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How Indianapolis became one of the greatest underdogs in sports

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Travel Images - File Photos Photo by Bryan Steffy/Getty Images

There’s something special about rooting for an underdog. It could be the David and Goliath aspect. It could be the opportunity to be a part of something small that becomes something big. Maybe it is feeding the human urge to know what it feels like to win the lottery.

Whatever it is, the most readily available platform to be a part of an underdog story is sports. Every sport, at every level, has what seems like an infinite number of opportunities to witness upsets. There are David and Goliath stories happening every day in the sports world and this may very well be what makes spectating so entertaining.

It can be argued that no city in America more suitably fills the role of underdog than Indianapolis. The city and the state of Indiana have been long considered “fly over” locations. The nickname “nap town” was originally a jab coined by visitors from bigger cities, who felt the state and its capital had little to offer.

Of course, these days, the city has embraced the moniker and playfully uses it to mock the large markets of the world with every major event, many sports related, that chooses Indianapolis as a desirable host.

What makes Indianapolis such an interesting story is that perhaps no other city in the United States — or even the world — has developed and grown so heavily with sports as a primary focus. Consider that, until the 60s, the Indianapolis 500 — the most heavily attended single-day sporting event in the world — defined professional sports in Indiana. It wasn’t until the late 60s that steam really started to pick up and Indianapolis leadership made a concerted effort to build the city around sports.


HOOSIER HYSTERIA

Before we get into those efforts, it’d be ridiculous to discuss the role of sports in Indianapolis or the state of Indiana without first talking about the root of the culture in high school basketball. Even before millions of dollars were generated by the professional sports complex Indianapolis has developed, the state was saturated in what was coined “Hoosier Hysteria.”

Hoosier Hysteria earned its name and reputation from the 1920s until the late 80s or early 90s and was rooted in high school basketball. One of the most iconic sports movies of all time “Hoosiers” tells the story of small school Milan, with a total enrollment of 161, defeating the much larger program in Muncie Central, a school with an enrollment of over 1600.

This was made possible by Indiana’s single class sports system. Under this system, school size didn’t matter. Any team could advance to challenge for a state title, no matter the odds.

The roots of Hoosier Hysteria are far deeper and complex than the Milan miracle. Consider that the state of Indiana has 9 of the 10 largest high school gyms in the country, and possibly 18 of the top 20. Consider that the 1990 State Championship game boasted an attendance of over 40,000 fans who flooded to watch Damon Bailey win a state championship, an attendance record that still stands for a high school basketball game.

Consider that Indiana University and Purdue University have one of the biggest college basketball rivalries in the country, IU has five NCAA championships, and that a small Indianapolis school like Butler University has been a basketball powerhouse for at least a decade — which also happens to feature the legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse that stood as the largest basketball stadium in the world (including professional) for over 20 years (1928 - 1950).


INFRASTRUCTURE, EVENTS AND FRANCHISES

It’s no wonder why Indianapolis leadership thought the city could grow with sports at the center of its beating heart. Residents in Indiana couldn’t get enough.

Marc Tracy of the New York Times completed an interview with NPR radio host Bill Littlefield in April of 2015. In the story, Tracy discusses Indianapolis’ history and how sports have played such a large role in its development.

BL: Most efforts to rehabilitate cities by bringing in teams have not been all that successful, especially in the long run. How has Indianapolis made their plan work?

MT: The difference with Indianapolis is because it’s such a sustained commitment, both in terms of events and also in terms of rebuilding the downtown. You have to look not just at the impact of an individual event but at decades of headquarters and sports-related business going on in the town. And you also have to consider the development of neighborhoods around these sports.

What the sports strategy did over decades was provide the impetus both for new business and also for other things — a rich cultural life, a very large convention center, the world’s largest children’s museum. All these things were built in Indianapolis, but as one professor I spoke to said, sports was the glue that held all this together. It was something the community could rally around, and it was something strategists — they kind of masterminded it expressly to be around sports.

