Indianapolis’ rise to a sports identity

By Marissa Johnson


A Friday night at 7 p.m. All quiet. Everything closed. Few people in sight. A ghost town.

If it were Texas tumbleweeds might blow across the dusty streets. If you shot a canon down the street, you wouldn’t hit a single soul.

But this was not the Wild West.  There were no gunfights.

This was Indianapolis in the early 1960s. This was “Naptown” in every sense of the word, a far cry from the Super Bowl-hosting, sports capital the world knows today.

Downtown Indianapolis Early 1960s.

Downtown Indianapolis in the early 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Historical Society.

To take the city from small and sleepy to one of the top cities in the United States, it would take an idea, a seedling of a dream and a vision of revitalization.

Before 1970, Downtown Indianapolis left a lot to be desired. There were not a lot of businesses, and the ones that were there didn’t stay open late. Indiana University Athletic Director Fred Glass, and former Marion County Capital Improvement Board president, grew up in Indianapolis. He said there was little attraction to the area.

“There were really only two restaurants and I couldn’t afford either one of them,” Glass said.

St. Elmo’s Steakhouse on Illinois Street and the former King Cole Restaurant just north of the circle on Meridian Street, were the biggest attractions in Downtown. But the high price for fine dining meant less frequent visits.

“I lived Downtown because it was cheap, not because it was fun. There was absolutely nothing going on.”

Indianapolis was known to many around the world as a racetrack in the middle of a cornfield.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the city’s claim to fame. And technically, it was in Speedway, not even Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis 500 was Indianapolis’ first claim to fame. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

The Indianapolis 500 was Indianapolis’ first claim to fame. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

The Indianapolis 500 would come around once a year. For the month of May the city was in the national spotlight. After the checkered flag was waived, however, Indianapolis would go back to being the sleepy city of “Naptown.”

But in 1964, Indianapolis civic leaders, led by Mayor John Barton, decided it was time for a change. Indianapolis needed a boost. They made the decision to use sports as the backbone of an economic revitalization.

“I think what they saw was that the city had all of the pieces there already,” said Jim Morris, president of Pacers Sports and Entertainment and a former president of Lilly Endowment.

“The potential was always there,” he said. “You could see that with the Indy 500 and Pacers. We just needed someone to use it to the fullest extent.”

And that’s exactly what civic leaders began to do.

“Indianapolis has a great history of leaders aiming for the greatest good for Indianapolis,” Glass said. “City fathers have done a great job of taking the collective vision and making it something an entire city could be proud of.”

Before joining the Lilly Endowment, Morris also worked with former Mayor Richard Lugar. He said sports were used as the backbone of revitalization because it was something everyone could get behind.

When former Mayor William Hudnut took office in 1976 he said his goal was to change the image of Indianapolis.

“Someone actually told me once that Indianapolis was nothing but a cemetery with lights,” Hudnut said. “Our image was ‘India-no-place’ and it needed to be changed.”

He said the idea was to use the strengths of the city to enhance other aspects.

“I can’t say the goal was ever to make the city a sports capital,” Hudnut said.

Bill Hudnut

Mayor William Hudnut was in office from 1976-1991. Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Public Library.

“The goal was to make this an even better city, one that was successful economically and in every other aspect a city should be, whether that’s tourism or culture or even hospitality.”

Glass said civic leaders took the stance from the “Field of Dreams,” that “if you build it, they will come.”

“You know a lot of people have called Indianapolis ‘The Amateur Sports Capital of the World,’” Glass said. “But really leaders started calling the city that way before it was. It was something they could market to draw people in. And, well, it worked.”

One of the biggest contributors was not in the sports business.

Eli Lilly and Company was founded by Eli Lilly and is focused in pharmaceuticals. Lilly was committed to producing on high-quality prescription drugs. As his reputation and business grew in Indianapolis, so did his family’s wealth. By the 1880s, Lilly was one of the most successful businessmen in Indianapolis.

Lilly became increasingly philanthropic, donating to various charitable groups in the city. This characteristic led to the creation of the Lilly Endowment, a fund designated for philanthropic ventures.

With the help of various leaders and millions in donations from the Lilly Endowment, Indianapolis began to build its Downtown area and its reputation.

Morris said the Lilly family was always adamant about giving to the community and helping in anyway they could.

“It was who they were from the very beginning,” Morris said. “They were invested in this city, and the vision was as much theirs as it was anyone’s. They made a commitment to Indianapolis and my job was to fulfill that.”

One of the keys to the foundation of the revitalization project however, was that while leaders used sports as the backbone, the purpose was not to build the city into a sports-focused environment. Any success there was simply a by-product.

