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Accelerating Indianapolis

Two Wabash Men from different generations are leading Indianapolis’s efforts to become “the premier city in America for sports.”

Mark Miles ’76 presides over the largest single-day sporting event in the world. 

As president and CEO of Hulman & Company, he is leading the resurgence of the Indianapolis 500 and the INDYCAR series. 

Miles came to Hulman in 2013 after working to bring the Super Bowl to Indianapolis in 2012. His work organizing the Pan Am Games for the city in 1987 helped transform the city into “the amateur sports capital of the world.” 

Ryan Vaughn ’00 envisions Indianapolis as “the premier city in America for sports.” 

After serving as Mayor Greg Ballard’s chief of staff, Vaughn took the helm as president of Indiana Sports Corp in 2014. The nation’s first sports commission, Indiana Sports Corp has brought more than 450 national and international sporting events to the city and more than $4 billion in direct spending. 

Vaughn’s work has helped Indianapolis score the NCAA Final Four, an NBA All-Star Game, and the College Football Playoff National Championship. 

WM caught up with Miles and Vaughn on the seventh floor of The Pagoda at IMS—overlooking the Speedway and with a view of the Indianapolis skyline—to hear their perspectives on sports as an engine of economic and cultural development and to glimpse their visions for attracting the next generation of events, fans, and supporters. 

WM: When you look out these windows, what do you see? What does it mean to you?

Mark Miles: I was just showing a reporter a file that a friend of mine brought in from his grandfather. It’s got a letter and all kinds of communications, back to 1931. Back then, there were a lot of cornfields between here and the city.

What I think of first is the development of the city. It’s great to see the skyline, see what it is today, and think about what it can be.

Then I think about this place and all that it means to so many people.

Ryan Vaughn: I grew up a race fan on this side of town, continue to be a race fan, and went to races with my family. When I was old enough, I worked here—my wife, Heather, worked here too—stocking vending machines and prepping for the big crowds.

But there’s so much more that happens here now: multiple races, air races, golf tournaments, corporate challenges, car shows, Christmas Lights at the Brickyard. It has really grown into the community in a way that is more year round.

Mark Miles ’76

Miles: Except for the balloon races in 1909, the first time that I know of something happening out here not connected to the 500 was in 1987, when we asked the Hulman George family if it would be okay if we did the opening ceremonies for the Pan American Games.

 

You are both Indianapolis natives. Was it important for you to work in your hometown?

Miles: I never dreamed or thought about working at the Speedway, but it has always been important to me to work in Indianapolis—to be involved in the development of the city.

When I graduated from high school, everybody called the city “Indianoplace” or “Naptown.” So there was a time that I was kind of schizophrenic about the race because I thought, Everybody in the world knows about it, and that’s the only thing they’ve ever heard about Indianapolis—do we really want to be known just by that image?

Today I don’t feel that at all. I see that the city has developed around it. There are so many things to be proud of here, and it’s very special to be part of that.

Vaughn: I never envisioned working in the sports industry, but I’m sure glad I do.

When I was working for Mayor Ballard, we were trying to figure out how people viewed Indianapolis. So we did a comprehensive survey, and by wide, wide margins, we were known as a sports and racing town.

That’s how the world has gotten to know us for more than 100 years, which is really special. So I’m very excited about what I do and what sports means for the community. I take great pride in furthering that narrative and using it as a vehicle to put Indiana on a global stage.

 

You both started in politics. How does that transfer over to what you do on a daily basis now?

Miles: Many ways. I’d been around a number of political campaigns at a time when we started doing things in sports. And the people who were involved—whether it was saving the Pacers or bringing in the Colts—were people who were actively engaged in the community, and often that meant in politics.

There’s a big overlap, but the sports piece is more fun because it belongs to everybody. It’s not generally polarizing, so it feels like a much more positive platform for the community.

Ryan Vaughn ’00

Vaughn: I didn’t start in politics. I kind of backed into it. My goal was to be a trial lawyer. In law school, though, I interned at the prosecutor’s office. I loved that job.

But I had to pay off student loans at some point, and I still wanted to be that top-tier law firm trial lawyer. When I left the prosecutor’s office I sensed that I had lost something. I eventually realized what I missed was the emotional reward I got from doing public service.

