Super rebuff builds pressure to attract even more events

June 4, 2007

Managing international sports championships is old hat for Indianapolis. But city leaders now face a more daunting challenge: managing expectations.

With the 2011 Super Bowl galloping off to Dallas, pressure is building to bring in more of the marquee sports events the city's economy has come to rely on to keep hotels full, retail businesses humming, and the national and international spotlight focused on Indianapolis.

"Our past successes have created an expectation that on every horizon will be a major prime-time sporting event," said Bob Schultz, ICVA spokesman. "We've designed the city for this. It's who we have become, and with that comes the necessity to feed our growing hospitality industry."

Officials for the city, the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association and Indiana Sports Corp. are focusing on a three-pronged strategy: drawing a wider array of events, attracting more sports governing body headquarters, and formalizing a full-time effort to draw arts and entertainment governing bodies and events.

"You look at the calendar now, and you wonder, what is the next really big event?" said David Morton, principal of locally based Sunrise Sports Group. "Losing the Super Bowl left a big void, and robbed us of our next really big event."

The city's sports cupboard isn't exactly bare. The USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships returns to Michael A. Carroll Stadium at IUPUI this month with Olympic team spots on the line.

The U.S. Olympic Diving Trials will be here in June 2008, and the U.S. Senior Golf Open visits in 2009. The NCAA's men's and women's basketball Final Four caps off the schedule in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

With the exception of the Final Fours, though, none of these events has even half the economic impact of the Super Bowl. Nor do they draw the level of international media attention commanded by events that have dotted the city's event calendar in recent years.

In 2001, the World Police & Fire Games landed here. In 2002, the World Basketball Championships came to Indianapolis, and in 2004 the Short Course World Swimming Championships were held at Conseco Fieldhouse.

It was a dizzying series of championships capped off in 2005 and 2006 by the USA National Gymnastics Championships, The Solheim Cup at Crooked Stick, USA National Diving Championships, NCAA Men's Final Four and USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships.

"I don't think we're losing momentum, we've just gotten spoiled," said Milt Thompson, president of Grand Slam Cos., a local sports marketing consultancy and also an Indiana Sports Corp. board member. "Those Final Fours are highly coveted events which continue to get bigger every year."

The NCAA--which is headquartered in Indianapolis--has agreed to hold the men's and women's Final Four in Indianapolis every four years, the only city with such an agreement.

The city also recently reached a deal to hold the men's and women's Big Ten basketball tournaments for the next five years at Conseco Fieldhouse.

A men's Final Four draws about 65,000 people and has direct economic impact of between $45 million and $55 million, according to several studies, including one by Indiana University. It also has a global TV audience.

Still, with the new Lucas Oil Stadium opening in the fall of 2008, the Convention Center expansion set to open in 2010 and the number of downtown hotel rooms and restaurants increasing, the pressure remains high for city officials to land the biggest national and international sports events.

"They've built an entire economy around bringing in these types of events," said Andrew Zimbalist, a noted sports economist and professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "If they fail to keep attracting the events that fuel those dependent businesses, they face potential collapse of what they've built. They've created a beast, now they have to feed it."

At this point, not all events make sense for Indianapolis. Some, including a bull-riding competition and even the Olympic gymnastic trials, were recently turned away for various reasons.

That doesn't mean ISC officials aren't thinking unconventionally. National and international soccer and lacrosse events, for example, are events local officials are considering targeting.

"Those are considered emerging sports, and could fit well inside Lucas Oil Stadium," said Susan Williams, ISC president.

Economic impact, cost, scheduling conflicts, and the national and international exposure an event is likely to draw from fans, participants, sponsors and the television audience all play a role in determining what to pursue.

Since the city has graduated to seeking mostly marquee events, the competition is ever increasing, Williams said. But richer financial incentives, which Dallas used to prevail in the quest for Super Bowl 2011, don't always sway the outcome.

Seattle and Columbus, Ohio, for instance, both had stronger incentive packages for the 2008 Olympic diving trials, but Indianapolis won due to its facilities, sports event management experience and volunteer base, Williams said.

But sports marketers wonder how long Indianapolis can continue that sort of feat.

Many cities are using tax dollars in addition to corporate-backed donations as incentives to draw major events.

"The pressure comes from the outside competition and from promoters who seek continually rising rights fees and incentive packages," Williams said.

Even with world-class venues such as Conseco Fieldhouse and the soon-to-be-completed Lucas Oil Stadium in place, Morton said, attention is needed elsewhere.

"I think city leaders have to continually ask themselves, 'What's next, where do we go from here?'" Morton said.

Williams said the Natatorium and Carroll Stadium at IUPUI are both in need of upgrades to keep attracting big-time events.

With the 2011 schedule now clear of the Super Bowl, Williams said the ISC and city officials have more flexibility in drawing headline events for that year. But uncertainty over whether the city will seek the 2012 Super Bowl and whether Chicago will land the 2016 Olympics still leave officials in a precarious situation when considering their long-range options.

"The Super Bowl will be a major undertaking that will require considerable resources on a number of fronts, so we have to account for that," said Tom King, ISC board chairman.

A summer Olympics in Chicago would likely mean a number of support and lead-up events in the months and years prior to the games in Indianapolis and surrounding areas, ISC officials said.

The fact that community leaders raised $25 million for the 2011 Super Bowl bid in less than six months shows the city is nimble and aggressive enough to meet future challenges, Thompson said.

Sports alone may not be enough to fuel the city's growing downtown and other regions. The ICVA this year formally launched the Indianapolis Music Initiative to draw more arts and entertainment business to the city.

The initiative was sparked in 2004 when Bands of America moved here from Chicago. Local leaders are in the process of forming a leadership board and formalizing a blueprint to become a Midwest music mecca. Already, the initiative has drawn the Percussive Arts Society, which moved here from Oklahoma in April, and the Drum Corps International, which will be moving here during the first quarter of 2008.

"The good new is, Indianapolis has created a really unique situation with its relationship with the NCAA and its history of drawing top-shelf sporting events," said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports business consultancy. "With that, though, comes a unique set of challenges.

"One of the cornerstones of the city's success story is coming up with unique solutions ... all the way back to building the RCA Dome with no team in town to play in it.

"If history is any indicator, I would expect Indianapolis to create a way to survive and thrive."

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