On Jan. 27, the Indianapolis Colts pink slipped 25 front-office employees. The next day, the Capital Improvement Board announced that operating costs for Lucas Oil Stadium and Conseco Fieldhouse are running millions of dollars in the red.
Both brought to mind a column I wrote a while back, wondering when big-time sports, both professional and collegiate, would begin to feel the effects of the economic meltdown.
For a while, as the games played on, it seemed distant and intangible.
No longer. It’s here. And that reality leaves me conflicted.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve yearned for our city to shed its Indy-feriority complex and dare to be far greater than the ordinary place it once was. Amateur and professional sports became our catalytic ticket to ride. Investments in venues and organizations paid off handsomely. We created an identity that, beyond the Indianapolis 500, hadn’t existed.
From the relocation of the NCAA to the attraction of the Colts and ongoing presence of the Pacers, to magnificent venues such as Lucas Oil Stadium, Conseco Fieldhouse and Victory Field, to the landing of stellar events such as Final Fours and the Super Bowl, we have made something out of virtually nothing.
And on multiple levels, we are a better place for it. Beyond economic impact, the moments we can look back upon provide a rich tapestry of phenomenal community achievement and shared pride.
There were the "Reggie-Reggie-Reggie" Pacers who established themselves among the NBA’s elite; those amazing 15 days that spanned the Colts’ AFC Championship game victory over the New England Patriots to that Super Bowl victory celebration in the RCA Dome; the announcements that we’d landed the NCAA, Super Bowl, Big Ten tournaments or Pan American Games; the Final Four weekends when we became the center of the basketball universe; those two days every year when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosts the world’s two largest single-day sporting events.
The list goes on and on.
Yet they haven’t been cheap thrills. They’ve come at considerable cost. I emphasize once more that I believe there has been significant return on the investment, but I respect the opinions of those who disagree.
Over the long term, I remain certain that the stadium and fieldhouse will be enormous community assets that allow Indianapolis to maintain its competitive advantage and protect the asset it has created.
But here’s where the conflict comes in, and it doesn’t pertain specifically to the Colts and Pacers, but to the overall culture of professional and major college sports: Even as the economy spirals downward, no one gives a thought to bringing some kind of fiscal sanity to the overall enterprise.
Is there anyone—commissioner, owner, executive, coach, athlete, agent—willing to be part of a shared sacrifice in these tough times? Other than eliminating low-level jobs, virtually nothing has been done with regard to the continued escalation of costs, salaries and the burden they place on the communities and fans.
It’s business as usual. The way some Major League Baseball teams have spent for free agents, you would think these are the best of times. We should expect no less as the NFL prepares for its offseason, and there will be plenty of second-guessing if the Colts don’t spend big to shore up weaknesses. The NBA has handcuffed itself to guaranteed contracts that make it possible for a bum like Jamal Tinsley to get $7 million from the Pacers for sitting on his duff in Atlanta (and yes, bad on the Pacers for striking that deal in the fi rst place).
Universities write far larger checks to coaches than chancellors as the athletics arms race continues unabated. Even my alma mater, Indiana University, is adding to Memorial Stadium seats that won’t be sat in. Why? Because it has to try to keep up with the Ohio States, Penn States and Michigans.
Yet, back to more conflict, I want IU to do all it can to pull itself up from its doormat status. I want our small-market Colts to have the resources necessary to remain an elite franchise. I want the Pacers to spend what they must to hang on to a talent like Danny Granger. I want our city to have the kinds of facilities, associations and events that make it stand out in the landscape of America and the world.
I suppose the ultimate question is, are those wants or needs?
In the meantime, the stadium and fieldhouse aren’t going away and CIB has to deal with today’s economic realities. Despite what a Colts executive says, it’s not "ludicrous" to wish for a cooperative solution to unforeseen circumstances on an international scale.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.