I struggled for about a year to find a way to get involved again, and I ended up winding my way into politics. That was my first step back into the civic world, which introduced me to a great network of people.

That background became helpful when we had a major sporting event coming to town and we, as a community, were struggling with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that had just been passed. We needed to address that very quickly. Understanding the political process, already having relationships with the people, was super helpful.

 

So, Mark, you came back to Indianapolis to work on the Super Bowl?

Miles: No. I came back to Indianapolis thinking I was completely done with anything in sports. I had finished 15 years with the Association of Tennis Professionals.

The one thing that I missed being away from Indianapolis was this civic engagement. I was taking a job here that was about, in a broad sense, economic development. Mayor Ballard got elected at the end of 2005 and called me that December about the Super Bowl.

 

Why did you say yes?

Miles: I remember the phone call. He had run against the Super Bowl—he was at least skeptical. He called and said, “I’ve decided we really should go after the Super Bowl. And when I think about the Super Bowl, I see your face.”

I said, “Man, that’s a problem.”

He said, “We wanna go after it. Would you chair the bid committee?”

I hoped I could help and it sounded like fun—the same reason I did everything I’ve done to date, except I wasn’t getting paid. Allison Melangton ran it, make no mistake about it, but she got 30 or 40 hours a week out of me as a volunteer.

 

Ryan, you were in the mayor’s office at the time—was that your introduction to the economic and political side of sports in Indianapolis?

Vaughn: It was the first time I became hyper conscious of it. I began to understand the value proposition that sports bring—beyond the entertainment side of it—to a community.

I often joke that the Indiana Sports Corp was founded in 1979; I was founded in 1978.

I grew up in a city that I thought was always this busy and always this fun. It didn’t occur to me what it meant for the economics of the downtown, the redevelopment and reuse of spaces in the core of our city, the jobs associated with hospitality.

You see that stuff through a different lens when that’s the revenue you have to manage. [laughs] That was pretty eye opening for me.

 

In a sense, the history and the legacy of sports in Indiana rides on the shoulders of both of you and your fellow leaders in this work. Why on earth would you want to take that position?

Miles: I never really think of it as pressure. I also don’t think that it rides on our shoulders. This is a multi-generational effort now and so many people have been essential to it.

Vaughn: I took the job because I saw the impact that the sports strategy, the sports mission, had on the community.

One of the things the Sports Corp is not doing is assuming the mantle of “follow us. You should do what we do.” We try to attract major events to town, and host those, but we’re also a convener of the different organizations that work in sports in Indianapolis, and we build partnerships in support of that.

That means the Colts, the Pacers, the Indy Eleven, the Fever, the Fuel. It means the universities. It means the city and state. It means the national governing bodies, USA Track and Field, gymnastics, football, diving, the Horizon League, the NFL Combine.

A lot of people have an important role in building that identity.

Miles: As Ryan was naming organizations, I was thinking the Metropolitan Arts Council, the Humanities Council, the museums, the orchestra, the schools, and all the non-sports groups. The beautiful part of the recipe since it started here is not just bringing together everybody related to sports and tourism, but in the broadest sense, the community.

That’s what really makes people feel good about it. It isn’t what happens on the pitch. It’s not my job really to worry about who wins the Indianapolis 500. I’m looking at how we present ourselves, the relationships we build among organizations that normally wouldn’t have anything to do with each other. That’s what makes them great events.

 

Do you think that Indiana is what it is in terms of sports because of “Hoosier Hospitality”?

Vaughn: Hoosier Hospitality distinguishes us from many cities which host major sporting events. We hear it all the time: It’s a very, very friendly and engaging place to be. And that’s not true everywhere. In fact, more often than not, it’s not true.

Miles: Our people show up and do the work. There’s no place like it in the world that I’ve seen, and I’ve done business around sporting events in 35 countries and I don’t know how many cities.

When we first laid out the plan to the NFL for how the volunteers would really make all this happen in Indianapolis for the Super Bowl [regarding the Super Bowl Village], the league kept asking, “What are you really going to do if they don’t show up at the NFL experience? What if this doesn’t work.”

