How the NCAA Helped Transform Indianapolis

May 3rd, 2017 | by Dan Matheson
How the NCAA Helped Transform Indianapolis


Many people working in intercollegiate athletics have visited or lived in Indianapolis.  It is home to the NCAA national office and a regular destination for college sports events.  I suspect many people who have enjoyed Indy’s highly rated downtown do not realize how different the city would be if the NCAA had not relocated there almost twenty years ago.  Bringing the NCAA to the Circle City was a strategic move by visionary state and civic leaders that gave momentum to an economic turnaround and helped change the future of what was once a city at a crossroads.

In 1997, the NCAA was nearing the end of its lease in the Kansas City area, where it had been located for more than 40 years.  The organization made it known that its headquarters was up for bids, and Indianapolis was chosen from among several suitors, thanks in part to an incentive package of $15 million from local businesses, $10 million from a state philanthropic group, and $20 million in other state support.  Costly?  You bet.  Has it paid off?  Absolutely.

The NCAA office building in downtown Indianapolis and addition of jobs was only the beginning.  The NCAA has more than 150 committees that include almost 1,500 members from schools and conferences, and the NCAA holds more than 90 percent of its committee meetings in Indianapolis under an agreement with the city and state.  The relationship between the NCAA and the community grew over the years to include a guarantee of a major event in Indy every year, including the men’s Final Four every five years.  Since the NCAA moved to Indianapolis, the city has become the leader in hosting Final Fours – the event has been there four times since 2000 and will return in 2021.  The Final Fours held in Indy have brought an estimated $191.5 million to the local economy.

The NCAA recently announced its future championship sites in a variety of sports, including 27 postseason events scheduled in Indiana between 2019 and 2022.  Five of those will be in the Indianapolis area, not including the 2021 men’s final four.  The NCAA annual convention will be in Indianapolis twice over the next 10 years.  During the life of the NCAA’s current agreement with the city and state, estimates project that NCAA events will lead to more than $1 billion in economic impact.

I joined the NCAA staff in 2002, just three years after the new headquarters opened, and stayed until 2011.  I found Indianapolis to be a wonderful city in which to work and live, with an abundance of entertainment and recreation options in a walkable setting.  During my time there, I learned how far the downtown area had come in a relatively short time and how much the city was counting on the NCAA to help power its resurgence.  

After suburban flight decimated the downtown area in the 1960s and 70s, Indianapolis leaders conceived a community economic development strategy based on becoming a destination for amateur sports.  It began with attracting major events, like the men’s Final Four in 1980 and the Pan Am Games in 1987, and sport national governing bodies, such as USA Track & Field and USA Diving that headquartered in Indy.  The next piece of the puzzle was the NCAA.  As Jack Swarbrick, now Notre Dame athletics director who was chairman of the Indiana Sports Corporation from 1992-2001 and point person in efforts to bring the NCAA to Indy, stated, “We needed an anchor tenant to make the sports strategy first class.  There were only two major players:  the Olympic Committee and the NCAA.”  James Morris, now vice chairman of Pacers Sports and Entertainment who was chief of staff for former Indianapolis mayor Dick Lugar and played an integral role in conceiving the Indy sports strategy, added, “We knew that the NCAA is a convening organization.  Indeed, there are meetings at their headquarters virtually every business day of the year.  Our hotel industry grew dramatically in the two decades since the NCAA moved here and you can draw a direct line to their business.  Let me also add how important it is to have university and college presidents from across the nation visit your city.  They are influential voices in society generally and of course to their campuses.  When they say that Indianapolis is a good place to live and work, it matters.”

The plan that Swarbrick, Morris and others developed and carried out has delivered on many levels. recently ranked Indianapolis second on a national list of downtowns making a comeback from suburban flight, using such metrics as downtown residential population growth and home price appreciation since 2012; commercial and residential vacancy rates; and number of restaurants, bars, grocery stores and food trucks per capita, and growth in those businesses since 2012.  An article in the Seattle Times recently suggested that Indianapolis is the next Brooklyn.  As downtown Indy’s status ascends, the NCAA continues to supply much of the fuel.

The NCAA’s influence in its home city and state cannot be overemphasized.  When the Indianapolis Colts’ new Lucas Oil Stadium was designed, leaders of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championships were included in the process to ensure the facility met future Final Four needs.  When the Indiana legislature attempted to pass a controversial “religious freedom” law that would have supported discriminatory business practices, the NCAA was able to apply pressure that led to modifications of the bill.

So when you watch the March Madness Selection Sunday show from Indianapolis, see news of NCAA events in Indiana, or visit the NCAA Hall of Champions, take a moment to appreciate that making Indianapolis the center of intercollegiate athletics was one of the most successful examples ever of the use of sports as an engine for economic and community development.

Dan Matheson About Dan Matheson
Dan Matheson, J.D., is director of the University of Iowa Sport & Recreation Management program. Prior to joining the Iowa faculty, Matheson was an NCAA associate director of enforcement and the New York Yankees baseball operations director. He serves on Iowa’s Presidential Committee on Athletics and is a dynamic keynote speaker and panelist who has received multiple teaching honors.

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