Finding bright spots amid wave of bad Indy sports news

February 16, 2009

Locally, the Capital Improvement Board is swimming in red ink and trying to figure how to fund our glistening sports venues—Lucas Oil Stadium, Conseco Fieldhouse and Victory Field.

The Indiana Pacers report losing money nine of the last 10 years. And this year's team seems to be sliding toward a spot in the NBA draft lottery, which, really, might not be such a bad thing.

Indiana University basketball went two months between victories. Purdue University, hit by injuries, is looking less like a national contender. The University of Notre Dame fell into an eight-game losing streak.

Up in Anderson, they're talking about closing one of the greatest basketball venues anywhere, the storied Wigwam. Ugh.

Nationally, Michael Phelps did something 23-year-olds sometimes do ... puffed on a bong. Unfortunately, he's the only 14-gold-medal-winning Olympian to be photographed doing so.

At least pot is not a performance-enhancing substance. Phelps was trying to lose an edge, not gain one. After emphatic denials, slugger Alex Rodriguez admitted using steroids, adding to the shame that continues to envelop Major League Baseball and its superstars.

So much sad, bad, disturbing news.

Time to look on the brighter side.

It's easy to pick on the Pacers and their plight both on and off the floor, but few gave notice to the fact that the team's foundation doled out $700,000 to worthwhile community organizations last week.

Despite their dismal record, the Pacers have had some shining moments this season, including wins over Boston, the Lakers, Cleveland, Orlando and Phoenix.

The team's owners, Mel and Herb Simon, are getting hammered in some circles as greedy billionaires, but I can't help but wonder how many local jobs they've created over the years. And, for what it's worth, they did save the Pacers.

And perhaps it's time for everyone to stop looking for the next Reggie Miller—he isn't coming back—and instead look at what Danny Granger has become: a great player who plays and conducts himself the right way.

Speaking of the right way, the Butler Bulldogs again are a joy to watch. It's not the talent; it's that totally selfless team concept. A journalist from Illinois called last week and asked, "How does Butler do it when they're changing coaches all the time?" My reply: The system—also known as "The Butler Way"—doesn't change when the coaches do. And by keeping those hires within the family, from Barry Collier to Thad Matta to Todd Lickliter to Brad Stevens, you may get new wrinkles, but never a makeover.

You know, there is even good news surrounding Phelps, at least locally. His three-month suspension will be over in time for him to compete in the ConocoPhillips U.S. Nationals at the IU Natatorium in July. That will be the first major post-Beijing Olympics meet for the elite U.S. swimmers and it will mark the first steps in Phelps' quest to become a sprint freestyler in preparation for the London Games in 2012.

Now we all should ask ourselves, if that were a 23-year-old Colt or Pacer pictured with a bong, how would we react?

In light of the CIB issues, critics are issuing I-told-you-so's and wishing for a return of India-no-place. Some are again wondering whether the investment in sports has been worth it.

Yes, I have questioned the escalating costs of professional sports in my last two columns, but the notion that the city's sports strategy has been anything but a resounding success is ridiculous.

Case in point: the upcoming month of March. That's when—among the Pacers, Big Ten Tournaments, IHSAA championships and the NCAA Midwest Regional—there will be 38 games in 31 days in Conseco Fieldhouse or Lucas Oil Stadium.

Those games will draw a conservative attendance estimate of at least 250,000. The visitors will come from not just the city, but around the region, state and Midwest. They will spend money in the hotels, restaurants, bars, attractions and the venues. They might enjoy Indy enough to want to come back again.

I'm guessing—a somewhat educated guess—that those visitors will dump at least $20 million into our economy at a time in which every penny is valuable.

Is that a bad thing?

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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