BENNER: Enough looking back--let's look at events ahead

December 25, 2010

Last week, we looked back at the year that was in Indiana sports. This week, we look ahead to the new year and what it might be.

For starters, the event calendar does not abate. Not much, anyway.

For the fourth consecutive year, Indianapolis and Conseco Fieldhouse will welcome the Big Ten men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in March. As much as local organizers have done to present the kind of celebration the Big Ten said it wanted, attendance for the men’s tournament—hindered by the lack of a championship-contending team at Indiana University—has fallen somewhat short of conference expectations. With the current agreement with Indianapolis set to expire after 2012, the Big Ten may begin the bidding process for future tournaments sometime in 2011. What occurs here in March could help, or hinder, Indy’s chances of retaining the tournaments.

That said, the combination of the city’s long-standing relationship with the Big Ten and the presence of Lucas Oil Stadium made Indianapolis an obvious choice when the conference, on relatively short notice, had to select a location for its first league championship football game. It will take place Dec. 3. While the Big Ten is likely to move the title game around—look for Detroit’s Ford Field and Chicago’s Soldier Field in the future rotation—Indy once again has the opportunity to make a lasting and positive first impression.

On April 3 and April 5, the NCAA’s Women’s Final Four will come to Indianapolis for the second time. In 2005, it took place in the RCA Dome, but this year it will shift to a true basketball environment at Conseco Fieldhouse. As with the Men’s Final Four, the NCAA has added an array of ancillary, fan-friendly events around the games.

As 2011 unfolds, local focus will grow accordingly on plans for the 2012 Super Bowl unless, of course, National Football League owners and players haven’t arrived at a new labor agreement and the NFL’s extravaganza becomes greed’s sacrificial lamb. Many believe—me included—that some kind of lockout is probable. The question will be how long it lasts and how much, if any, of the actual regular season will be lost.

On the field, the Colts’ making the 2011 playoffs would be a significant achievement given their injuries. But looking ahead to the next season, there is little question the ship has sprung a few leaks and the crew is certainly not getting any younger. Assuming there is a next season, Bill Polian and son Chris will have some serious work to do in the personnel realm.

Unfortunately, labor issues hang over not only the Colts, but the Indiana Pacers as well, and we’ll all grow weary of the public posturing from both leagues. Fact is, I believe the NBA is in far greater danger of losing a season than the NFL, simply because the public could live without the NBA for a year, but not without the almighty NFL.

On the court, the Pacers have fashioned—on most nights—a much more entertaining team than a year ago, but heading into the new year, their margin for error and/or lack of effort is mighty thin. What remains to be seen in the first four months of the year is (a) whether they can make the playoffs and (b) whether a postseason run can persuade the populace to care enough to fill the house in greater numbers. Also in the balance: Coach Jim O’Brien’s job.

Empty seats also will be a concern in 2011 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The month of May and the Indy 500—especially with the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first race—should take care of itself. But both the Brickyard 400 and the MotoGP motorcycle race will need to generate greater support to calm an anxious family of Hulmans.

On the college level, IU will unwrap its new football coach, Kevin Wilson. Purdue University’s Danny Hope will try to quell growing grumbling after back-to-back losing seasons. And the grace period is over for Brian Kelly at the University of Notre Dame. Hey, he’s already had one season.

In hoops, IU’s anticipated rise (with Cody Zeller on the roster) and the sustained excellence of Purdue and Butler University may signal the advent of another golden era. That’s why there’s another event to look forward to in 2011: the inaugural Crossroads Classic Dec. 17 at Conseco Fieldhouse, when Indiana will play Notre Dame and Butler will take on Purdue. Now that will be a tough ticket.•


Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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