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Sports Business

Pacers, Indy 500 put spotlight on city but won't quiet critics

May 21, 2012
KEYWORDS Sports Business

It’s easy to get excited about exposure for the city when something like the Super Bowl rolls into town.

But the numbers also pile up in meaningful ways even when the number crunchers don’t have their calculators calculating.

This past extended weekend is a good example of how the city’s sports infrastructure pays off.

We could argue for hours about the value of the exposure from people tuning in to this city for a sports event. Most can agree that it has value. So let’s focus on viewership numbers.

Almost 4.1 million households nationwide watched the Pacers beat the Miami Heat during Thursday’s second-round playoff game, according to New York-based Nielsen Media Research.

On Sunday afternoon, 6.5 million households tuned to watch game four at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. A stroll through the parking lots to check out license plates shortly before those two games showed that people traveled from Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan and even from New York to watch the games live.

“A team like the Heat, with the type of stars they have, attract a wide following, and people often find it’s less expensive to come to Indianapolis than it is to travel to a city like Miami,” said Chris Gahl, Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association spokesman.

This type of exposure, while not guaranteed every year, has to be put into the equation when discussing the Capital Improvement Board’s financial support of Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Will this type of exposure quiet the critics of the city for things like paying $33.5 million over three years to help operate and upgrade the Fieldhouse? No way. And I'm not arguing that it should.

But if you're going to take an honest look at whether any investment this city makes on sports initiatives delivers a worthy return, these types of numbers and this type of national exposure have to be part of the conversation.

The two days of qualifying at the Indianapolis 500 televised on the NBC Sports cable channel attracted about another 1 million households nationwide.

So it’s safe to say 7 million households (roughly 14 million people) tuned in to watch sporting events in Indianapolis over the last four days. Of course, I've factored in households that tuned in more than once to either the two playoff games and/or two days of qualification. They only get counted once even though they've tuned in more times than that. The 14 million is a conservative estimate.

The exposure that the Indianapolis 500 and other events at the Speedway bring is pure gravy for the city. The Hulman-George family that owns the track has never asked for a tax break or a penny to support their operation.

Already a sizable group from Michigan, Ohio and Canada have rolled into town to take in the Indianapolis 500 festivities, and local tourism officials expect an even bigger block of race fans and media to start pouring into the Circle City starting Thursday.

The Indianapolis 500 on Sunday on ABC will attract another 4 million-plus viewers. ICVA officials said downtown hotels and many in the suburbs are sold out for this year’s race. Three-night minimums are required for most hotels.

Sure, it's great to have these teams and events here. The money and exposure it brings to our city is undeniable. But a larger question still looms. And maybe it always will.

Is it worth the expense?

You'll have as many thoughts on that as on who will win the next Indianapolis 500.


Speaking of qualifying, here's the latest installment of IBJ's video series "At the Track," following Venezuelan driver E.J. Viso as he and the team from KV Racing Technology prepare for Pole Day and score high.


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