SPORTS: New stadium part of strategy born here decades ago

September 26, 2005

The circumstance finally gave way to pomp last week. And as the silver shovels glistened in a setting sun at the Indiana Stadium ground breaking, a new day dawned for Indianapolis and central Indiana.

Similarly, the multipurpose stadium-sorry, but I refuse to call it the "Colts Stadium" when its benefits will be so vast and its uses so varied-represents both an end and a beginning.

In some ways, it is the final piece of a puzzle that began to be assembled more than 25 years ago, the last brushstroke in a grand vision first seen by men such as Dick Lugar, Jim Morris, Dave Frick, Bill Hudnut, Tom King, Larry Conrad, Ted Boehm, Sid Weedman and Bill McGowan, a mix of pols and businessmen who never took their eye off the ball and ended up knocking it out of the park. They believed Indianapolis could be something so much better than a sleepy, one-event town.

Did that vision involve risks? Absolutely. For starters, how about building a stadium without a team to play in it? But their focus was on the reward, not the risk.

Allow me to provide just one example of how it all played out. Follow along and connect the dots:

Lugar provides the leadership and impetus to build Market Square Arena, the first step in reversing the nightly migration to the 'burbs. Having MSA attracts the NCAA and the city's first Final Four in 1980, a year after Larry Bird and Magic Johnson played in the final game and the tournament began morphing into a major national event that would soon outgrow traditional arenas. Voila!

The Hoosier Dome, constructed without a team (although that is solved with the Colts' arrival) is nonetheless attached to the Indiana Convention Center, making the entire complex ideal for the growing needs of the NCAA, which begins to award regionals and Final Fours to the city, further strengthening the relationships with the NCAA which means that, when the NCAA is casting about for a new home, Indianapolis is an insider with a proven track record, not an outsider trying to get its foot in the door.

And so the NCAA, thanks to the same kind of public-private-Republican-Democratic cooperation that is Indy's hallmark, comes to Indianapolis, the capstone of the city's long-standing quest to establish itself as one of America's premier sports capitals. Then comes the bonus in the decision to bring major NCAA events-including men's and women's Final Fours, men's and women's regionals and the NCAA convention-to the city on an annual basis through 2039 with an option for 30 years beyond that, all of which will have an economic impact on the city-real money left behind by visitors-in the hundreds of millions.

And so, when stuffy economists from distant places stick their noses in the air and tell us the cost of investing in sports facilities cannot be recouped, excuse me if I scratch my head and say, "Huh?"

Maybe in some places, but not here.

I hesitate to keep using this column to provide history lessons, but I find it necessary to counter the views of the nattering nabobs of negativism (thanks, Spiro Agnew), several of whom just arrived within the last few years and yet have forums to tell us who we are and what our priorities should be when they don't have a clue how the transformation of Indianapolis took place, who made it happen, and what its impact has been.

Then again, this is the Indianapolis Business Journal, so I'm certain I'm largely preaching to the choir because most of you dear readers understand investment, risk-taking, relationship building and the marketing of a product, which, of course, Indianapolis and central Indiana are.

Sports aren't some silly, superfluous "frill" here. Sports are an economic strategy that has, does and will continue to bring enormous dividends to the region long after the original visionaries and the rest of us who remember Naptown are gone.

That is why the stadium ground breaking-the multipurpose stadium ground breaking-represents such a magnificent new day for the region. It will provide and sustain jobs. It will put money in the pockets of local folks. And it will provide entertainment opportunities that go far beyond the 10 Colts games a year.

Congratulations to all who made it-and the Convention Center expansion that will follow-happen. But congratulations mostly to those who long ago dared to dream about what Indy could be, using sports as a catalyst.

Fellas, this stadium's for you.

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 bbenner@ibj.com.
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