SPORTS: And I repeat…the new stadium isn’t just for football

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A lot of folks have pointed to the arrival of the Indianapolis Colts in 1984 as the beginning of the Indianapolis renaissance through sports.

I would submit that the train already had left the station.

The Indianapolis 500 notwithstanding, Indy’s first major national splash came four years before, in 1980, when the NCAA brought the Men’s Final Four to Market Square Arena.

At that time, the event was just starting to bust out. The year before, Michigan State and Indiana State had met in the title game, featuring the epic matchup of the Spartans’ Magic Johnson and the Sycamores’ Larry Bird.

To both TV networks and cities interested in hosting the event, the Final Four was beginning to sizzle as a hot property.

It certainly didn’t hurt that three teams with regional ties-Purdue, Iowa and eventual champ Louisville-joined a team of national stature, UCLA, in comprising the 1980 Final Four. Beyond that, however, city leaders saw that Final Four not just as a big event, but as a major opportunity to start building a lasting relationship with the NCAA.

Twenty-five years later, it’s mind-boggling to see how that relationship has paid off. The NCAA is no longer an occasional visitor. It now calls Indianapolis home, and its presence serves as the capstone to the amateur sports initiative.

And while the construction of the RCA (then Hoosier) Dome served as the catalyst for landing the Colts, it also served as a critical link in strengthening the partnership with the NCAA. Not only did Indianapolis have a domed stadium to meet the attendance requirements to host Final Fours, the ingenious decision to have it built adjacent to the Indiana Convention Center provided the NCAA the absolute best logistical setup to stage its showcase event.

With a prime facility in place, what was left was for Indy to do what Indy does best: use the skills, genuine friendliness and work ethic of its people to extend a hand, offer a smile and, in essence, become the NCAA’s newest best friend every time it brought an event to the city.

Thus, when it came time for the NCAA to look for a new headquarters city, Indianapolis had far more than a $50 million public-private investment to offer, as significant as that was. It also had long-standing personal, one-on-one communication and relationships of incalculable value.

That’s something important to consider as our legislators-and the public-weigh the merits of a new multi-purpose stadium.

Hopefully, the lawmakers will look out their Statehouse windows and notice that the NCAA’s Women’s Final Four has come to our burg for the first time, bringing thousands of fans and significant national publicity with it. The Women’s Final Four has evolved into a major national event, one that is coveted by cities nationwide. Women’s basketball is the growth “team” sport in America and, in concert with the WNBA, is the one that will-emphasize, will-gain a lasting place as an entrée in the male-dominated smorgasbord of national sport.

Better still, the Women’s Final Four offers real, tangible, reach-out-and-touchit inspiration for the next generation of girls, who can dream of performing on an athletic stage equal to the men. For that reason alone, it’s important to have this major women’s basketball event in a state that values basketball so highly.

The Women’s Final Four returns in 2011. The Men’s Final Four is here next year and again in 2010. Indy just entertained an NCAA men’s first- and second-round regional that smashed attendance records. Another regional is on tap for 2009.

Then the payback really kicks in for all that relationship-building that began 25 years ago. For all the focus on a “new Colts stadium” or a “new football stadium,” it is in reality a new multi-purpose stadium that will serve the same varied purposes the RCA Dome does now.

Including, especially, basketball.

Often overlooked in the stadium debate is the memorandum of understanding between the NCAA and Indiana Sports Corp. that guarantees a Men’s Final Four, a Women’s Final Four, a men’s regional, a women’s regional and the NCAA’s annual convention on a rotating basis through 2039.

Over that time frame, the direct economic impact of those events-money that is spent in this state by people from elsewhere-easily will surpass the cost of the stadium.

But it is a conditional guarantee. Indy must provide a facility for the Final Fours that meets NCAA standards, and those standards are not static, especially as more modern facilities in St. Louis (Edward Jones Dome), Atlanta (Georgia Dome), Houston (Reliant Stadium) and Detroit (Ford Field) become part of the Final Four rotation.

According to the memorandum, “A failure to meet the requirements and specs established by the NCAA for hosting (future Final Fours) shall, in the sole, reasonable judgment of the NCAA, relieve the NCAA of its obligation to stage one or more of the Events in Indianapolis.”

As it is now, the RCA Dome soon will be an inadequate venue.

So-one more time with feeling-it’s not just the future of the Indianapolis Colts that’s at stake.

Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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