“It wasn’t all about the sports aspect,” Morris said. “It was about improving Indianapolis as a whole, everything from the small businesses to the cultural atmosphere to the convention center business. It was all part of the plan.”

Hudnut saw improving Downtown as a way to improve all of the surrounding area.

“You can’t have a whole in the middle and expect to survive,” Hudnut said. “We didn’t want to be a doughnut with all the development taking place around the periphery, but be like a Toll House cookie, solid all the way through. By building on sports we could enhance all of our best features.”

Despite the convictions that it wasn’t all about sports, there is no denying that sports were what really propelled the city’s revitalization.

There were various events, not only in the sense of a sporting events, but also different groups and organizations coming to Indianapolis, that made huge impacts and made Indianapolis what it is today.

To start the revitalization, Indianapolis built on what it already had, said John Dedman, Indiana Sports Corp. spokesman.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened in 1909. The Speedway hosts the largest one-day sporting event in the world. The Indy 500 brings around 300,000 people to the track every year.

Historians consider the Speedway to be the largest building block of Indianapolis’ sports identity.

In 1967, the Indiana Pacers joined the American Basketball Association. The team was a force in the ABA. The Pacers appeared in the championship series five out of nine years. They won the title three times, in 1970, 1972 and 1973.

 But the team wasn’t located Downtown. The Pacers played at the Pepsi Coliseum at the Indiana Fairgrounds, almost five miles from Downtown.

In 1968, Richard Lugar was elected mayor and put Unigov into effect, which effectively merged Indianapolis and Marion County into one government. This allowed resources to be combined and led to the creation of the Capital Improvement Board.

“This move really brought Indianapolis from the idea of cows and corn to the idea that this was a city with a more vibrant Downtown,” Glass said.

The creation of the Capital Improvement Board allowed the city to open the Indiana Convention Center in 1972. Located on South Capital Avenue, the convention center was a $26.1 million project.  It became a prime location for conventions and meetings.

As the Pacers continued to dominate in the ABA, leaders formed a plan to move the team Downtown.

In 1974, Market Square Arena was opened as the new home of the Indiana Pacers. The $23 million project became the venue of many great events and rivalries.

Market Square Arena

Market Square Arena was the home to the Indiana Pacers after their move from Pepsi Coliseum. Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Public Library.

The arena would host many events, including Elvis Presley’s final live concert on June 26, 1977.

Basketball fans watched as Reggie Miller became one of the greatest to ever don the navy and gold Pacers jersey.  He also is given partial credit for saving the franchise.

Soon after the Pacers made the move Downtown, the franchise experienced financial trouble.

“When we became one of the four teams that went into the NBA, we were like step-children,” said Sandy Knapp, former vice president of promotions and marketing for the Pacers and former president of the Indiana Sports Corp., in an interview for the Indiana Historical Society in 2011. “The terms we were taken in were very severe. It was just very different to go from being, you know, really the flagship to the doormat.”

The team paid a $3.2 million entry fee when it joined the NBA in 1976. As part of the deal, the Pacers also would not receive any TV revenue for the first four years.

The Pacers took a $100,000 contribution from a group of local businesses to keep the franchise going through June 1977.  But that wasn’t enough. The team announced that unless season-ticket sales reached 8,000 by the end of July 1977, the club would be sold to someone who might take the franchise elsewhere.

The city held a telethon and reached 8,000 season-tickets holders to save the city’s only major-league franchise.  It would take several years before the team would be financially stable.

At that time California millionaire Sam Nassi owned the Pacers.  No one locally had the finances and were willing to buy the team. David Frick, Morris and Hudnut spent a lot of time trying to find someone to take over the franchise.

Hudnut said they talked to the Hulman family, but they weren’t interested.

“They were doing the brickyard in the cornfield thing out there at the speedway,” Hudnut said, “which is a magnificent addition to the whole scene in Indianapolis.”

The three also went and talked to Dave Thomas, the owner of Wendy’s on his yacht. But Thomas turned them down too.

Next, they ended up on the doorstep of Herb Simon.

“I still remember us being in a room with him and Herb says ‘I gotta do this huh?,’” Hudnut said. “I told him yes and he said he would do it for civic pride.”

In 1983, Mel and Herb Simon purchased the Pacers in an effort to save the only professional franchise in the city at the time.

The brothers were known as the “Marx Brothers of malls.” The brothers started their own company in 1960. Simon Property Group, a real estate investment trust, now has full or partial ownership of more than 300 shopping malls in the United States, Europe and Japan.  In 2009 Forbes magazine estimated the Simons to be worth over $1.3 billion.

“Mel Simon, as much as any person over the last 40 years, is responsible for Indianapolis becoming a big-league city,” said Jim Morris after the death of Simon in 2009. “His efforts transformed our community.”

