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After the Super Bowl, what's next for Indianapolis sports?

February 11, 2012

Barely a week has passed since Indianapolis hosted America’s most popular sporting event, and already the Indiana Sports Corp. is retooling its playbook.

Between the Super Bowl aftermath and preparing for the Big Ten men’s and women’s basketball tournaments at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in March, the ISC is beginning to map out the organization’s long-range plan that will take the city’s sports initiative beyond 2012.

“I’ve already been challenging our board and the community to think and plan beyond the Super Bowl,” said Chairman Joe DeGroff, a partner at law firm Ice Miller LLP. “We must redouble our efforts now because a lot of time, effort and resources have gone into the Super Bowl.”

The planning will take “several months,” DeGroff said, and will kick into high gear in March. The ISC’s current long-range plan ends after 2012, which adds urgency to an otherwise methodical process.

With so many staff hours, volunteer efforts and corporate financial giving going into the Super Bowl, there’s concern about what the ISC and its partners have left in the tank.

Super Bowl Host Committee CEO Allison Melangton was plucked from ISC ranks and the ISC loaned two other key staffers to the committee full time for more than a year leading up to the Feb. 5 game at Lucas Oil Stadium. In fact, ISC spokesman John Dedman said nearly all the staff was involved with the committee or subcommittees.

In addition, most of the 8,000 volunteers needed to put on the Super Bowl came from the ISC databank.

It would be natural for Indianapolis to catch its breath after putting on an event almost four years in the making, said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports business consultant.

“A city the size of Indianapolis only has so many resources, so it needs time to refuel,” Ganis said. “There’s no questioning the economic and marketing payoff of an event like the Super Bowl, but there’s a cost, too.”

Critical juncture

Indianapolis might have less time than most cities to recover from the Super Bowl because it relies so heavily on sports to drive business, and has for 33 years. Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association CEO Leonard Hoops said sports business continues to be a primary pillar in the city’s convention and tourism strategy.

David Morton, president of Sunrise Sports Group, a locally based sports marketing consultancy, believes Indianapolis is at a critical juncture.

With an event like the Super Bowl not likely to return for at least eight years, the next round of Olympic trials four years away, and the U.S. World Cup bid—of which Indianapolis was a part—falling short last year, there’s a real sense of, “What’s the next big event?” Morton said.

“The ISC is doing a great job, and they continue to raise the bar,” Morton said. “Now they have to live up to the expectations.”

super bowlThe organization has tapped One America Executive Vice President Scott Davison to head up a committee looking at what the “next big event” in Indianapolis could be, DeGroff said.

Davison did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s not as if the cupboard is bare. The ISC has a bevy of events on the calendar most cities the size of Indianapolis would love to have.

The Big Ten Football Championship will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium each December through 2015. Swimming and diving championships for NCAA Division III arrive next month, and for Division I, next year. Indianapolis also hosts the NCAA men’s basketball regional round and the NCAA Lacrosse quarterfinal in May next year.

Further out, the city will host the NCAA men’s Final Four in 2015 and women’s Final Four in 2016.

Still…

“We found that with each success, people want more, not less,” said Sandy Knapp, ISC president from 1979 to 1991. “When you run an organization like the Sports Corp., you simply can’t rest on your laurels.”

Several things have changed since the ISC was founded in 1979 as the first city sports corporation, Knapp said.

Many cities large and small have tried to copy Indianapolis’ efforts to use sports as an economic engine, with Chicago launching a sports commission late last year.

The increased competition has given governing organizations, especially those governing Olympic sports, leverage to ask for more financial guarantees upfront, Knapp said.

“That makes it more difficult to get the really high-profile events: Olympic trials, world championships and other big international events,” she said. “You have to be very careful on what you spend your resources to pursue.”

Olympic pursuit

For the first time in several cycles, Indianapolis in 2012 failed to host an Olympic trial. Sports Corp. officials chose to bid on only one trial—swimming and diving—due to the distraction of the Super Bowl, and lost the bid to Seattle. Some Olympic trials organizers didn’t want their events overshadowed by the Super Bowl, Dedman said.

When the ISC accepted that Indianapolis wouldn’t host an Olympic trial this year, the organization redoubled its efforts to attract 2016 trials by assembling a special bid committee, DeGroff said.

“We need to be thinking pretty far afield when it comes to Olympic trials,” DeGroff added. “We need to think beyond the events we’ve traditionally held here. We’re bringing in NCAA lacrosse next year. Those are the types of things we need to look at.”

The ISC has a long tradition of bringing in events as varied as wrestling and gymnastics championships to the World Indoor Short-Course Swimming Championships, which was held in 2004 inside what is now called Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

New business model?

Morton thinks the ISC may need to diversify its business model and the types of events it hosts.

“The Indiana Sports Corp. may want to look at starting and growing its own events,” Morton said. “That way, you don’t rely solely on winning bids. The [ISC] could establish a legacy by establishing its own events.”

The ISC has established some events, including YouthLinks and Corporate Challenge. In the 1980s, it established a professional exhibition basketball game called Larry’s Game, which was discontinued after Larry Bird retired from basketball.

The model offers control and autonomy, Knapp said, adding the downside is having no one to share risk and resources.

“It’s much harder to start a new product,” Knapp said. “You’re starting with zero. No name recognition, no brand and no followers,” she cautioned.

Officials for the ISC, which has a $3.6 million annual budget, know well the risks of putting on events—proprietary or not. The 2002 World Basketball Championships cost the city $10 million to host, and the ISC ended up with a $2.7 million debt after attendance fell short of expectations. That caused the ISC to scrap a capital campaign and sell its headquarters building to cover the shortfall.

While ISC’s Dedman said the idea of owning its own events is “180 degrees opposite” of what the Sports Corp. does now, DeGroff added that the organization is not opposed to contemplating the model.

“We’re always on the lookout for events we can build on our own,” DeGroff said. “That’s an important objective, but we have to balance that against our current demands and those of our partners.”

Bidding in itself takes substantial resources, DeGroff said, which means the ISC has to be ever selective which events to pursue.

“It’s always important for us to consider how what we do intersects with what the community thinks is important,” he said.

To that end, DeGroff plans to invite a variety of community stakeholders into the ISC’s next round of long-range planning. The ISC is also considering hiring a consultant or facilitator to help with the next plan, he added.

“We want to hear from our stakeholders, but we also want to hear from those not as familiar with our mission,” DeGroff said. “We want to ask a wide range of people, ‘What have we done well and what needs improving?’”

Facility upgrades

One of the things that may need improving to keep Indianapolis on top is the Natatorium and Michael A. Carroll Track and Soccer Stadium at IUPUI.

“Indianapolis’ facilities from the very early stages of its efforts to draw big-time sports events has been one of its biggest assets,” Ganis said. “That’s one big advantage it has over Chicago.”

But those facilities are now more than 30 years old, and while the Natatorium and track were upgraded recently, sources within Indiana University—which oversees the facilities—say they still need millions of dollars in work in the next five years.

A task force—including ISC and IU officials—was assembled recently to address the ongoing Natatorium and track venue upkeep and upgrades.

DeGroff characterized the discussion with IU officials about maintaining the two sports venues on the IUPUI campus as “ongoing.” He acknowledged part of those discussions involved revenue sources for necessary upkeep and upgrades.

Morton said the city has little choice but to invest if it wants to compete for national and world-class events.

“You can’t continue to only invest in [Bankers Life] Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium at the expense of the facilities that made Indianapolis what it is.”•

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