Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Opinion

BENNER: Cricket-loving Mayor Ballard might be ahead of his time

May 18, 2013

It took courage—OK, political courage—to make this whole sports thing happen in Indianapolis.

It began with Mayor Richard Lugar’s investment in Market Square Arena. Then came Bill Hudnut and his huge gambit on the Hoosier Dome (remember, there was no football team to play in it). Hudnut was followed by Steve Goldsmith, who oversaw the relocation of the NCAA, the Indians’ downtown move to Victory Field and the construction Conseco/Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Then it was Bart Peterson’s turn, and he figuratively poured the foundation for Lucas Oil Stadium.

Now we have Greg Ballard in the Big Chair, and his sporting legacy may well be … cricket?

Yes, cricket.

The mayor’s international travels as an officer in the Marines and his desire to raise Indy’s profile in the global marketplace have led him to the conclusion that an investment in cricket and the development of the Indianapolis World Sports Park on the city’s east side (1300 S. Post Road) would be a worthwhile marriage. Thus, recently, $5.8 million in Rebuild Indy funds were earmarked for the Sports Park.

And while the park will also include fields for lacrosse, hurling (hurling the sport, not hurling as in Broad Ripple after the bars close), rugby and Gaelic football, the main pitch is for cricket and the potential development of a stadium.

Now I admit that I barely know cricket from croquet. The next cricket match I see will be my first. And my sports tastes, from the point of both spectating and participating, are mainstream stick-and-ball with a little open-wheel racing thrown in.

Nonetheless, while some may snicker at the mayor’s cricket strategy or, worse, denounce it as a woeful misuse of funds, I turned to someone who knows the sport and its potential far better than I.

He would be Neelay Bhatt, a vice president at Indianapolis-based PROS Consulting, which helps municipalities strategize and implement parks, recreation and sports facilities. Bhatt knows cricket on multiple levels: He was born in Mumbai, India, and grew up with the sport; at PROS, he wrote a business plan for a cricket facility in Broward County, Fla., is involved in a governance review of the USA Cricket Association, and has done some background studies on the possible formation of a U.S. professional cricket league.

Bhatt pointed out that cricket is the No. 2 participant sport in the world (behind soccer) and that it is growing rapidly, largely because of a new format—called T20—that reduces the length of matches to about three hours. Traditional matches can last an entire day.

“The T20 version has spawned a number of new leagues all over the world and has opened up a new cricket frontier,” says Bhatt, 32, a graduate of Ohio University’s respected sports management program.

Foremost among those frontiers would be, of course, America. Bhatt said the sport is growing in Florida, on the coasts and in big cities. It also is becoming increasingly popular on college campuses.

But would it fly in Indy?

“That,” Bhatt said with a smile, “is still to be determined.”

Indiana Sports Corp. President Allison Melangton confirmed that ISC has had informal talks with the Mayor’s Office about hosting future cricket events, but there have been few specifics and the earliest would be in 2014, if that.

Certainly, there are Ballard critics chirping like, well, crickets—sorry, couldn’t resist—and even a bullish sports guy like myself wonders about this new adventure. Then there’s the entire issue of sidewalks, streets and city parks that could benefit from $5.8 million.

It could very well be that Ballard is trying to be on the cutting edge with a very dull knife.

Then again, maybe the mayor is so far ahead of the curve he’s around a bend the rest of us just can’t see.•

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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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