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Central Ohio Stadium Journeys

By Zac Richardson -- September 06, 2012 4:24 PM EDT

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Depending on where you live, chipping away at one's sports bucket list can be fairly routine, or it can present challenges. Living in central Ohio (especially as a non-Buckeye fan) has its share of obstacles-- but given the right amounts of curiosity, creativity, and dedication, there are still a good amount of list-worthy experiences to be enjoyed.

Some quick parameters: first, as much as possible, I tried to focus on transcendent sites or events-- which is to say those places or opportunities that would appeal to a wide range of sports fans, and in many cases might be familiar or attractive to the casual observer, as well. And second, I aimed for a three-or-so hour driving circumference around central Ohio, translating to a manageable daytrip (or an easy overnight excursion).

For starters, rooting interests aside, a game at Ohio Stadium is a must. Rightfully holding a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, and celebrating its 90th season this year, entering "the Shoe" is like a visit to ancient Rome-- including a breathtaking rotunda at the north entrance designed to resemble the Pantheon, and with attendance that routinely exceeds 102,000. Only the Romans did not also boast an enormous marching band, whose specialty-- the "Script Ohio"-- is also a sight to behold. Stadium Journey Magazine also named Ohio Stadium as one of the best places to see a game in 2012.

In Mason-- about a half-hour northeast of Cincinnati-- theLindner Family Tennis Center plays host every summer to the Western & Southern Open. While very nice, the Tennis Center on its own is probably not bucket list material. But this joint men's and women's event-- which is a U.S. Open warm-up with significant ranking-points implications-- also plays host annually to many of the world's top players, with an extraordinary amount of intimacy and access. The laidback environment makes for a setting in which it is not uncommon to find yourself standing 10 feet away from a Venus Williams or Roger Federer while they tune-up only hours before a big match. So for tennis fans-- or sports history connoisseurs, in general-- this is a great opportunity to see topflight competitors up close and personal, in the midst of what many consider a Golden Age of the game.

Continuing on down to Cincinnati, the Reds' Great American Ball Park is one of the best in the league. Still only nine years old, the stadium steeps itself in the past-- including an enormous and beautiful Queen City/baseball-themed Art Deco bas relief outside, and an inviting plaza leading into the entrance (complete with statues of former Reds greats spread out in playing formation). Inside, the spacious concourses are easily manageable, and some of the cheapest tickets come with great views-- in particular, overlooking the Ohio River. It really does not get much better than having riverboats slowly drift by while the game plays out below, especially given the Reds' recent return to prominence.

Onward to Kentucky, less than three-and-a-half hours from central Ohio are both Lexington and Louisville-- and each has their own bucket-list-worthy destination. Louisville, of course, is home to Churchill Downs, that opened in 1875, and which has hosted the Kentucky Derby the first Saturday in May every year since. If you are neither well-connected enough to watch The Run for the Roses from Millionaires Row-- nor willing to brave the madness of the infamous infield-- then there is also a full live racing schedule (primarily in the spring and fall), as well as a year-round museum and tour.

And over in Lexington, there is Rupp Arena-- home to the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as some of the rowdiest and biggest crowds since opening in 1976. Rupp consistently leads the NCAA in attendance, has been the home to eight Final Four teams, and at the very least belongs on every college basketball fan's to-do list.

Indianapolis, three hours due west from central Ohio, has numerous transcendent sports highlights. Most famously there is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the world's largest spectator sporting facility. Like Churchill Downs, the Motor Speedway has a flagship event (in this case, the Indy 500, held over Memorial Day Weekend for the past 100+ years), as well as hosting additional races and a Hall of Fame Museum.

Also in Indianapolis is Butler University's Hinkle Fieldhouse-- famous for its connection to the movie Hoosiers, famous in its own right as one of the oldest stadiums in college basketball (at 84 years old), and also now a destination to see a Final Four-caliber program in action. Finally, the Colts' Lucas Oil Stadium is one of the NFL's best-- as was on display when it entertained Super Bowl XLVI in 2012, the Big Ten Football Championship Game last fall (which it will continue to host, moving forward), as well as the Final Four in 2010 (as it will again, in 2015).

Just over three hours north of central Ohio is another must-see college football stadium, and the bookend to one of sport's greatest rivalries. In Ann Arbor is the Wolverines' Michigan Stadium-- or "The Big House," given its nearly 110,000 official capacity (frequently exceeded), and standing as the largest in the game. Opened in 1927, part of Michigan's home field uniqueness lies in its being nearly three-quarters below ground level, making for a canyon-esque feel and perspective (there is even reportedly a crane under the stadium, which sunk in the site's marshy soil during construction).

Aside from football, the Wolverines' men's lacrosse squad also now calls Michigan Stadium home, and special-event hockey games are played, as well (such as 2010's "Big Chill at the Big House," against Michigan State, and the 2013 Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, barring lockout complications).

Finally, we visit Pittsburgh-- a little more than three hours to the east of central Ohio, and home to a pair of list-worthy sites that are essentially joined at the hip. The Pirates' PNC Park and the Steelers' (and Pitt Panthers') Heinz Field each opened in 2001-- about a half-mile apart in the North Shore area of town, and as part of a jointly-funded (and controversial) project, in conjunction with the redevelopment of the nearby Convention Center. Both stadiums were designed to reference and incorporate the city's familiar colors and industry (black, gold, and steel), as well as highlight a beautiful skyline.

The confluence of rivers, bridges, and entertainment districts in a downtown setting all contribute Pittsburgh's charm, but this can also make transportation something of a nightmare. Nevertheless, PNC and Heinz are worth the effort, and each are among the best in their respective leagues. A competitive Pirates team for the first time in a generation is an added plus-- as is the recent high-profile turn for the Steelers' stadium as the imploding home field of the Gotham Rogues in The Dark Knight Rises.

A best-of-the-rest roundup could also include the Pittsburgh Penguins' Consol Energy Center (just two years old, and designed by the same firms in charge of nearby PNC Park and Heinz Field); the Cleveland Indians' Progressive Field (unveiled to great fanfare in 1994, and still a very nice park, but perhaps a bit overshadowed by some of the newer stadiums to open since the Indians' recent glory years have faded); and the Indiana Pacers' Bankers Life Fieldhouse (which opened in 1999, and would likely garner more attention, but for the fairly average teams to call it home the last decade or so-- to say nothing of continuous talk about franchise relocation).

A pair of minor league Fifth Third Fields in Ohio are also thoroughly enjoyable (both, very popular and highly regarded downtown stadiums-- one, hosting the Dayton Dragons, and the other, home to the Toledo Mud Hens). And a destination like the Indiana Hoosiers' Assembly Hall falls just outside the scope of this particular exercise, though it should rate quite high on a college basketball fan's to-do list, as well.

Regardless, this rundown is good place to start, and should also offer hope to other aficionados who find themselves in what may at first seem to be an uninspiring landscape. From a fellow sports fan stranger in a strange land, worry not: given the right attitude, some research, and a little patience, bucket list progress still can be made.

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