BENNER: Sports movement has a sunny past, cloudy future

December 19, 2009

In recognition of the Indiana Sports Corp.’s 30th anniversary, I recounted in last week’s column the steps that led to the start of the amateur sports initiative.

This week, as last, major credit for the historical perspective goes to former Indianapolis Times writer Nancy Kriplen, who documented the history in “Beyond The Games: The Indianapolis Sports Strategy,” commissioned by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.

I left off with the passage of the 1978 Amateur Sports Act, which provided autonomy for all the amateur sports governing bodies in the United States. That created the opportunity for cities to woo those governing bodies, as well as the championship events they might bring with them.

Thanks to the likes of Mayor Bill Hudnut, Jim Morris, Dave Frick, Frank McKinney Jr., Sid Weedman, Ted Boehm, Stan Malless, Mike Carroll, Bill McGowan and so many others—who loosely referred to themselves as the “City Committee”—the foundation had been laid for Indianapolis to use amateur sports as a catalyst to reshape its “Cornfield With Lights” image.

Ollan Cassell, a former Olympian who had been executive director of the Indianapolis-based Amateur Athletic Union, told the Indianapolis leaders the Amateur Sports Act opened the door for implementation of Indy’s game plan. Indeed, a year later with Cassell leading the way, The Athletics Congress (TAC, which later became USA Track & Field) moved to Indy.

In the meantime, the U.S. Olympic Committee was looking at a new, multisport event called the National Sports Festival. According to Kriplen, in October 1979, F. Don Miller, executive director of the USOC, sent Morris a letter detailing what would be expected of cities that might bid.

Of course, at that point, Indianapolis was lacking in two areas: one, the facilities to host a multisport event and, two, some kind of organizational entity that could write and submit the bid and, if successful, oversee the staging of the festival.

A committee, chaired by Boehm, conceived the idea of a staffed, not-for-profit organization that would do the heavy lifting. Thus, on Dec. 18, 1979, the Indiana Sports Corp.—the first sports commission of its kind in the country—was created. Boehm, now an Indiana Supreme Court justice, was its first president.

A month later, the boys’ club hired Sandy Knapp as its first executive officer. She had been vice president of marketing and public relations for the Indiana Pacers. Knapp proved to be the perfect fit.

“Ted basically said it was on a wing and a prayer and we would see if this thing could fly,” Knapp recalls. “We had no office, no letterhead, no budget and no funds. Ted pointed me in the direction of resources and said, ‘Be enterprising.’”

Knapp and a single assistant, Sue Ross, went to work on the details. Morris, who was now with Lilly Endowment Inc., went to work on the fund raising necessary.

In stunningly quick succession (impossible in today’s Indianapolis), the IU Natatorium, the track and field stadium, the velodrome and a rowing course at Eagle Creek Park were in the works.

On Feb. 1, 1981, Indy was awarded the Sports Festival and a year-and-a-half later, 2,600 athletes and 50,000 spectators gathered for opening ceremonies on the American Legion Mall. Indianapolis mustered 3,000 volunteers, and spectators bought 250,000 tickets. Track featured stars such as Carl Lewis, Willie Gault and Florence Griffith. The festival was an amazing success, even generating a small profit on a budget of $1.9 million.

It was a watershed moment. Michael Browning, later Sports Corp. chairman, told Kriplen that was when “this community shed its inferiority complex forever and never looked back.”

In short time, there would be the Colts. The Pan American Games. A succession of Final Fours. The NCAA relocation.

What might have happened to Indianapolis had those visionaries—and they had their critics—not been so bold and determined? I can’t imagine.

Yet a note of caution. Today, the foundation is like Pan Am Plaza: crumbling. The Natatorium needs millions of dollars of repairs. IUPUI is eyeing the land where the track and field stadium sits and the demise of the tennis center is virtually certain. The Pan Am ice rinks are soon to be gone.

It’s a fair question: How will the history of the amateur sports strategy read 30 years from now?•


Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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