Simon Property spokesman Les Morris said he thinks it was a chance to show the dedication the family and the company had to Indianapolis.  The Simons would later bring the Indiana Fever, a WNBA franchise, to the city.

Market Square Arena

Inside of Market Square Arena. Photo courtesy of Indiana State Library.

In 1987, the Pacers drafted Reggie Miller, despite the fans desire for Indiana native Steve Alford to return home.

Miller led the Pacers to their first ever playoff appearance in 1990. Miller had star performances against some of the greats such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Patrick Ewing of the rivaled New York Knicks.

Reggie Miller

Michael Jordan (left) and Reggie Miller in 2000 . Photo courtesy of Indiana State Library.

Under his leadership the Pacers would make the playoffs 15 of the next 16 years.

In the 1993-94 season the Pacers went to the Eastern Conference Finals. Game five of that series is known as Miller’s “coming out party.” Miller scored 25 points in the fourth quarter, exchanging words with filmmaker Spike Lee after every basket.  The comeback victory cemented the love-hate relationship between the two teams. It also reinforced the Indiana faithful’s belief that with Miller the Pacers could always win.

“He took a very troubled franchise and ended up in the Eastern Conference Finals six times,” Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh said after Miller’s retirement in 2005. “That’s pretty impressive for a guy who weighs about 185 pounds. And in the years that he did it, he was a marked guy and he relished it.”

Arguably one of the biggest moves for the city was the creation of the Indiana Sports Corp. Established in 1979, it was the first of its kind in the nation created with the purpose of promoting Indiana as an attractive place to live, work and visit through the use of sports and sporting events.

“The creation of the Indiana Sports Corp. highlighted the innovation of the city,” Dedman said. “I think we really felt like we were joining in the efforts rather than coming in like a separate entity.”

The organization started with no letterhead, no business cards and no office furniture. Knapp said she spent the first few days at a loaned desk in the Chamber of Commerce offices.

“I always viewed us as an extension of the mayor’s office and the governor’s office and the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce because we had to tap those resources from the very beginning,” Knapp said.

After the creation of the Indiana Sports Corp., Indianapolis took what is considered one of the biggest risks in the history of the city. In 1983, the Capital Improvement Board built the $77.5 million Hoosier Dome. The Dome would later be renamed the RCA Dome, after RCA bought naming rights for $10 million.

RCA Dome

Construction of the Hoosier Dome was completed in 1983. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

The ultimate purpose was to be the home of a National Football League franchise. But at the time of completion the city had no team and no offers.

“What we saw was not an empty stadium,” Morris said, “but an extension of the convention center, with so many possibilities in tourism and for cultural events.”

In 1984, any remaining fears city leaders may have had were squelched. On March 28, Robert Irsay moved his NFL Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis.

The move was made in secret.

Johnny Smith owned the Mayflower Moving Co., and at the time was Hudnut’s next-door neighbor. Smith promised he would move the team for free if they would come to Indianapolis. So, under the cover of night the team packed and moved everything in Mayflower moving trucks.

No one knew about the deal until it was announced the next day from Indianapolis.

 “Cities are often defined by whether they have an NFL franchise,” Glass said. “This really was a defining moment in the status and image of Indianapolis.”

The city’s status increased again as it won the bid for and hosted the Pan-American Games in 1987.

“The Pan-Am games moved our recognition from domestic to international with one event,” Dedman said. “It put Indianapolis on the world-wide map.”

As people from all over the world descended on the city, the name Indianapolis became a household name internationally.

“It was one of my favorite memories to see people from all over the world enjoying and experiencing the city I loved for the first time,” Morris said. “It was a very proud moment.”

After the Pan-American Games the city had a domino-like effect, with events and headquarters rolling into the city.

Pan-Am Games Opening Ceremony

Opening ceremonies for the Pan-American games were held at the Indy 500 racetrack in 1987. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

The NCAA brought its headquarters to Indianapolis in 1999, after the city had begun hosting Big Ten tournaments every year.

In 1996, Victory Field opened, located on the corner of West and Maryland Streets, just a few blocks from the convention center.

Victory Field became the new home for the Indianapolis Indians. The Indians were founded in 1902 and are the second-oldest minor league franchise in professional sports.

Before moving to Victory field, the team played in Bush Stadium on 16th Street.  The stadium was used for various things before finally the city decided in 2012 to preserve the shell and historic façade and turn it into an apartment complex.

Shortly after Victory Field opened, Market Square Arena was demolished, and Conseco Fieldhouse opened as the new home of the Pacers. The building is located on South Pennsylvania Avenue, a few blocks south of Monument Circle. The $183 million Capital Improvement Board project was finished in 1999.

