When IUPUI announced its move to the Horizon League last month, it came as a surprise to many. The realignment rumor mill had been churning for several days, but there appeared to be a number of potential candidates that made more sense.
IUPUI does not have a baseball team, and the league was reportedly looking to add one to keep from moving closer to a loss of automatic qualification in the NCAA baseball tournament. IUPUI is also not traditionally competitive in men’s basketball, which is far and away the most popular sport that the Horizon League sponsors. And IUPUI doesn’t draw particularly well, so there is not much evidence for a rabid fan base supporting the Jaguars.
It all begged the question: What did the Horizon League see in IUPUI that made it an attractive addition?
In its presentation to the Horizon League, which Mid-Major Madness acquired through a Freedom of Information request, IUPUI primarily highlighted its academic strengths and underscored the importance of having a member in Indianapolis.
A growing university
In its pitch to the Horizon League, IUPUI frequently touted its Master Plan, which lays out the university’s grand vision for its future. The plan, which can be seen in full here, lays out how IUPUI hopes to develop over the course of the next 30 years. In that time, the university hopes to grow enrollment to 35,000 students (it is currently just under 30,000, with 21,748 undergrads, according to the school’s website), expand its office, research, and classroom space, and improve its existing facilities.
One of the biggest assets to the university is the presence of medical facilities on or near the campus. Riley Children’s Hospital, IU Health, Simon Cancer Center, and an expanding group of research facilities provide ample opportunities for the nationally ranked IU School of Medicine to explore and push the boundaries of medicine while maintaining a close proximity to the school. The university’s plan displays the role that research and development will play in the school’s growth.
The plan also lays out the framework for how the university can continue to improve the availability of transportation and circulation of visitors to the campus. The university has undergone projects in recent years to improve major university streets. The potential for mass transportation in the form of shuttles, public transportation, or the university’s “people mover” rail system will help IUPUI provide a smooth experience getting to and from the campus.
It’s clear that IUPUI has established a well-thought-out plan to integrate the different districts together. The school has grown quickly in recent years, and the plan should allow it to become an integral part of the downtown Indianapolis landscape and community.
A market for college sports
Simply being located in Indianapolis was also a major selling point for IUPUI, and with good reason. The presentation points out that Indianapolis is a top 25 national media market, and the school receives regular coverage in the Indianapolis Star and on local TV and radio. Markets are important to the Horizon League, as shown by its current membership, with schools in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Green Bay.
That top 25 market also happens to be home to NCAA headquarters and professional venues for every major sport. The presentation specifically highlights Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which is home to the Indiana Pacers and has frequently hosted the Big Ten Tournament.
Starting in 2018, the Horizon League Tournament will move to the Detroit Pistons’ home at Little Caesar’s Arena. While attendance in Detroit for the tournament hasn’t been embarrassing, the league has acknowledged that it has significant room to grow. Commissioner Jon LeCrone even mentioned Indianapolis last season as a potential future home. IUPUI now gives them an anchor in that city.
Is IUPUI enough to draw more fans to Indianapolis than Detroit? Probably not. But it’s a nice boost to a conference that already has three members within a three-hour drive.
And it’s more than just hosting tournaments. IUPUI has benefited from simply latching onto major Indianapolis sporting events as a sponsor. In fact, IUPUI even teamed up with the Horizon League in 2015 to host the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium. Now, the Horizon League can credibly attach itself to sponsorships with the Pacers, the Colts, the Indianapolis Indians, and even the Indianapolis 500. A city that revolves around sports can soon be inundated with Horizon League branding.
Naturally, any presentation for membership in an athletic conference needs an emphasis on athletic potential. IUPUI does not have an illustrious athletic history to draw on, but it did point out investments it has made to ensure its best days are still ahead. IUPUI’s current athletics budget of just over $9 million would rank near the bottom of the Horizon League, but it is increasing, and the university expects the budget to hit $11.5 million by 2020.
In 2014, IUPUI gave its men’s basketball arena, Indiana Farmers Coliseum, a $53 million makeover that included renovated locker rooms and a new video board. A year later, its natatorium received a $20 million renovation, and has hosted Olympic swimming and diving trials. Then there’s Carroll Stadium, home to IUPUI men’s and women’s soccer as well as the North American Soccer League’s Indy Eleven. Renovations there are still to come, but the stadium already seats 10,000, with luxury suites and new turf. Renovations are also coming to The Jungle (volleyball and women’s basketball) and the IUPUI softball complex.
Shiny new facilities, or at least a commitment to creating them, could mean future hosting opportunities at IUPUI for conference championships in swimming and diving or soccer. Though men’s basketball may be the biggest revenue driver, conferences prides themselves on being able to provide a world-class experience for all of their student-athletes, and it certainly raises the profile of the league and helps in recruiting for those sports. IUPUI is pitching its facilities as potential hosts both for conference tournaments and national events, which would help further drive the Horizon’s stake into the college-sports-crazed Indianapolis.
That’s not to say IUPUI was able to paint itself as an athletic powerhouse. The school’s lack of history reared its head several times throughout the presentation, for example on a slide entitled “IUPUI Athletics Accomplishments.” That’s where it listed its one NCAA Tournament appearance, first-round pick George Hill, an academic all-American, and one national qualifier in track and field.
Rather than boasting about attendance numbers or athletic revenue, the school instead dedicated a slide to showing that IUPUI has more Twitter followers than any other Horizon League institution.
Then, of course, there was this photo of a game played in front of mere dozens:
Outlook for the Horizon
At this point, it becomes important to think about what exactly is realistic for the Horizon League. If it was determined to expand, there was simply no perfect candidate out there — any perfect school would already comfortably be in a stronger league.
The Horizon League, particularly without Valparaiso, will not be a good conference for men’s basketball in 2017-18. The league undoubtedly felt it more important to make inroads in a major market with a school that seems committed to its athletic and academic futures. It’s a gamble, but one with a higher potential upside than it may seem on the surface. And don’t forget: Just because IUPUI was the only add for this coming season, it doesn’t mean that expansion ends here.