Tracy goes on to discuss how the downtown area has grown in population by over 20,000 due in no small part to the city’s efforts to make sports a major focus, which includes the creation of the Indiana Sports Corp — the first sports commission in the world (they exist in almost every major city today). Here are some of the biggest examples of these efforts:

STADIUMS AND FRANCHISES

  • The Indiana Pacers were founded in 1967 and the city has built the team two stadiums over that time. Market Square arena was built in 1974 and demolished in 2001. Bankers Life Fieldhouse was opened in 1999 and is still considered one of the top 5 professional basketball venues in the NBA.
  • In 1982, Indianapolis began construction of the Hoosier Dome, an arena the city hoped would attract an NFL team, which was constructed before any agreement was formulated with a franchise. In 1984, the Colts left the city of Baltimore and claimed the Hoosier Dome as the team’s new home. The venue earned a reputation as one of the loudest sports venues in the world and stood until it was demolished in December of 2008.
  • Construction of Lucas Oil Stadium started in September of 2005 and opened in August of 2008. The venue can seat up to 70,000. While “the Luke” is over 10 years old, it regularly earns honors as one of the top NFL stadiums in the country, including taking home top honors from Stadium Journey in seven of eight years. This despite that fact that newer stadiums have been constructed and opened during that time-frame.
  • Victory Field, home of the Indianapolis Indians, was opened in July of 1996 and can hold up to 14,200 fans through stadium and lawn seating. It has been recognized as the best minor league ballpark in America by Baseball America and Sports Illustrated.
  • Other professional sports franchises include the Indiana Fever (WNBA 2000), Indy Eleven (USLC 2013), and Indy Fuel (ECHL 2014).

OTHER INFRASTRUCTURE

  • In 1999, the NCAA moved its headquarters to Indianapolis after it outbid Kansas City. The NCAA is headquartered in the White River State Park in a four-story 140,000 square foot facility, and sits next to a 35,000 square foot facility that houses the NCAA Hall of Champions museum.
  • One of the crown jewels of Indianapolis that has been heavily connected to the development of the Indianapolis sports complex is the Indiana Convention Center. This has grown and undergone regular improvements since it was opened in 1972.

EVENTS

  • The Indiana Convention Center has hosted: the annual Big Ten Football Championship Game Fan Fest, the 1987 Pan American Games, NCAA Bracket Town in 2010, NFL Super Bowl Experience in 2012, NCAA Final Four Fan Fest in 2015, NCAA Tourney Town in 2011 and 2016, and the NFL Scouting Combine Experience in 2017 and 2018.
  • The city has hosted and will host the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four in 1980, 1991, 1997, 2000, 2006, 2010, 2015, 2021, 2026. NCAA women’s basketball Final Four in 2005, 2011, 2016. College football playoffs 2022. Big Ten men’s basketball tournament 2008-2013. Big Ten Football Championship Game 2011-present. Super Bowl 2011. NBA All Star Game 1985 and 2021. 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick in Carmel.
  • One could argue that Indianapolis was the best Super Bowl hosting city in history. With a Super Bowl Village attendance of 1.1 million, Indianapolis shattered the events previous record that was set in Arizona in 2008 — 265,039 fans.

EMBRACING THE UNDERDOG ROLE

Despite all this “fly over” state, this “nap town” has done to establish itself as one of the most prominent sporting destinations in the world, it is still regularly overlooked. It remains a small market, with small market teams, and struggles to attract large market talent. Its teams don’t boast the biggest budgets and rarely have the biggest superstars. The talent teams in Indianapolis acquires often comes at the hand of shrewd franchise management — dominated by drafts and trades.

Despite having so many obstacles and challenges, the Indianapolis Colts earned the NFL’s best regular season record from 2000-2009. The team won a Super Bowl in 2006-2007, and many thought they would win in 2005-2006 until they flopped at home against the Steelers after Bill Polian famously chose to rest his starters after a 13-0 start. The Colts also lost a Super Bowl to the New Orleans Saints in 2009-2010.

The Indiana Pacers made it to the Conference Finals in the NBA in 93-94, 94-95, 97-98, 98-99, 03-04, 12-13, 13-14. The team also made it to the NBA Finals in 99-00. The Pacers team of the late 90s and early 2000s with the best chance to win an NBA Championship blew up after the Malace at the Palace in November of 2004. This would be Reggie Miller’s final season.

It should go without saying that Indianapolis professional sports franchises have had a ton of success, despite the small market label and despite the small market challenges. The city has hosted some of the biggest sporting events in the world and continues to expand its list of events. The city and state has a rich history of sports in its DNA.

The rest of the world might continue to overlook the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana or its professional and amateur athletes but that makes it all the better for the fans who live there. Hoosiers love the role of underdog and are driven by being overlooked. It makes the victories even sweeter and the sting all the more bitter for their sports rivals.

This state witnessed the Milan miracle first-hand and in case the rest of the world doesn’t know, and they probably don’t, the Pacers and Colts are both poised to be dangerous franchises yet again. The city of Indianapolis and state of Indiana will love every minute of it.