Youth, high school events may be next sports thrust

Indianapolis is set to host some big-name sporting events: Super Bowl XLVI in 2012, and four NCAA Final Four basketball tournaments over the next seven years.

But now city officials are looking to add youth and high school sports to the roster of collegiate and professional events built up since the city decided a generation ago to pursue amateur sports as an image-enhancing strategy.

Officials in Mayor Greg Ballard’s office and the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association hope to add to the city’s status as the "Amateur Sports Capital of the World" by attracting events including national and international youth tournaments.

I think we’ve carved out that we’re a great destination for sports of all types," said Don Welsh, ICVA president and CEO. "But I do think right now there’s a strong feeling in the community that we have an opportunity to do more on amateur sports."

To that end, the Mayor’s Office is working with Indy Parks and Recreation staffers to see how existing facilities could be used to accommodate tournaments, club sports teams or larger events.

No definitive plans have been made, but Stuart Lowry, director of the parks department, said he’s looking into sprucing up some underused parks to make them more attractive to amateur sports teams and the organizations that book tournaments.

Some soccer fields, for instance, could be turned into multi-purpose playing areas capable of hosting lacrosse, soccer and rugby games. Tennis courts could be repaved or freshened up with new nets.

Welsh also sees potential in transforming the shuttered, 78-year-old Bush Stadium into a redeveloped, top-flight baseball or multi-sport facility able to host high school or collegiate events. The Indianapolis Indians played their last game at the stadium in 1995 before moving to Victory Field downtown. It since has been used as a racetrack and to host a few special activities.

In the area near Fort Harrison State Park, Welsh would like to see hotels or other service venues built to make it easier on parents and children visiting the park’s fields.

The cost of any such park renovations remains unknown, Lowry said, although the city would likely look to corporate sponsorships and public-private partnerships to make the proposed changes a reality. "Our dream is to activate the parks as much as possible," he said.

Staying competitive

If the effort succeeds, "tens of millions" of dollars could be at stake, said Bill Benner, ICVA associate director of communications.

Already, the city expects to draw 155,000 amateur sports visitors from 2009 to 2011, Benner said. That figure represents 62,000 hotel room nights and an estimated $62 million in spending.

Indianapolis’ efforts to attract amateur sports date to the mid-1970s, when civic leaders decided sports could help lift the city out of its doldrums as "India-no-place".

Indianapolis attracted the men’s NCAA Final Four in 1980 and in 1987 the Pan American Games. Since the thrust began, the city has hosted a number of events and attracted governing bodies that oversee national tournaments and Olympic teams, ultimately turning sports into an economic development engine.

Susan Williams, president of the Indiana Sports Corp., said youth and high school events don’t carry the high profile of NCAA tournaments or major-league games, but they still boost the economy.

"It’s not as noisy and visible as [the] men’s Final Four or whatever, but certainly it has some impact on our hotels and our restaurants and our entertainment venues," she said.

It remains to be seen how much additional revenue could come from the new initiative.

But this latest push comes at a time when more cities are working to chisel out a piece of the youth sports market.

The Cincinnati-based National Association of Sports Commissions now has 400 members that include sports corporations and convention and visitors’ bureaus, said Don Schumacher, the group’s executive director.

And with more players in the game, competition becomes inevitable, said Milton Thompson, president of Grand Slam Cos., a local sports consultancy.

"Other cities are more competitive these days than it was when we were the only ones involved," he said. "We’ve got to really, really maintain our sharpest edges on our competitors."

Thompson said Indianapolis needs more recreation space in the core of the city, such as additional baseball and softball facilities, community centers, ice skating rinks and "X-game," or extreme sport, areas.

The city may also need to find a new track and field center if IUPUI goes forward with plans to demolish its facilities as part of a campus restructuring, said David Morton, principal of locally based Sunrise Sports Group.

"If IUPUI really plans on bulldozing" the center, Morton said, "probably one of the top track and field facilities in North America is going to be gone, and that’d be a shame."

On a larger level, experts say the city should also work to tighten its sports strategy.

In past years, an emphasis on professional sports teams and venues may have detracted from the youth arena, Morton said.

"I think because of the prioritization of professional sports … the focus moved away from amateur/Olympic sports," he said.

Indianapolis also veered away from the "amateur sports capital" moniker, Thompson said, as officials looked to brand the city as a hub for arts, culture and entertainment.

While the city should still focus on those areas, he said, it also makes sense to play up the area’s reputation in the youth sports arena.

"Sports is what people think of in a lot of cases with Indianapolis," Thompson said. "I don’t think we should run away from that plan."

Marketing the city

Welsh, of the ICVA, agrees.

Indianapolis hasn’t lost its youth-sports status, he said, but the city has an opportunity to market itself to amateur sports groups. He said he’d like to start by reaching out to baseball and soccer organizations to lure their teams and tournaments to town.

Lowry said the city also could work to bring lacrosse, rugby or even international sporting events here.

Key to the city’s pitch: the close proximity between athletic facilities and tourist attractions downtown.

When teams come to Indianapolis, Welsh says, they can play sports during the day and come to the center of the city in the afternoon or evening to catch a movie or go shopping.

"If you’re in some of these other cities, you’re rather remote from downtown," he said. "Once you get here … you’re 15 to 20 minutes from downtown."

That’s important for families that use amateur sporting events as a chance to take a sort of "mini vacation," said Schumacher, of the National Association of Sports Commissions.

"People are limiting their total leisure trips right now," he said. "If they can combine leisure and a tournament, it’s going to be a big help."

Another point in Indianapolis’ favor is the city’s national standing, Morton said.

"Without question, if Indianapolis steps into the market, they automatically become a competitor because of their reputation," he said.

Schumacher agreed, saying Indianapolis remains a top city when it comes to luring youth sports events.

"When did Indianapolis not become a leader in the industry? That’s news to me," he said. "They are a leader. They have an outstanding reputation and they may want to burnish it, but it isn’t tarnished anywhere outside Indy."

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