Big NCAA swim event might land in city

June 23, 2008

The NCAA is considering bringing its men's and women's Division I, II and III championships together for one big festival of swimming, and the IUPUI Natatorium is a leading candidate to be the permanent site of the annual event.

"We would be thrilled to host an event like that and bring that level of competition to the Natatorium," said Indiana Sports Corp. President Susan Williams. "This is a huge opportunity, and it's exciting to think about. But challenges remain to getting this done."

The ISC, Williams said, was contacted this month by the locally based NCAA and by swimming officials to help explore the possibility.

Since opening on the IUPUI campus in 1982, the Natatorium has hosted 12 U.S. Olympic trials, including this month's U.S. Olympic diving trials, which wrapped up June 22. The Natatorium last held the men's NCAA swimming championships in 1999 and women's in 2000.

One major obstacle is the aging facility itself. Those in the swimming community said the Natatorium needs $12 million to $15 million in repairs and upgrades to host such an event on a regular basis. Swimmers at last August's U.S. nationals meet in Indianapolis complained about poor air and water quality, bad lighting, an insufficient sound system, and outdated locker room and other facilities at the Natatorium.

IUPUI officials did not return calls seeking comment, but officials for Colorado-based USA Swimming hope the promise of a combined NCAA championship event would be a carrot to get the work done.

"We think this has the possibility to become much more than just a swim meet," USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus said. "The Natatorium is an iconic venue in this sport. And Indianapolis has a wonderful, rich history of helping produce sporting events at the highest level. I'm hopeful they'll take a serious look at this."

Sources close to IUPUI say that, in the past, the university has struggled to make Natatorium renovations a priority given pressing funding needs for academic programs.

But local sports leaders think not pursuing Natatorium improvements and the NCAA swimming championships would be a wasted opportunity.

Big potential

Currently, Division I, II and III each hold championships separately, at different locations, each year. They typically draw from a few hundred to a few thousand people, mostly competitors' friends and family. The men's Division I championship occasionally draws as many as 10,000 spectators. But Wielgus thinks that with all the top up-and-coming men and women swimmers competing at one place and time, the event would grow much bigger than that.

More than 130,000 tickets have been sold for this year's Olympic swimming trials, which will be held over eight days in Omaha, Neb. Because the Natatorium has only 4,700 seats, sports marketers say it's doubtful an Indianapolis event could ring up numbers that large. Still, marketers think organizers could sell 25,000 tickets to a multi-day event. They estimate the annual economic impact at nearly $10 million.

Swimming officials estimate an Indianapolis festival would draw 600 athletes, 400 coaches and other team support members, in addition to thousands of fans.

"When you can create more drama with more competitors in one place, that raises the excitement level, and in the end, creates more support for the event," said David Morton, president of locally based Sunrise Sports Group. "Economically and from a marketing standpoint, this makes a lot of sense."

The investment in the Natatorium also would draw other events, swimming industry officials said, and raise the profile of IUPUI and the city.

"There's no question the Natatorium was and could continue to be the best swimming facility in the country if it has the renovations that make it consistent with other more recently built swimming facilities in this country," said Dale Neuburger, USA Swimming board member and vice president of FINA, swimming's international governing body.

Neuburger, a former Indiana Sports Corp. president, said becoming the permanent home of the men's and women's NCAA swimming championships would have an impact far beyond the IUPUI campus.

"Having an NCAA championship on an annual basis would be a significant event in one of the most important Olympic sports," Neuburger said. "It would establish Indianapolis as the center of swimming excellence in the U.S."

Interactive activities

NCAA officials are exploring creating an event that would include interactive activities for fans, an industry expo, coaches' clinics and more. Because the NCAA already has awarded bids for the 2009 and 2010 swimming championships, the earliest the festival concept could launch in Indianapolis would be 2011.

NCAA President Myles Brand embraced the idea during a May 23 meeting in Arizona with officials from USA Swimming, the American Swimming Coaches Association and College Swimming Coaches Association.

"The swimming coaches [associations] and USA Swimming are to be commended for looking to the future of their sport," Brand wrote in an e-mail. "The festival idea is intriguing and well worth study. I like the idea if the logistics, which are considerable, can be worked out."

USA Swimming's Wielgus thinks a multi-day NCAA swimming festival could be a launching pad to grow the sport nationally.

"There are models in place for how other sports have used the NCAA championships to raise their profile for fans and ultimately raise participation among kids," Wielgus said. "We think this event can serve as a gathering of the tribes for current participants, alumni and other swimming organization reunions. We think it could grow into a significant industry gathering and an important way to reconnect with fans."

Wielgus points out that field hockey, lacrosse and baseball all have grown by launching festival-style NCAA championships. He thinks Indianapolis can do for swimming what Omaha has done for the NCAA's College World Series.

"[Central Indiana] has a very strong swimming community," Wielgus said. "Many elements are in place there to make this work for the sport and the city."

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