In late 2020, recognizing the COVID-imposed challenges of hosting an NCAA tournament the following spring but knowing his organization could not stomach another year without one, Mark Emmert called the governor.
Emmert, the NCAA’s president, wanted to lean on a long-standing and steadfast relationship between his organization and both the city and state it called home. I needed Gov. Eric Holcomb’s backing for an all-in-one-place, once-in-a-lifetime March Madness staged entirely in Indiana, and almost entirely in Marion County.
“It didn’t take a nanosecond,” Holcomb told reporters later, to say yes.
The NCAA wanted Indianapolis not just because the two are old partners, but because the city — and by extension its state — have across nearly a half-century built a rock-solid reputation as one of the country’s best civic organizers of big events.
That street runs two ways, of course. It’s been through constant partnership with the NCAA, dating back to Indianapolis’ first Final Four in 1980, that the city has built said reputation. The association has hosted men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, myriad Olympic sport events and countless conventions and summits in Indy, where it moved its headquarters at the turn of the century.
All of which begs a question, as issues such as name, image and likeness, conference realignment and the rise of the College Football Playoff are prompting leaders in college athletics to wonder openly about a future free of much NCAA oversight:
How would Indianapolis, and by extension Indiana, feel that blow?
“There’s no state that does it better than Indiana,” Kyle Walker (R-Fishers) told IndyStar. “We’ve proven time, and time, and time again, that we can do big events, do them really well, and it’s also been proven that the economic impact on any return we put in is exponential on our investment.”
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Tourism is a lifeblood industry for both Indianapolis and the wider state. According to figures produced by the Indiana Destination Development Corporation, in 2019, visitors to Indiana spent what was then a record $13.2 billion in the state. The IDDC’s report indicated that tourism contributed $9.3 billion to Indiana’s gross state product, with visitor spending, innkeeper tax collection and tourism-related employment all up from the previous year.
The COVID-19 pandemic will obviously have hit those industries hard across 2020 and 2021, but the 2021 men’s tournament, the 2022 College Football Playoff national championship game and multiple Big Ten basketball tournaments in the past two years are all evidence that as sports return to business, they are eagerly returning to Indianapolis as well.
That’s crucial, given their impact on those aforementioned numbers.
According to a 2020 IUPUI study of the impact of COVID-19 on sports tourism, that specific segment of the wider industry generates approximately $3.4 billion annually for central Indiana’s local economy. That’s in the form of direct dollars spent by visitors on things such as hotel rooms, meals and local attractions, as well as hospitality-related taxes derived from their visits. The IDDC reported $1.4 billion generated in overall tourism-related tax revenue in 2019.
Indiana and its capital city have spent decades building the infrastructure and civic commitment necessary to establish a reputation as trustworthy hosts of large events. Sports have been central to that development, college sports in particular. If the ground keeps shifting under college athletics, it will keep shifting under Indianapolis as well.
But that infrastructure also exists, and it does so outside any one relationship or set of relationships.
“Indianapolis has spent a lot of time investing in relationships across the board,” one major event organizer told IndyStar, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I can’t imagine that would be forgotten.”
Partnerships with individual conferences, namely the Big Ten, could be important in the future, if (as some expect) what we call the Power Five conferences continue to consolidate power and influence.
Even if the NCAA is minimalized in any way, the conferences appear likely to remain influential. If anything, they are the likeliest group to fill any such void.
“The conferences will continue to have a very strong role in whatever the future is in college athletics,” a person familiar with the relationships between college sports and the city of Indianapolis told IndyStar, citing one prominent example. “The relationship with the Big Ten has been very strong over many years.”
Indiana Sports Corp, established around that 1980 Final Four, has become entrenched in the wider region’s sports tourism ecosystem. Facilities in the city and the state have been built and renovated to fit the needs of major events across the board, including Final Fours, Olympic trials, the Big Ten football championship game and a Super Bowl. Civic leaders embrace strong relationships with event organizers.
And state government is putting further investment into the process of securing these events, through the establishment of a bid fund approved in the most recent legislative session.
Authored by three Republicans but co-authored or sponsored by several members of both parties, SB 245 established state-sponsored financial support “to provide funding for the purpose of organizing and holding sports and tourism events in Indiana.” It was passed in the most recent legislative session and will be appropriated funding in the next budgeting session.
The IDDC will administer the fund, while Sports Corp will handle the grant application process used to secure funding. Walker said the publicly discussed appropriation is $5 million, though nothing is set in stone right now.
The fund is meant to aid organizations both large and small, and at least 30% of it is required to be dispersed outside Marion County. Cities like Fort Wayne, Evansville, Bloomington and West Lafayette have all hosted or helped host major one-time sporting events in recent years, and Walker said the fund could filter even further down into local communities than that.
“The intent is truly to have an impact statewide, and in some cases, it may be a relatively small investment that has a big impact for a community,” Walker, a co-author of SB 245, said. “It may be a court rental. It may be a small licensing fee that’s required to secure or retain an event. In any event, it will be meaningful and have a tremendous impact for the community it’s held.”
The undercurrent intent is the same.
Indiana and its capital city have built strong reputations as capable hosts for major sporting events. Across the last half century, that commitment has been repaid in broad civic and economic growth. Even if — to extend a sports metaphor — the players and the field change, there is a firm belief in their ability to remain at the forefront of that conversation well into the future.
“Indianapolis has really proven itself to be a very attractive option for very large sporting events, and events of all kinds,” Walker said. “If there are changes as a result of NIL or anything else in the structure of the organizations, I think that really just changes who our event organizers talk with, who we’re bidding against, and it also illustrates the need, value and importance of having a bid fund, to make sure we stay in that upper echelon (of potential host cities).”
Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.