Final Four: Will RFRA tweaks save sports events in Indiana?

Intense backlash to Indiana's RFRA promised to cast a dark cloud over the NCAA Final Four games being played this weekend in Indianapolis. Changes to the law could help preserve Indiana's status as a place with a knack for pulling off major sporting events, like the Super Bowl and the Final Four.

Michael Conroy/AP/File
Workers at Lucas Oil Stadium install the court in Indianapolis as they prepare to host the men's NCAA Final Four college basketball games on April 4 and 6, 2015.

On the eve of the NCAA's Final Four, Indiana’s Republican lawmakers made moves Thursday morning to clean up the mess caused by passage of the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act last week, announcing plans to add language clarifying that the law doesn’t give businesses license to refuse service to members of the LGBT community. 

Indiana’s business interests, which were quick to denounce and distance themselves from the original law, gave the changes their approval. But so were officials, organizers, and leagues who have helped bring some of the biggest spectacles in US sports to the Hoosier state in recent years. 

In particular, the intense backlash to the original law promised to cast a cloud over the NCAA Final Four games being played this weekend in Indianapolis. Protesters, including gay athletes like retired NBA player Jason Collins, planned to rally at Lucas Oil Stadium during match ups between the Kentucky Wildcats and Wisconsin Badgers, and the Michigan State Spartans and Duke Blue Devils. The Indianapolis-based NCAA said it was “especially concerned” by the legislation and faced calls to move the games out of the state.  Head Coach Kevin Ollie and the coaching staff from last year’s national champion UConn Huskies canceled their trip to the Final Four ceremonies after Connecticut banned state business travel to Indiana.

“We are very pleased the Indiana legislature is taking action to amend Senate Bill 101 so that it is clear individuals cannot be discriminated against,” the NCAA said in a statement released Thursday. “NCAA core values call for an environment that is inclusive and non-discriminatory for our student-athletes, membership, fans, staff and their families. We look forward to the amended bill being passed quickly and signed into law expeditiously by the governor." 

Indianapolis has made a name for itself recently as a place with a knack for pulling off major events. The city has hosted the NCAA Men’s Final Four seven times, and the Women’s Final Four twice. The 2012 Super Bowl at Lucas Oil Stadium was widely considered a great success, building on a longer tradition of in-state basketball and the Indianapolis 500.

Losing out on such events means a short-term loss of millions, depending on who you ask. In 2014, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed an bill similar to Indiana’s RFRA amid reports that the NFL would consider relocating the 2015 Super Bowl scheduled in Glendale if it were signed. Some estimated that it would mean a $500 million loss to Arizona’s economy (probably less). 

But the after-effects could be even worse, says Victor Matheson, a professor of economics and sports at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. “Sports has a much bigger social impact than the dollar values associated with it,” he says. “The money isn’t much, but it leading to a canceled convention [from businesses or trade shows] is a much bigger hit.”

Indeed, Indianapolis has played host to a number of profitable conventions, including Gen-Con, one of the biggest video gaming conventions in the world. That event has called Indianapolis home since 2003 but threatened to relocate in the wake of the RFRA law’s enactment, taking an estimated $50 million in economic impact with it, according to the convention's organizers.

But beyond the money factor, Mr. Matheson says, sports have the power to affect public discourse in a way that no company or politician can, because it puts more recognizable faces at the center of issues.

“When the governor of Connecticut says no state employees are going to Indiana, that’s not much of an impact,” he says “But when it’s Kevin Ollie, that put’s a real face on it.” 

“We’ve seen sports flex their muscle before,” he continues, pointing out that the international boycott of South Africa during apartheid really gained steam when sports figures, like tennis players and FIFA and the Olympics, pulled out of events in the country. “That really made [South Africa] a pariah, even though the dollar value wasn’t [on par with] boycotts from Coca-Cola or Dow Chemical.” 

Additionally, the reaction of the sports world is a good barometer for where the rest of the country stands on a particular issue, and support for gay rights has rapidly become the norm, even among conservatives. “Much like the corporate world, the sports world is a force for the status quo – and on these issues, the status quo has been liberalizing rapidly. And, much like corporations, sports teams and organizations have real power, responsive to the sometimes vocal constituencies of their players,” Will Leitch wrote for Bloomberg Politics Tuesday. 

By responding to the overwhelming call to change its law, Indiana may have rescued its status as a sporting event stronghold, and preserved its shot at eventually hosting another well-received Super Bowl.

“Today’s a significant day,” Allison Melangton, who led the city’s 2012 Super Bowl host committee, said at a press conference after Indiana lawmakers announced the changes to the bill. “It’s going to show us in our true light.”

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