Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Opinion

BENNER: The sports year 2013 has a hard act to follow

January 12, 2013

In sports, as soon as you think you have the answers, new questions arise. The test never stops. Then again, I’m sure you business types will say, “Hey, it’s like that where we reside, too.”

Nonetheless, it’s been documented that 2012 was a resplendent sports year in Indiana. As such, though, it will be one tough act to follow.

Consider:

Whither the Indianapolis Colts? The just-concluded 2012 season was a fairy tale come to life. As the victories unexpectedly piled up, there was more giddiness than angst. The playoff loss to Baltimore was disappointing, sure, but hardly devastating. Besides, the defeat removed the circus spectacle that would have been the Colts’ subsequent trip to Denver to face a certain former teammate. And no, I’m not talking about Jacob Tamme or Brandon Stokely.

But moving forward, the Colts won’t be playing with house money any longer. Fair or not, Peyton Manning-era expectations will return. Barring the unforeseen—mainly, injuries—anything less than what the 2012 team achieved will be viewed as a major shortfall.

So what do Ryan Grigson and Andrew Luck do for encores? And yes, Coach Chuck Pagano, too, about whom the cold-hearted are already saying he’s still unproven and that his illness gave him a free pass from judgment.

In any case, this past season was a romance novel. Next season, it’s back to the reality show that is the NFL.

Then we have the Indiana Pacers. For the next four months, the spotlight is theirs. I was at the fieldhouse on Jan. 8 to witness their defeat of the Miami Heat. It was their best win of the season and, after a stutter-step start without returning leading scorer Danny Granger (and you might also say without center Roy Hibbert, the $58 million man who’s been missing in action much of the first two months of the season), the Pacers are beginning to resemble a team that could make another solid playoff run, especially after Granger returns to join rising star Paul George.

Still, the public isn’t buying in, so to speak. Despite flooding the market with reasonably priced ticket deals, the Pacers are 26th in the league in attendance.

We wait, too, to see what becomes of the Indiana University basketball team. Their path to the Final Four in Atlanta (site of their last Final Four trip in 2002) could come through Lucas Oil Stadium for the Midwest Regional. But the Hoosiers and their faithful can take nothing for granted (see: Butler), while Tom Crean still needs to demonstrate that he’s as good a game coach as he is a talent recruiter.

And speaking of Butler, 2013 should reveal whether the Bulldogs’ stay in the Atlantic 10 was anything more than a temporary stopover on their way to a union with the Big East defectors known collectively as the Catholic Seven. In the interim, the Bulldogs, too, will have their eye on another march in March.

The coming year could be a pivotal one on West 16th Street, as well, as former pro tennis czar and Indianapolis Super Bowl chairman Mark Miles takes his sports/business pedigree into the fast lane of IndyCar as chairman of Hulman & Co.

While the Indianapolis 500 remains a cash cow, what open-wheel racing needs is a herd of them via sponsors, venues and, most notably, spectators and TV audiences. Miles will require the kind of collective buy-in the IndyCar constituents rarely provided to his predecessor, Randy Bernard.

In the meantime, his Super Bowl sidekick, Allison Melangton, will have her first full year as president of the Indiana Sports Corp. Melangton already has identified the 2016 Olympic Swim Trials (in portable pools at LOS, an idea first floated here—pun intended—several years ago) as a primary target. In the meantime, she and her staff will be laying the groundwork for the 2018 Super Bowl bid (due in early 2014).

As for the WNBA Indiana Fever, we will see if winning a championship translates into greater acceptance and market relevance.

Finally, let’s hope there is cause for celebration in the next couple of months when the Basketball Hall of Fame finally does the right thing and announces—with all due respect to fellow nominees Roger Brown, George McGinnis and Freddie Lewis—that Pacer icon Bobby “Slick” Leonard is the 2013 inductee representing the American Basketball Association.

That, alone, would make 2013 one great year.•

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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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