I was out last Wednesday night, and when I got home and turned on the TV, there was a teaser for the news on Channel 13 asking if a retractable dome stadium like the one in Houston, the Reliant, was in Indy’s future.
This city’s legend is based on the story of how sports dug it out of an impossible hole in the 1980s. No one argues that. But times change.
I didn’t think much of this until I switched over to Fox for the 10 o’clock version of the news. There, after stories about a gas explosion on the Southside and the death of a Bloomington family in a trailer fire, I learned that the city had made a blockbuster agreement with the NCAA. Indy was going to get a Final Four every five years through 2039. Not only that, the NCAA promised to stage a major sports event of some kind here in every intervening year. This was going to mean a lot of money for the city. Just one Final Four was good for between $20 and $30 million. Gracefully woven into this story was the item that, in exchange for this windfall, the city would either have to renovate the RCA Dome (again) by 2010 — or BUILD A NEW STADIUM. And there was Mayor Peterson saying that, depending on how the Colts negotiations went, we might have a new stadium BEFORE 2010. Cut to commercial. I could barely believe what I’d just seen and heard. Last September everybody was talking about how lopsided public opinion was against the city building a new stadium for the Colts. Of course, between then and now, there was an exciting football season that undeniably reminded all but the hardest hearts among us about the pleasures associated with a winning team. Oh, there was also a mayoral election in which the mayor was able to successfully steer clear of the stadium issue. Didn’t want to jeopardize negotiations, you know. That’s not all. Late last year, a barely remarked on story ran in The Star business section about how the city’s lucrative convention trade might be in jeopardy because, even though the Convention Center had just been expanded, it still wasn’t big enough. The problem, said the article, was that space where new expansion might take place was currently occupied by a pesky thing called the Hoosier, er, RCA Dome. Anyway, I waited until 11 o’clock to see how this story would be covered on Channel 8. Again there was the gas explosion (the mayor went to the scene to express relief that no one was killed), the Bloomington trailer fire, plus the shooting down of all-day kindergarten in the Legislature. Finally we got to the news about the NCAA — and, sure enough, the implication that, yes, the city would be getting a new stadium. I say implication because the NCAA didn’t demand a new stadium as part of the deal. They just want significant improvements to what we already have. No, it’s Mayor Peterson and guys like Fred Glass, the head of the Capital Improvement Board, who are all but rubbing their mitts together in anticipation of a retractable dome of their own. On one level, who can blame them? The NCAA deal, coupled with that SOS from the Convention and Visitors Bureau, makes building a new stadium about something besides the Colts. The Indiana Sports Corp., surely an objective source of information about such things, claims this deal will mean a billion dollars for the city and state over the next 35 years. Everybody, it appears, is a winner. So much euphoria makes it easy to forget that the kind of stadium the city will probably want to build comes with a heavenly price tag. They’re still counting the costs associated with the Reliant in Houston. Last time anyone looked it was $442 million — some say more. Unlike DVD players and digital cameras, the cost of retractable dome stadiums isn’t likely to fall over the next few years. We can probably count on a $500 million facility. That even makes a professional optimist like Jim Irsay flinch. He was quoted in The Star saying he wasn’t sure if this market was really big enough to support a hall like that. The point, though, is that the NCAA deal lends an aura of inevitability that may effectively preempt public debate about a new stadium project. It also makes clear where this city’s priorities stand for what will likely be another generation. They can be summed in one word: sports. When it comes to raising and spending money, not to mention mustering political will, nothing even comes close. This city’s legend is based on the story of how sports dug it out of an impossible hole in the 1980s. No one argues that. But times change. Now we’re in an era when the NFL is so concerned about its waning ability to attract 18 to 34-year-old males to its Super Bowl broadcast it hires MTV to produce the halftime show. And just look at all the people trying to take credit for that decision.