s Final Four delivered a return on investment far more powerful and likely immeasurable: emotional impact.

The synchronicity of Veasley and company’s remarkable run; Butler’s “neutral” status that doesn’t incite arch-rivals (as would Indiana or Purdue universities); some chamber of commerce weather that allowed for outdoor concerts and sidewalk dining; and several billion dollars worth of public and private downtown investment over many decades—all made for a remarkable boost to our city’s spirits and reputation.

Here’s to many happy returns of Final Fours and more.•

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Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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