Convention Center could host national track and field championships

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A big-time track and field event might be racing back to Indianapolis.

But it won’t take place in IUPUI’s once-vaunted outdoor track and field stadium—which has hosted numerous major track meets over the years and is now the home of the Indy Eleven soccer team.

Nor will it be in Lucas Oil Stadium, whose predecessor, the RCA Dome, once held the indoor track and field world championships. Or Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the one-time host of the World Indoor Short Course Swimming Championships.

USA Track & Field CEO Max Siegel told IBJ this week he is looking to bring a major indoor championship track event to the Indiana Convention Center. If it happens, it would be a first for the facility.

Discussions about the event between officials from USATF—which is headquartered in Indianapolis—the Indiana Sports Corp. and Visit Indy  began within the last 30 days, said a local official familiar with the talks.

One local convention center official told IBJ on Tuesday that USATF is looking to bring the event here in the 2018-to-2020 time frame, adding he is confident Siegel, an Indianapolis native, has the wherewithal and clout to make his vision a reality.

“If they can host the indoor world championships at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, I think we could do the U.S. championships in the Indiana Convention Center,” Siegel said. “Absolutely, I think it could be done here, and I’d like to bring the event to Indianapolis as part of a semi-permanent rotation.”

The convention center would be more intimate and a better environment for the event than the mammoth Lucas Oil Stadium, Siegel said, adding that he isn’t convinced the Lucas Oil floor could be configured to hold the 200-meter indoor track. Bankers Life Fieldhouse doesn’t have the floor space, either, he added.

If all of the removable walls are taken from the convention center, it offers 566,000 square feet of contiguous, column-free space, enough room for an indoor track and bleacher seating for several thousand spectators. That space is where the 2012 Super Bowl’s NFL Experience was held.

In comparison, the floor of the football stadium has just less than 200,000 square feet.

Siegel said the Indiana Convention Center has the space and the location—nestled in among many downtown hotels and restaurants—to make the event a success. He also said the intimate environment of the convention center would allow track and field fans to see the sport up close.

Local tourism officials said the event would likely have an eight-figure economic impact, but no studies have yet been done.

Travel Portland estimated the economic impact of this year’s indoor world championships at $24 million. The organization reported that organizers and athletes alone generated 12,000 hotel room nights. 

Sports Corp. officials confirmed they have been in discussion about bringing a high-level track and field event to Indianapolis, saying it is a matter of finding the right venue and dates on the calendar that would work for all parties. Sports Corp. officials said it’s too early to comment on the feasibility of having a national—or even a world—championship indoor meet at the convention center.

“We have been helping to research dates and space for potential USA Track & Field events,” said Visit Indy Vice President Chris Gahl. “The Sports Corp. is taking the lead on this, and we are supporting them in getting dates available. We have just started the process. It’s an intriguing possibility.”

This year’s IAAF World Indoor Championship in March at the Oregon Convention Center, though, would appear to bode well for the possibility.

The event was held for just the second time in the United States. The other time it was contested domestically, it took place at the RCA Dome in 1987. Siegel said hosting the world championship here may be something to consider down the road. 

The world indoor championship in Portland drew 600 of the world’s best male and female athletes from 144 countries in 13 standardized events. The meet was touted as a mini-preview of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The Portland meet drew 39,233 over four days, which included a pole vaulting exhibition the day before the meet. The meet’s evening sessions on Friday (7,016), Saturday (7,173) and Sunday (7,191) were sold out.

The Oregon Convention Center was “transformed from a blank canvas into the best indoor stadium in the world,” said Vin Lananna, head coach of the men’s U.S. Olympic track and field team and one of the lead organizers for the event in Portland.

The meet was televised on NBC Sports networks.

Portland Oregonian columnist Ken Goe was a converted skeptic after the meet at the Oregon Convention Center.

“I’m still a little amazed at how successfully [the local organizing committee] pulled this meet off,” Goe wrote in a column shortly after the event. “They had a 7,000-seat indoor facility built from scratch inside an exhibit hall. The 200-meter track was gorgeous and received high marks from the athletes. The arena didn’t look temporary.”

Indianapolis built a reputation as a track-and-field hot spot starting in the early 1980s with the opening of the 12,000-seat IU Michael A. Carroll Track & Soccer Stadium at IUPUI. The stadium hosted five USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships from 1983 to 2007, as well as the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials and numerous college and high school championship events.

Several sizzling performances were registered there by such athletes as Olympians Carl Lewis and Florence Griffith Joyner. But major track events at the facility dried up in recent years as the stadium aged and became more of a soccer venue.

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