IBJ chose the Indiana Sports Corp.’s president, Ryan Vaughn, and board vice chairman, Jennifer Pope Baker, as the first recipients of the Forty Under 40 Alumni Award in recognition of their work to pull off the unprecedented NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament this spring.
IBJ talked to Vaughn and Baker about how the process went.
How did you each end up in the role you’re in with the Sports Corp?
Vaughn: I had been the mayor’s chief of staff for going on three years. I kind of quietly made it known that it was time for me to transition. Honestly, I thought I might end up going back to practicing law, when (then-Sports Corp. President) Allison Melangton called me out of the blue and said, “Hey, I’m interested in moving over to IMS, and I know you have a passion for what we do here. Would you have an interest?”
I feigned like, “Well, let me think about it?” But I was absolutely all in. The opportunity to have an impact on this city with this mission was incredible. So, I very enthusiastically interviewed with several executive committee board members, and here I am, seven years later.
Jennifer, obviously this is not your full-time job. How did you end up with the Sports Corp.?
Baker: I moved here in the summer of 1990 and was looking for ways to get involved in the community. Someone suggested I come help with an event that Sports Corp. was doing. … I’ve worked almost every job you can have as a volunteer, and basketball is my very favorite thing.
Several years ago, I was asked if I would chair the (Indiana Women in Tech) LPGA event, and that was a three-year commitment. As year three was coming to an end, I said to Ryan, “I’d love to continue to do something else with Sports Corp. What’s next?” It wasn’t too much longer that I received a phone call from Rick Fuson, asking if I would join him and in his leadership position with the Sports Corp.
I really admire the work that Ryan has done as a leader in the community, and with his staff who love him immeasurably. So, it was a real joy for me to be able to say “yes.”
Can you each talk from your own perspectives about how important the volunteer corps is to what the Sports Corp. does?
Vaughn: They are the differentiator between us and every other city. The people make it happen. I hear it from event-rights owners whose events have gone to other cities. I hear from my peers who are constantly asking, “How do you get so much support from your community? Why is your volunteerism rate and just their show-up rate so high?”
I mean, we’re a small staff. We’re 25, maybe growing to 27 shortly, but we host disproportionally large events. Without enormous sacrifices … we just wouldn’t be as successful as we are.
Baker: There aren’t many cities that would do what we do. … The fact that we had CEOs of Indianapolis companies doing laundry during March Madness gives you a (sense of the) level of commitment that our community has to the success of our events.
Vaughn: Specifically, as it relates to March Madness, one of the challenging things that Jennifer and I had to deal with was that, for a long time, we didn’t even know what volunteer roles we would have.
We had a very compressed timeline to create and share those roles with our volunteer base. There was literally three weeks before tipoff of March Madness. On a Monday, we posted almost 4,000 volunteer shifts, and by Wednesday, we were 97% full.
Many of the jobs volunteers do are organizational roles. They are leadership roles. What is your pitch to people about getting involved?
Vaughn: The pitch is just that, which is: It’s not just a show-up-and-be-present kind of opportunity. It’s bring in creativity, bring your ideas, bring your enthusiasm. Then we’re literally going to vest you in the responsibility of executing on whatever that specific role is.
Jennifer, you stepped away from your job to help with the NCAA Tournament. Was that a tough call?
Baker: I’m president of Women’s Fund and we’re part of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, which means that we’re not going it alone, which is nice. When I said I would step away at the beginning, I didn’t anticipate I was stepping fully away. I was going to do a few days a week of March Madness and a few days a week of Women’s Fund. It quickly became a seven-day-a-week job.
I had the luxury and ability to do that for several reasons. One is the relationship and trust I have with Brian Payne, who’s the CEO of CICF, and Jennifer Dzwonar, the board chair of Women’s Fund.
When the NCAA said, “OK, Indianapolis is going to get the entire tournament,” were you worried about being able to pull it off?
Vaughn: I never doubted the community’s ability to do it. There was certainly a lot of unknown factors and there was a daunting amount of work that needed to be done in a small time. But no, I was never concerned that we wouldn’t have the cooperation of the city and the state, Visit Indy, the CIB, the hotels, the restaurants. I knew everyone would come together.
Baker: The first thing I did is start making lists of who I could call upon, that I could say,” We need your help. I don’t know if I need you for five hours or 50 hours a week.” Then I made a list of people that Sports Corp. could call on as consultants.
So, I don’t think anybody was ever scared about it, but we certainly were aware that it was a tremendous lift.
What was the most challenging thing to deal with?
Baker: One hundred percent the timetable. There were not enough hours in the day. I think I was averaging 11 meetings a day, just back-to-back-to-back. …. I think the pandemic served us well. If we would’ve had to drive around town to go to meetings, I’m not sure we could have done the same amount of work. Having to do it virtually was very helpful in many ways.
What is a surprising behind-the-scenes detail how the tournament went?
Baker: This is not an “oh-no” moment, but I think it was a big surprise to me that—once I was in the controlled environment—how much walking was involved. As Ryan mentioned, we were working 14, 15 hours a day, seven days a week (planning the event). So, I literally had done nothing but sit in front of my computer for weeks and weeks and weeks. Then I went to walking not quite a mini-marathon every single day. I walked 231 miles in 26 days. That was surprising.•
Check out more Forty Under 40 honorees.