We said, “Don’t worry about it. There’ll be more people than we know what to do with.” And that was true.

 

Do you ever worry, because we’re bringing in so many big events now and the 500 is gaining popularity again, that Hoosiers are going to get tired of all the sports?

Miles: When I got to IMS I was struck by the fact that this is a mega event. It’s so much a part of the DNA of our community, but there was nothing like the community engagement model we have seen in Indiana Sports Corp with these big events. For Allison and me, coming here with that background, the question was, “Where’s the host committee?”

As a for-profit organization we couldn’t use volunteers, but we’ve got a not-for-profit foundation nearby. There were ways we could partner with the 500 Festival or the Sports Corp. We advertised, did a lot of PR, and sold tickets. Everybody came and everybody loved it.

We started doing that for the 100th in 2016 and pretty much went to the same well. The same people, time and time again, want to answer the call. It’s because they’re proud of their city and want to be part of this esprit de corps that gets created. That M.O. now is really important to this place, and it’s the way we try to make it grow.

Vaughn: I never struggle filling a board with community leaders or civic leaders.

Then there are the volunteers who are literally on the decks of the Natatorium, in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, or Lucas Oil Stadium. I don’t think they get tired of it. It’s just really incumbent upon us to make sure we’re expressing to them our gratitude.

We don’t ever want them to feel like they’re taken advantage of or that we don’t respect what they do or value what they do.

Our toughest challenge right now is that our volunteer base exceeds our opportunities. When we had the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament a few weeks ago, we filled all 600 volunteer positions in 90 minutes after we posted, which is just extraordinary.

Miles: For me, it’s more the challenge of not always going back to the same folks, because they will sign up every time. They love it.

But this needs to constantly be an avenue for people who have never been involved before at either level, the volunteer management level or on the deck level.

 

He’s not exactly a volunteer, but in 2017 Pacers President Larry Bird and IndyCar collaborated on the city’s bid to host the NBA All Star game.

Vaughn: One of the things that differentiates us from other people is that we are all in from the moment of “Yes, we have decided to bid.” We go over the top and really show them how much we want this opportunity.

So you fly Larry Bird to New York. He drives an Indy Car down Fifth Avenue and delivers to the commissioner a handcrafted box that contains a customized iPad that has the entire bid book on it. Other cities literally assembled their bids in binders and FedEx’d them in.

Miles: That is the mindset of the people who’ve done these events: How are we going to exceed expectations? How about Larry Bird on Fifth Avenue? How about we get eighth-graders, many of whom have never been on a plane, to deliver the bid for the Super Bowl to all team owners? It’s just so cool for those families and those kids. It’s a frame of mind.

 

It sounds like it takes all of Indianapolis for the city to be successful attracting and hosting these events.

Miles: Other cities manage to do it with really tightly controlled, limited broader involvement. I hate to see the day when we ever even imagine that.

Vaughn: Why wouldn’t you get as many people involved as you can? You want those folks involved because you want the entire community to benefit from what you’re doing, not just the venue, a team, or a small group of the community to have some exposure. That, to me, wouldn’t be worth it. It wouldn’t have the community impact that I find rewarding.

Miles: There were 38,000 volunteers for the Pan American Games in 1987. At least once a month, if not every week, I’ll run into somebody who says, “I was the deputy awards commissioner… and it was the highlight of my life.” It has enormous impact for people individually, and then as a community.

 

Speaking of the Pan Am Games. I was looking at the schedule of what’s coming to Indianapolis between now and 2023, which includes Big Ten Championships, the NBA All-Star Game, the NCAA Men’s Final Four, the College Football National Championship. Ryan, how much of this is possible because of the things that Mark did with the Pan Am Games?

Vaughn: One hundred percent. Those 38,000 people had a moment where they realized that sports could have a tremendous impact on the city. That has reverberated in multiple ways, whether it’s attracting sports organizations like the NCAA or faith in investing in venues—like Lucas Oil Stadium or Bankers Life Fieldhouse—that have allowed us to continue to grow and thrive in sports.

