I have long touted the sports strategy that Indianapolis used to revitalize its downtown as a model for cities to follow in terms of strategy led economic and community development. I really think it sets the benchmark in terms of how to do it, and it has been very successful.
Indy is hosting the Super Bowl on Sunday, something that is locally seen as a sort of crowning achievement of the 40 year sports journey. As part of that, the Indianapolis Star and public TV station WFYI produced an hour long documentary on the journey called “Naptown to Super City.” I think it’s a must watch for anyone who is trying to figure out to revitalize their own downtown. An hour isn’t short, but given the billions of dollars cities pour into this, I think it’s worth doing some homework. It tells the story of how Indy went from a deserted downtown where local Jaycees were licensed to take their shotguns and kill pigeons to one where the Super Bowl is being hosted today.
I’ll talk more about the Indy strategy in a bit, but first the show. Alas, the embeddable version is gone, but you can view it online at WFYI’s web site.
One thing this brought home for me is the true magnitude of the change. Perhaps I’m being a bit uncharitable, but Indianapolis almost literally started with nothing. It was never a major, important American city. It had no brand in the market. And it had a downtown that was all but dead. Everything they have today was built almost from scratch.
Why do I think the Indy sports strategy was such a good one? Two reason: it was a good strategic area to go after, and it was backed up with very intelligent execution.
First, five reasons this was a good strategic goal to pursue:
- It just fits the character of the city. Hoosiers love sports. The Indianapolis 500 and high school basketball were long established. It’s something they could behind in a way that they would never have gotten behind being the “vegetarian capital of the world” or something like there. It was authentic to the city. If you watch the video, you’ll note how locals embraced the events that were held that. That goes a long way towards explaining the success of the strategy. You have to be authentic to a place in your development efforts.
- It was a whitespace opportunity where Indy could get first mover advantage. Today every city thinks they can make money off sports, but Indy really pioneered the notion that you could use sports as an economic development tool. There were a lot of firsts along the path, and that’s one reason Indy was able to take out a leadership position. Just as one example, Indy was first to do the “build it and they will come” model of building a stadium before having a team. As a result, they were able to grab the Colts, and do it in an era when you didn’t have to mortgage your whole city to make a team relocation happen.
- Being America’s top city for sports events was a realistically achievable goal. I know this because the city achieved it. This is in great contrast to the umpteen cities who all claim they’ll be the “best cycling city in America” or some such.
- There were huge collateral benefits to sports beyond the direct economic impact of the events and the jobs they support. They bring people to the city to show it off to people who might not otherwise come. They enliven downtown and create events that locals might actually want to attend. They also have been an amazing brand opportunity. Just think of the Colts. How many times a week during football season does the word “Indianapolis” get said on TV? Probably hundreds if not thousands. Imagine if the city had to pay advertising dollars for that exposure? Yes, sports is expensive, but I think it could be justified just as cost-efficient marketing alone. Think about how much companies pay just to put their name on the stadium. How much more is it worth to put your city’s name on the team or the event? Think about how much advertisers will be paying for a 30 second commercial in the Super Bowl? What’s it worth for all those mentions of your city during the Super Bowl again?
- It was an initiative that had the possibility of being truly transformative for the city. Again, I know this is true because it was.
I’m not going to claim these were actually the thoughts going through people’s minds as the sports strategy developed or that it was this calculated. But all of these things were implicitly true all along, and I think clearly the people pushing sports must have gotten it on that at some level. So sports meets the first test of a great strategy in that it set out after a good strategic goal.
It was also something where there was a level of execution detail that far exceeded what most cities do. In business, it’s one thing to have an idea. It’s another thing to execute on it and achieve market leadership. It’s still another to generate sustainable competitive advantage that keeps you there over the long haul. Indianapolis has managed to do all of these with sports. I’ll highlight eight examples of how it did this:
- It invested in world class facilities. A lot of these have remained top rated even long after they opened, like Conseco Fieldhouse, which is still ranked every year as the best arena in the United States.
- Two, it laid out an entire district downtown around events hosting, with everything you need in close proximity — venues, the convention center, hotels, shopping, and entertainment. This is something that’s already been widely commented on by Super Bowl visitors who are amazed you don’t have to get shuttled around all over the place and that you can actually walk directly from the media hotel to the hotels where the teams are staying.
- Three, because of this Indy is able to effectively “saturation rebrand” downtown for an event and otherwise cater to events in a way that few other cities can or will. In effect, the city has converted its downtown into a giant sound stage. Take a look at the pictures of the city. The whole downtown as been rebranded after the Super Bowl, including, for example, plastering a huge Lombardi Trophy images on the side of the city’s premier hotel. You can debate the value of this to the city, but there’s no denying its value to the NFL. How many cities are willing to do this to the extent Indianapolis is?
- Indy created the Indiana Sports Corp. as the first ever non-profit management company for events. Today, everybody has adopted that model.
- The city cultivated a large, experienced volunteer base for putting on events that is much more powerful than what others cities have.
- Indy has been willing to take calculated risks in support of the strategy. Building the Hoosier Dome with no team to play in it — big risk.
- It not only went after the events, it went after the sanctioning bodies that determined where the events would be held. The most important is of course the NCAA, but there are others too. This has resulted in Indy having a “cluster” of these organizations and direct access to the people making decisions that pays incalculable dividends. This is one area where the “face to face” discussions that occur in Indy gives the city a big leg up. It’s not just better for selling, it gives Indy critical advanced intelligence about how these organizations are conceiving of their future events needs.
- Last but certainly not least, this has been a sustained, 35 year commitment. It wasn’t a party politics thing. It was a single project thing. It wasn’t a flash in the pan idea. It was something that has been relentlessly pursued over the long haul.
Add all this up and it is easy to see why still today, three or four decades after it first started and after pretty much every city decided to go after these types of events, Indianapolis is still the best place in America to host a sports event.
I hope this gives you a flavor why the Indy sports strategy was so good and so successful. It’s certainly something that’s not without its failures and downsides. The fact that sports has consumed disproportionate civic resources is one of them, and one highlighted by the documentary. But on the whole, most people seem very happy with the results.
Something the video highlights at the end is one essential attribute for success that you can’t plan for or make happen – luck. They ask questions like, what if the “Save the Pacers” telethon had failed back in the 70’s? What if the seats in the Hoosier Dome had been the originally planned variegated colors instead of the Colts blue and white colors when Bob Irsay walked in to check it out? There were many critical turning points where without a lucky break, who knows if the future of downtown Indy might have been radically different in some way. It should give us some humility about the limits of our ability to simply will things into being. On the other hand, it reminds us that if you aren’t in the game, if you aren’t swinging the bat, you don’t have any chance at all of hitting that home run. You have to play if you want to win.