As winter’s chill gives way to the highly anticipated warmth offered by spring, the Midwest region undergoes an annual transformation that grants more than blooming flowers and days increasing in length; it heralds the arrival of a cultural spectacle deeply etched into the Hoosier fabric – March Madness.

The landscape of American collegiate athletics is a tapestry woven from diverse competition from a multitude of conferences, each with its own competitive spirit and unique impact. Indianapolis, with its rich basketball history, proudly hosts its share of sports excellence, but only the Division I conference has its headquarters in the Circle City: the Horizon League.

The Horizon League, which has put great emphasis on developing a competitive and forward-thinking culture, has a storied past filled with success throughout collegiate sports history. Founded in 1979 as the Midwestern City Conference and later changed to its modern name, the Horizon League offers a diverse athletic landscape that encompasses 19 sports including both men and women. In its Division I basketball sector, the Horizon League is comprised of 11 universities scattered across the Great Lakes and Midwest region. Embracing transformation as a key concept in its future, the league puts emphasis on the belief that being more than just another Division I athletic conference is paramount in its journey to developing a premiere identity. Being headquartered in Indianapolis, the Horizon League cultivates a flourishing symbiotic relationship with its host city, demonstrating a commitment that extends far beyond the larger-than-life competition that takes place inside Indiana Farmers Coliseum.

In the summer of 2023, the Horizon League announced a new campaign titled “Brand Recharge,” which included a slick new logo, a social media campaign (#OurHorizon), and most importantly, a strategic initiative centered around the way the Horizon League and its students leave their footprint in their communities. Shawn Sullivan, the Horizon League’s associate commissioner for messaging, branding and strategic initiatives, explained that for the Horizon League, the focus is more than just the games, and that the Horizon League’s impact on students and communities lives longer than the duration of one game, one season, or even four years of a student’s collegiate athletic life.

The Rinebold Company, along with strategic design agency Section127 and Sullivan, spearheaded the brand strategy, emphasizing a more personal voice in the league’s narrative. The refreshed communication strategy revolves around four pillars – Major Cities, Major Experiences, Major Moves and Major Impact – showcasing the Horizon League’s commitment to exposure, competition, innovation and community leadership.

“Part of our brand recharge was really looking into the process of building on the pride that already existed among students, and growing with the community to be a better community partner to them,” Sullivan said. “We also wanted to modernize who we are as a league in a way that connects with people. We’re interested in leaving a quality and lasting footprint in the communities that our students and league members are active in.”

The Horizon League’s dedication to its student-athletes finds a strong parallel in its commitment to the cities that their universities are in as well. Since 2020, the Circle City has proudly hosted the semifinal and championship games for both the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. This partnership, however, transcends mere event hosting. Recognizing the importance of fostering a deeper connection with the city, the league actively seeks to enrich its cultural tapestry through various initiatives.

“We currently have around 50 people in our local organizing committee and work closely with the Meridian Kessler neighborhood throughout the year,” Sullivan said. “Barbasol, KeyBank, and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield really play a big part in what we do, and helped contribute to our brand recharge in terms of resources.”

Sullivan noted that much like the athletics that are a part of the Horizon League, pushing the Horizon League vision forward takes a team.

The Horizon League’s partnership with the Indiana Farmers Coliseum, near the Indiana State Fairgrounds & Event Center, has been a resounding success. This connection is further strengthened by the league’s extended partnership with the City of Indianapolis, securing the city as the host of the championship games through 2026. This long-term commitment signifies the league’s unwavering dedication to the city’s cultural and economic growth.

The 6,800-seat arena sees over one-million spectators annually, with a significant portion being dedicated Horizon League fans. The league’s commitment to its community is palpable, evident in events like the International Women’s Day Celebration during the 2022 championships, bringing together leaders and allies to celebrate women’s achievements. Utilizing their community platforms has been major in the process of fostering dialogue within the community.

Another example is the league’s hosting of an interactive Fan Zone, offering free entertainment and activities just steps away from the Indiana Farmers Coliseum. This commitment to community engagement goes a long way in establishing a two-way street where the league and the city benefit from each other.

Beyond branding, the Horizon League boasts a storied history in NCAA men’s basketball tournaments. From 1995 to 2011, the league produced 24 qualifiers, earning the distinction of the only non-BCS conference with five Sweet 16 appearances during that span. The Horizon League remains an always-active contender in collegiate basketball.

After the highly competitive regular season that basketball offers, the Horizon League Tournament is held annually, and features all 22 teams in the Horizon League – 11 on the men’s side and 11 on the women’s side. Each first round and the quarterfinal round game will be played at the home arena of the higher seed. This year the semifinals and the championship game will be played at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum.

Oakland (20-11, 15-5 Horizon) became the outright winner of the conference regular-season crown for the first time since joining the Horizon League in 2013-2014, after knocking off rival Detroit Mercy 75-70 at home. On March 12, after fighting for a chance at the tournament championship, the Oakland men found themselves across Milwaukee for the 2024 Horizon League championship game, and went on to win 83-76, earning themselves a chance to go dancing in the field of 64 in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament. After 13 seasons of striking out, Oakland is entering the big stage feeling more confident than ever.

The Cleveland State women’s team (28-4, 18-2 Horizon) entered the Horizon League tournament on a high note after capturing the 2023-2024 Horizon League regular season title – the first in the program’s tenured history. In a game against the Green Bay women’s team on March 12 for the women championship, Cleveland State fell short, 40-64.

As the echoes of the final game fade away and the lights dim in the Indiana Farmers Coliseum, it’s a moment of reflection for the Horizon League and the City of Indianapolis. Together they’ve not only put on highly successful events and games for the athletes, students and fans, but also forged a clear fire that transcends the court. The league’s growth, exemplified by initiatives like the brand recharge, mirrors the city’s own evolution, with each milestone marked by shared triumphs and challenges overcome. As they gaze towards the horizon, both the Horizon League and Indianapolis stand poised for the next chapter of their journey, guided by a shared commitment to excellence and community.

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