The Fieldhouse also became the home of the WNBA franchise, the Indiana Fever. Established in 2000, the Fever would become WNBA champions in 2012.

Bankers Life Fieldhouse

Bankers Life Fieldhouse is the home of the Indiana Pacers and Fever. Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Public Library.

The Fieldhouse would also be the place where Reggie Miller retired. His last game was played on May 19, 2005. He left the floor to a standing ovation, a culmination of his 18-year career with the Pacers.

Conseco was later renamed Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Eight years after Conseco was built, the Capital Improvement Board broke ground on Lucas Oil Stadium. The stadium replaced the RCA Dome as the home field for the Colts.

Lucas Oil Stadium

Lucas Oil Stadium was built as a replacement for the RCA Dome. Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Public Library.

The stadium was considered a $720 million expansion of the convention center, as well as a deciding factor for keeping the Colts in Indianapolis.

Glass said this was one of his proudest moments in his position, because it solidified the status that the NFL team brought to the city.

“Growing up I always thought it would be the coolest thing ever to have an NFL team here,” Glass said. “To be a part of keeping them here was a big moment not only for the city, but for myself as well.”

Corydon, Ind., native Forrest Lucas and his Lucas Oil Products, Inc., purchased the naming rights for $121 million, but the stadium is often referred to as “The house that Manning built.”

This alludes to the great history that NFL quarterback Peyton Manning had with the Colts. Manning was the Colts’ No. 1 draft pick in 1998. He would become a four-time MVP and lead the Colts to a Super Bowl championship in 2006.

Manning was traded to the Denver Broncos in 2012, but is largely responsible for the success of the Colts organization. He is already considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.

Peyton Manning

Cover from the Sporting News, featuring Peyton Manning. Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Public Library and Sporting News.

All of this led to what is perceived by many critics and sports fans alike as the pinnacle to the success of Indianapolis as a sports capital: Indianapolis hosted Super Bowl XLVI in 2012.  It was a major success.

Super Bowl article

Story from the Indianapolis Star about the city hosting the Super Bowl. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society and Indianapolis Star.

“It was just an extraordinary effort and a great event, so we thank you all for a great week and a tremendous Super Bowl,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said after the event.

Super Bowl Host Committee President Allison Melangton said after the Super Bowl that 99 percent of media mentions about Indianapolis were positive.

Many national media outlets said Super Bowl XLVI could be the best ever.

Forbes magazine’s headline touted: “Super Bowl XLVI’s Real Winner? Indianapolis!”

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 12.40.35 PM

One of various logos used for Super Bowl 2012 in Indianapolis.

But just as leaders had wanted from the beginning, people saw more than sports.

“It is the most sports-centric city in the nation, if not the world,” Larry Olmsted of Forbes magazine said after the event. “But as viewers all over the country found out last week, there is a lot more to Indy than sports.”

Indianapolis continued to prove its capabilities as a sports city, earning it the right to be broadcasted as a sports capital.

“I don’t know that you can say we are ‘The Sports Capital of the World,’” Sports Corp.’s Dedman said. “But we are definitely one of them.”

Other leaders see Indianapolis as more than just sports now. The Pacers’ Morris said the identity of the city should reflect everything that it is.

“The identity and what I’m proud of is the people of this city and the collaboration of everyone to bring culture, arts, music, business and sports all together,” Morris said.

The city now hosts numerous sporting events every year, including NCAA championships, golf tournaments, Big Ten conference games and championships, and professional and amateur sporting events, among other things.

But the city also hosts concerts, art festivals, music festivals, parades and conventions.

It’s 10 p.m. on a Friday, and the night is just getting started.

Restaurants overflow with people just coming from the game or the concert or the convention.

Finding a good parking spot is next to impossible.

It has all the sights and sounds of a big city, because it is.

This is Indianapolis today, a far cry from “Naptown” and restaurants closing at 7 p.m.

It is for this reason that Indiana Athletic Director Glass said Indianapolis has evolved into much more than anyone ever expected.

“I think maybe it could be considered ‘The Greatest Host City In The World,’” Glass said.

“This title embraces the people, the character, the hospitality, everything that really makes Indianapolis the Indianapolis the world knows.”

Indianapolis skyline today. Photo courtesy of Indiana State Library.

Indianapolis skyline today. Photo courtesy of Indiana State Library.

Incoming search terms:

  • downtown in 1968
  • Indiana Indianapolis mayor early 60s
  • indianapolis sports capitol
  • \donations@\ Corydon Indianapolis loc:US

Filed Under: In-DepthNews


About the Author

Comments are closed.