Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Sports/Recreation and Sports Business

BENNER: It all began with a tournament nobody wanted

June 11, 2011

Our city’s sports strategy has succeeded because it built something other than venues.

Like relationships and trust.

So as Indianapolis celebrates another big win over Chicago in the form of the Big Ten’s football championship games and a share of the league’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, it’s important to note how it all played out.

In fact, the roots of this latest success can be traced back to, of all things, women’s basketball.

In 1994, the Big Ten decided to start a conference postseason women’s tournament. It cast about for potential host cities and met with a yawn.

Women’s basketball? Who would want to take a risk on a tournament for a sport that was still struggling to gain appeal?

Only one city was interested: ours.

Having already hosted Big Ten championships in swimming and diving and track and field, the women’s tournament was viewed as an opportunity to enhance relationships with the Big Ten.

“We had a belief that the Big Ten could be an important event host and the most important part of that was relationship-building,” recalls Dale Neuburger, who was then president of the Indiana Sports Corp.

Remember, the Big Ten had not yet started the men’s tournament. And no one could foresee a future conference football championship game. There was no guarantee the women’s tournament would lead to anything.

Nonetheless, Indy took it on. The organization all had to be done from scratch. Placed in charge was a young professional named Allison Melangton. You may have heard of her. She’s now directing the 2012 Super Bowl effort.

The women’s tournament bounced from Market Square Arena to Hinkle Fieldhouse to the RCA Dome and finally to Conseco Fieldhouse. It wasn’t a money-maker. Neuburger recalls breaking even was the goal.

But the Sports Corp. embraced it with passion and organization, never treating it like a second-class event. The Big Ten staff and, in particular, Commissioner Jim Delany, couldn’t help but notice.

After hosting the men’s tournament during its first four years (1998-2001) in the United Center, the Big Ten began rotating between Chicago and Conseco Fieldhouse, in part in recognition of Indy’s excellence in hosting the women’s tournament, as well as the design of our downtown and the ability to make the tournaments part of a basketball festival experience.

Once again, the folks at the Sports Corp., a multitude of community partners, Rick Fuson and the fieldhouse staff, and a legion of volunteers rose to the occasion. So when the Big Ten decided it was going to keep both tournaments in the same city for five years, Indy outgunned Chicago again and landed them from 2008-2012.

Then along came Big Ten expansion, divisions and the creation of the championship football game. On short notice for the 2011 game, Indy again got the nod. Trust. And upon further, lengthier review, Indianapolis was once again the Big Ten’s choice to host the game through 2015.

The personal touch, the relationships developed over the years, have become the tipping point.

Just look at whom Indy sent to Chicago for the bid presentation: Gov. Mitch Daniels, Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian and Indiana Pacers Vice President Clark Kellogg. It was a cohesive, creative, united, all-hands-on-deck bid.

Going back to a women’s basketball tournament no one else wanted, our city— represented by some engaging and highly skilled people—has repeatedly shown how much it values both the Big Ten championships and the relationships.

“If we failed, we could have lost the Big Ten’s trust,” Neuburger said. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to do what you said you would do. Indianapolis kept its promises … it never let the Big Ten down.”

Now then, my deadline for last week’s column came prior—no pun intended—to the revelation that the Nissan 350Z Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor is driving is not new, but a 2007 model with 80,000 miles on it. Pryor’s attorney produced a bill of sale showing Pryor’s mother is paying for the car through a loan. Pryor’s mother financed the 350Z for a little more than $11,000 after a trade-in of a 2009 Dodge Charger her son previously had been driving, also financed by her.

I apologize for the misrepresentation.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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