Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Sporting Events and Sports Business

BENNER: July events rely on big names to draw a crowd

June 29, 2009
For all the heat and sunshine, July can be a cold, dark hole in the Indianapolis sports calendar.

Other than the everbeloved Indianapolis Indians, sometimes there's not much going on.

Not this July.

This month marks the arrival of two national championships (golf's U.S. Senior Open and swimming) to join with the Indianapolis Tennis Championships presented by Lilly and the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

And, of course, the Indians have a couple of home stands, too, starting with the ultra-popular 4th of July game at Victory Field.

Baseball. Swimming. Golf. Auto Racing. Tennis. That's a veritable wide world of sports. And each event has an intriguing story line.

It begins when the ConocoPhillips USA National Swimming Championships-also known as a major stop on the Michael Phelps Image Rehabilitation Tour-come to the Indiana University Natatorium at IUPUI July 7-11.

Phelps, as you may recall, had one of those what-were-you-thinking moments when he cozied up to a marijuana bong at a party in South Carolina last November, just months after becoming The Greatest Olympian of All Time with his recordsetting eight-gold-medals performance in Beijing.

Unfortunately for Phelps, someone photographed his good time and, in January, the photos showed up on the cover of a British tabloid.

Thus, shortly after Phelps took a hit, his stature took one as well.

Certainly no one should be punished for a lifetime over a relatively innocent youthful indiscretion. Because of his immense celebrity and years in the spotlight, we forget that Phelps still is young; he turns 24 June 30.

Phelps issued the requisite mea culpas for his lack of judgment and paid for it, not from the law (after the local sheriff threatened otherwise, no charges were filed due to lack of evidence) but from a sponsor (Kellogg determined Phelps was not worthy of its cereal boxes) and USA Swimming, which issued a three-month suspension.

Phelps probably did as much harm to his sport as he did to himself. As The Greatest Olympian of All Time, he had an unprecedented platform from which to promote swimming over the next four (now three) years leading to the London Games in 2012.

America-and the world of swimming-will forgive, but not many are likely to forget. Those photos will hang around his neck just like all those gold medals did.

That said, he's still Michael Phelps. A manufacturer of underwater audio headphones recently signed Phelps to an endorsement deal. He also remains a draw for both spectators and headlines. Arlene McDonald, co-meet director of the upcoming championships that also serve as the qualifier for the World Championships in Rome later in July, says the one question she's being asked most is, "When does Michael swim?"

Answer: She doesn't know because Phelps' event list won't be turned in until a day or two before the meet. So stay tuned.

After Phelps leaves town, America's biggest star in men's tennis, former champion Andy Roddick, leads the field July 18-26 at the Indianapolis Tennis Center. Organizers made the unprecedented move of prescheduling Roddick's opening match (July 21) and it's safe to say they would welcome a deep Roddick run-like into the finals-to maintain the tournament's profile in the market. More than any other sport, tennis is driven by name recognition.

While the lords of professional tennis have treated Indianapolis like an abandoned stepchild, both Kevin Martin, the current tournament director, and his predecessor, Rob McGill, have worked incredibly hard to maintain the event's status and relevance. There's not a button they haven't pushed and it would be nice to see the organizers catch a break. I also hope the community responds not just in the short term, but also appreciates the ongoing asset the tournament has been going back to the days of the clay courts.

Unfortunately for the tournament-although NASCAR and tennis might not pull from the same demographics-its final weekend goes head to head with the truck and Nationwide series races at O'Reilly Raceway Park before the big race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Ticket sales throughout NASCAR have been lagging because of the economy while the Speedway tries to overcome skeptical fans still fuming over last year's Goodyear tire debacle.

Goodyear and NASCAR have since conducted numerous testing sessions and have pronounced the issue resolved. They better hope they're right.

July then comes to a close with the opening rounds of the U.S. Senior Open at Crooked Stick. All indications are that central Indiana will once again display that it has a significant appetite for tournament golf and that the Stick remains championship-worthy.

Enjoy the smorgasbord.
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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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