By Meghan Rominger | @MeghanRominger
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — The first cold-weather location to host a College Football Playoff National Championship added another major sporting event to a collection that has dramatically transformed the image of this city in the last half century.
A traditional morning-after news conference designed to pass the hosting responsibility from city to city captured the impact of that altered perception. Indianapolis – which inherited the host site status from Miami a year ago – handed it off to Los Angeles after presenting an event complicated by the latest surge in a global pandemic.
The Georgia Bulldogs won their first national football championship since 1980, but their victory over Alabama was not the only triumph in Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday night.
“We are delighted – and that is an understatement – with the performance of this city,” said College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock.
“The city of Indianapolis has done an incredible job,” said Georgia head coach Kirby Smart in a postgame press conference.
“They’ve done a tremendous job of taking care of our team and a first-class event.”
The city, the College Football Playoff Host Committee and approximately 2,000 volunteers who helped execute the championship and its supporting events set the precedent for future championships, further establishing Indianapolis as a major destination for college sports’ biggest events.
“We’re small, but we’re mighty,” said Host Committee President Susan Baughman. “We’re a great city. Our staff is eight persons big. And the only reason that we’re able to cover all the territory we do and all the great events and all the planning is because we had 450 people on our host committee who are volunteers. And this doesn’t happen in every city.”
Perhaps the most impressive part of the city’s quest to host the event is that it didn’t originally plan to send in a bid to host college football’s biggest game.
The Indiana Sports Corp., which became the nation’s first sports commission in 1979, sent a small delegation to the first National Championship in Arlington, Texas in 2015 to determine its interest in submitting a bid. According to reporting from Sports Journalism M.A. graduate Jon Sauber, then-College Football Playoff Chief Operating Officer Michael Kelly asked the city of Indianapolis and the Indiana Sports Corp. to submit a bid for the 2022 National Championship.
“From the time of the call to the main bid submission was about three weeks, and the whole process was about six weeks,” Baughman said in 2018. “I don’t know if we’ve ever done a bid in six weeks.”
Clearly, Baughman and her team pulled it off. In November 2017, the playoff committee announced Indianapolis as the host of the 2022 championship.
“I’m so proud of this city and never more so than this morning,” said Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett at Tuesday morning’s press conference. “One year ago, when Indianapolis took over from Miami to become the host for the College Football Playoff National Championship, this city [did] what it always does. It was springing into action then and has continued since then.”
For people who know Indianapolis’s history with major sporting events – and planning them under a tight deadline – Monday’s national championship success isn’t a surprise. The city and its relevant planning committees have always been up to the challenge.
The opening of Market Square Arena in 1974 and the Hoosier Dome 10 years later had created opportunities for the city to build an identity through the sports industry. In December, 1984, Indianapolis became the host of the 1987 Pan American Games after the withdrawal of Santiago, Chile and Quito, Ecuador. In just over 2 ½ years, Indianapolis successfully planned and developed an event that hosted over 4,000 competitors across 30 sports. The organizers planned events at venues including Lake Michigan, Market Square Arena, the Hoosier Dome, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Bush Stadium, Eagle Creek Park, the Circle Theatre, Hinkle Fieldhouse, and the Michael A. Carroll Track & Soccer Stadium and the Indiana University Natatorium on the IUPUI campus.
The Pan American Games created a national awareness that would one day lead to a Super Bowl in downtown Indianapolis.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. And the people of Indianapolis don’t take this for granted,” said Hancock, referring to the city’s college football hosting duties. “This is what you are about. This is what your people are about.”
Indianapolis hosted the entire 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament under tight time constraints. In January 2021, the NCAA announced the city would take on the responsibilities of the 67-game schedule after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the organization to adjust its original plan. Just one game was lost because of positive tests.
Indianapolis has hosted all 11 Big Ten Championship Football Games since 2011 and has frequently hosted the conference men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, which will be played at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in March. The National Football League Scouting Combine, a modest camp covered by a few dozen reporters when Indianapolis first hosted the event in 1987, has grown into an industry convention with approximately 1,500 media credentials.
“This has been a very hospitable place here in Indianapolis to actually come and visit,” said Alabama head coach Nick Saban the day before the game. “I think this is a great sports town, having been here for the Combine for many years and knowing the hospitality, the friendliness of the people here.”
But the fans and athletes aren’t the only ones who benefited from the city’s efforts. Indianapolis, its teachers and its students have and will continue to reap the benefits of college football’s biggest game.
According to Indianapolis Host Committee Board Chair Mark Howell, the championship will give the city of Indianapolis over $2 million in infrastructure funding. The funding will be used to implement changes that will strengthen Indianapolis’s status as a safe, appropriate host city.
The College Football Playoff Foundation, whose mission is to “elevate the teaching profession by inspiring and empowering teachers,” transformed school libraries across the state, launched a statewide eLearning lab for K-12 educators, and honored teachers from across the nation at this year’s championship game.
“One of the coolest parts of this weekend’s emotional experience was watching the 74 ‘Teachers of the Year’ from around the country that includes 18 here from Indiana who truly were treated like honored VIPs,” said Howell.
Next year the national championship game will move to Los Angeles, California, back to warmer weather and a bigger city that will mirror the atmosphere of the championships of the past. But the 2022 championship, and everything Indianapolis did to make it happen, will certainly serve as a guidebook moving forward.
“In a year from now we’ll be in Los Angeles, celebrating another successful college football playoff,” Hancock said Tuesday.
“We look forward to Los Angeles, but they will know Indianapolis has set a very high mark.”