BENNER: Sports can boost other points of civic pride in Indianapolis

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Bill Benner on sports

My distinguished fellow Indianapolis Business Journal columnist, Mickey Maurer, last week polished off the last of a series of columns regarding what he termed “civic pride motivators.”

It was stimulating and thought-provoking reading.

While acknowledging our city’s success in the realm of sports, Maurer put it down the list of the things he’d like to see us doing well—or, at least, better. He wrote that public safety, public education, community leadership, cultural and recreational facilities and economic development ring his civic bell more loudly than sports.

It’s hard to argue with any of those. And it’s difficult for me to quibble with Mickey, not just because of his long-standing commitment to and passion for our city and state, but also because I like this space too much to put it at risk, if you get my drift.

That said, I also believe that sports—not just professional sports, but the whole enchilada—is a significant contributor to the pillars he mentions.

Certainly in terms of economic development, sports has been a powerful locomotive pulling box cars loaded with jobs and tax revenue spinning off into support enterprises as well as tourism and hospitality. Each time Indy holds a regional or national sporting event—let alone something on the magnitude of the Super Bowl—it represents an opportunity for the city to sell itself as a vibrant place to do business, and not just sports business.

Example: Mickey mentioned the attraction of Appirio as the result of our bustling technology sector. That’s true. And one of the ways Appirio execs learned of Indy was a visit to the Super Bowl. They came, they saw, they liked … so they put down stakes here, far from their “trendy” California base.

Certainly, the number of jobs created by the sports industry—from the NCAA to the national and regional governing bodies to sports sciences and medicine to the pro franchises—is significant. I don’t know what the number is, but it has to be a big one. Someone needs to do a study.

Think of a spinoff like Sport Graphics, which has morphed from a small startup into a design giant capable of handling all the signage for Final Fours and Super Bowls, or TV sports production companies like Lingner Group or Webstream, or all the NCAA’s local vendors.

And if I got started on the motorsports industry, I literally wouldn’t know where to stop. The presence of IndyCar teams, drag racing teams, IMS, Dallara … again, it’s a long list.

Community leadership? I dare say folks like Allison Melangton, Mark Miles, Ted Boehm, Jack Swarbrick, Sandy Knapp, Jim Morris, Michael Browning, the late Charles Williams, Bill McGowan, Milt Thompson, Kathy Langham, Scott Dorsey, Carolene Mays, Max Schumacher, Tony Mason, Rick Fuson and many, many others have contributed positively to the overall leadership of the region.

Recreational facilities? High schoolers perform regularly at Lucas Oil Stadium and Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Boy scouts camp at Victory Field. The Super Bowl brought the extraordinary Chase Center to the Tech High School campus. My personal anecdote is that my daughter took her first swimming lesson at the Natatorium, and later competed for state championships there. Kids—our kids—are running at the Carroll track, rowing on Eagle Creek and biking at the Velodrome. Maybe, someday soon, they will be playing soccer and cricket out on the east side.

And on the cultural side, I’ll just say this: the sports organizations and the cultural entities should be running toward, not away, from each other. Explore ways to work together. It doesn’t have to be an either/or.

It would be folly for me to suggest that sports—other than what the industry contributes to the tax base—makes our streets safer or our schools better, but it’s a fact that kids who are involved in sports are less likely to be out on the streets and more likely to stay in school.

And many of them look to our sports heroes for inspiration, which brings me to the Pacers, Colts and Fever who do so much outreach to our youth. The Fever’s Tamika Catchings, alone, is a one-woman education-first crusader. I ran into her not long ago and she handed me brochures on not one but four youth-oriented initiatives she champions. Amazing.

Again, Mickey Maurer is right about our city’s priorities. All I’m saying is that sports is a part of—and not apart from—accomplishing those goals. And I take more civic pride from that than any playoff victory although, you have to admit, those uplift the community, too.•


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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