The two most catalytic moments in sports in Indianapolis outside of, obviously, the construction of this facility, have been the Pan Am Games and the Super Bowl, because so many people got to work it. They got to volunteer. They got to help plan it. They were super proud of their city. We had these third-party validations from people around the world saying what a great city it is. That’s the stuff that keeps the momentum going and allows you to lean in on all of these other events.

Miles: By the time we got into the Pan American Games, the Sports Corp had been formed and had done the National Sports Festival. That event, to me, was the coming-out party, because it really was the time, from my perspective, that the host committee model got built.

We didn’t invent it, we just stole it and modified it a little bit in order to do, basically, the Olympics for American athletes. We had to have this whole constellation of sports venues—the first excuse to build all that was the National Sports Festival.

And you have to remember the people like Jim Morris, Ted Boehm, and David Frick who, along with another 20 or so other people, decided that they were going to embark on things that would make the city better.

 

Ryan, you have said that, compared to Mark, you’re just a rhyne and he’s the Sphinx Club president. Why?

Miles: It’s because I’m older.

Vaughn: I have been in the world of sports a little over four and a half years. I learn something new every day about our collective industry of sports.

Mark has an incredible career, not only from the civic service side of leading things like the Super Bowl and Pan Am Games, but right here at the Speedway.

He’s got a fantastic resume. I’ve got a bullet point.

 

What are you doing to attract a new generation of sports fans and a new generation of Hoosier volunteers?

Miles: Our case in racing is quite specific. Probably not even half of 18-year-olds in this country have a driver’s license. People worry that this lack of interest in cars will carry over to racing.

That’s nonsense, because we view our sport as an extreme sport. Daring, brave, high-speed open-wheel racing does not require that you know anything about what the engine is or what their dynamics are, anything technical. It’s just raw, extreme sport, from my perspective.

It’s also a hard sport to watch, because it’s very hard to find a track where you can see the whole thing. We have an issue and an opportunity. There are 44 line cuts around this 2.5-mile oval. Each car has the equipment so that every time they pass one of those 44 line cuts, we take all the data off of it. We want to take some of that data and turn it into graphics and other content that young people can consume.

The ticket for us in continuing to get younger is not just how amazing the racing is, or how young our athletes are, but how we go to market with ways to consume the sport that are particularly interesting to younger people.

Vaughn: Fans for the next generation of sports is actually one of the foundational questions on a pretty unique initiative that we are partnering on with the Colts, the Pacers, and the NCAA.

A little less than a year ago we announced the Techstars SportsTech Accelerator. We invited technology companies from around the world that had a focus on sports to help problem solve around these issues: fan engagement, athlete safety, and others. This month we’ll select our first 10 companies.

We had about 385 companies from around the world apply to be part of it. There are several companies that have a fan engagement element to them.

There’s exciting stuff out there.

 

We started this interview talking about the things that you see when you look out these windows. Let’s talk about the things that you don’t see yet, but you want to see. Hilton Hotels plans to build a 38-floor Signia Hotel in Indianapolis— one of three cities chosen for this massive building. It’s going to change the skyline we’re looking at now. What does that say to you about the future of Indianapolis?

Vaughn: That we’re growing.

One of the biggest professional challenges I have is that there are more events that want to come to Indy than we have room to host because we have limited capacity in our downtown.

We’re leaving business on the table that, if we had greater capacity, we could grow into and really do something special.

Miles: It’s very natural. It’s a repeating cycle from my perspective—there were 465 downtown hotel rooms in Indy when I graduated from high school in 1972.

Vaughn: There are now 10,000 rooms in just the core of downtown.

Miles: It has grown and grown.

I think back to the debate when what became JW Marriott hotel was coming on. The people who owned existing hotels said, “Oh no, we really like where we are. We’re at a very high occupancy rate. The new hotel will make that rate dip.”

And it would.

But growth cycles are not a curve. They’ll dip a little because we’re at a very high occupancy rate now. To get to the next level of sporting events and conventions, it is essential that we add this capacity. If history repeats itself—and I’m sure it will, because we’re better positioned now than we were then—we’ll get right back up.

Not very many cities can be so optimistic and almost certain of their continued growth.