Niki Kelly: Is there such a thing as too much sports?


By Niki Kelly

Guest columnist

Indiana has always been a state fueled by sports, from its place in auto racing history to its basketball worship.

From youth sports to the professional ranks, sports is big business.

But is it too much? Communities are now squaring off with each other, often with tax dollars driving the moves.

Earlier this month, Pacers Sports & Entertainment announced it would be moving its developmental league team — the Fort Wayne Mad Ants — to Noblesville. City officials have pledged to build a $36 million arena with 3,400 seats. The Pacers will contribute $5 million.

Last year, the Indy Fuel, an affiliate of the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, announced it is moving to Fishers. In 2024, the team will begin playing in an 8,500-seat arena there. It is part of a $550 million expansion of the Fishers District. The Fuel will be the main tenant of the events center that can also host theater and other entertainment.

The team has played at the coliseum at the Indiana State Fairgrounds since its first season in 2014. The state sank $63 million into renovations for the arena at that point in time.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Lebanon is building a $115 million sports complex called Hickory Junction. It is 27o,000 square feet and will host youth sports, from volleyball and football to lacrosse and baseball. It’s less than a mile from my house, and its steel beams are going up quickly.

Columbus also is investing heavily in sports with the NexusPark project, including the Circle K Fieldhouse, jointly funded by the city and Columbus Regional Health. The facility is now under construction at the former FairOaks Mall site.

Also in the state budget is $89 million in state tax dollars for a new amateur sports facility on the IUPUI campus. The space could host events and could serve as practice facilities for larger competitions. The pre-pandemic study that identified the need for such a place recommended a capacity of several thousand seats.

It is being sought by the Indiana Sports Corp., among others, who are convinced it would keep Indiana in the higher tier of sports hosting.

After all, the state has become a bit of a sports tourism mecca. Think Super Bowl, NBA All-Star game, college football championship, Final Fours, swimming and diving Olympic trials.

But there is always a point of diminishing returns.

Westfield’s massive Grand Park campus serves as a cautionary tale, leading me to wonder if all this is too much at once.

The city spent almost $68 million building the Grand Park sports campus. It has 31 soccer fields, 26 baseball diamonds, two administration buildings and seven concession stands. A 378,000-square-foot multi-use event center opened in 2016. The campus focuses on youth sports but has also hosted the Indianapolis Colts training camp.

Last year, the city of Westfield tried to sell the park, estimating its worth at more than $200 million. But the average of the two appraisals put it at $85 million. Officials there have now decided to keep the park but find a new operator.

And that new operator will apparently have a lot more competition.

Niki Kelly is editor-in-chief of, where this commentary first appeared. She has covered Indiana politics and the Indiana Statehouse since 1999 for publications including the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Send comments to [email protected].

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