This week, sports fans will turn their eyes towards Indianapolis and what promises to be a memorable Final Four. Kentucky is going for a perfect season—for men’s college hoops, it would be the first in almost 40 years. Sharpshooting Wisconsin, led by All-American and possible national player of the year Frank “the Tank” Kaminsky, will try to end the Wildcats’ winning streak in one national semifinal. In the other semi, the biggest name in college basketball—Duke—faces off against Final Four regular Michigan State. This year’s event features star players (Kaminsky, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor) and brand-name coaches (Coach K, John Calipari, Tom Izzo). It’s a dream showcase for the NCAA.
Too bad all anyone can talk about is Indiana.
No, not the Hoosier hoops program: IU left the Big Dance long ago. Indiana—more specifically Indianapolis, the Final Four host city—is stealing the spotlight, thanks to controversial new legislation that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed last week. Critics of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) say the law gives businesses license to discriminate against LGBT residents, in the name of religious freedom. Indiana is the 20th state to pass a RFRA, but a) unlike some other states, Indiana does not specifically protect the LGBT population from discrimination elsewhere in the state code; b) Indiana is the only state to pass such a law in 2015, an era in which Americans have become much more accepting of gay people, and in which same-sex marriage could become the law of the land (15 states passed these laws between 1993 and 2009, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures) and c) Indiana is the only state to pass such a law just days before a mass American cultural tradition plays out in its largest, most important city.
Final Four hosts cities are like the refs. If they’re the topic of conversation, something must have gone terribly wrong.
Indianapolis is in a particularly rough spot. Any economist will tell you that sports is usually an ineffective development tool. But if any city has successfully bet on sports to lift its fortunes, it’s Indy. Back in the 1960s, the most exciting things going on in its desolate downtown was the pigeon shooting—citizens would spray bullets on Sundays to control the population. “We were India-no-place,” Indy Mayor Greg Ballard tells TIME.
To revitalize “Naptown,” business and government leaders settled on a sports strategy: The city would try to lure teams and major international events. First, a downtown arena, home to the Indiana Pacers, opened in 1974. The Indiana Sports Corp. became the first non-profit commission in the U.S. dedicated to recruiting and managing sports events. The city built the Hoosier Dome—which helped attract the Colts from Baltimore in 1984—and invested in track and field, swimming and cycling facilities to host the 1982 National Sports Festival and 1987 Pan Am Games. The national governing bodies for track and field, swimming and gymnastics all settled in Indianapolis. Hotels and office buildings sprouted. In 1987, National Geographic called Indianapolis “The Cinderella of the Rustbelt.” The NCAA moved its headquarters to Indianapolis in 1999. The city has hosted more men’s Final Fours—six, including this one—over the past 25 years than any other in the country. The 2012 Super Bowl was a success. And overall, Indy’s compact downtown makes it an ideal setting for big-time events.
“It’s fair to say that this city was built on sports,” says Chris Gahl, vice president of marketing & communications for Visit Indy, a promotional arm. So if sports leagues and teams start boycotting the city, because they don’t want to associate with what they see as a discriminatory law, they can tear it apart. “I certainly can’t endorse something that in principal is contrary to the value or our organization, and mine and my family’s personal values,” says USA Track and Field CEO Max Siegel, who is from Indianapolis. “As long as anti-gay legislation exists in any state, I strongly believe big events such as the Final Four and Super Bowl should not be held in those states’ cities,” Charles Barkley said in a statement.
This year’s Final Four is projected to generate $70.8 million in direct visitor spending, according to Visit Indy. The 2010 Final Four, won by Duke, brought in $50 million. According to research firm Rockport Analytics, the 2012 Super Bowl contributed nearly $280 million to the local economy and supported nearly 4,700 jobs. An online petition calling on the Big Ten conference to move its championship football game, which contributed $16 million in direct visitor spending to Indianapolis in 2014, out of the city collected thousands of signatures.
The NCAA, which has some 500 employees at its Indy headquarters, took a notably strong stand against the law. “Anything that could potentially allow for discrimination and works in a way that is inconsistent with our values for inclusion is something we are very concerned about,” NCAA President Mark Emmert told ESPN on Monday. “We have to say, what do we do if this law goes into effect in July, and what’s our relationship with the state of Indiana going to be.” Pence has done the impossible: Won the NCAA widespread kudos.
This kind of talk has Ballard, the Indy mayor, very concerned. “This is very much a burgeoning convention setting, and sports event place,” says Ballard, who like the Governor is a Republican. “A lot of jobs depend on it, and the hospitality industry is huge here, just because of the sports and the convention business.” The NFL, for example, could move its annual scouting combine out of Indianapolis. “It’s very difficult for us right now,” says Ballard, who agrees that Pence’s timing was terrible. In an executive order released Monday, Ballard called on state lawmakers and the Governor to “expressly add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in state law.”
“They have to correct this, and they have to correct it quickly,” Ballard tells TIME. “They have to make it very, very clear that discrimination is not acceptable anywhere, and that services and facilities are open to everybody in the state of Indiana.” Without such action, Indiana might find itself out of the game.