Established in 1888, the Amateur Athletic Union is the largest not-for-profit volunteer group for the promotion and development of amateur sports in the United States. In 1969, desiring to be more centrally located in the United States, the AAU conducted a six-month study of possible relocation sites. Included in the cities studied by the group were: Indianapolis; Memphis, Tennessee; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Las Vegas, Nevada.
, publisher of the AAU magazine, , and , a former Olympic swimmer, led the local campaign to promote Indianapolis. They organized the Sports Capitol Committee and, with promises of financing from local bankers, persuaded the AAU to choose Indianapolis as its new headquarters in May 1970. It was the first of several to relocate to the city.
Starting in 1979 the annual James E. Sullivan award dinner was held in Indianapolis, focusing national attention on the city. The award, given in the name of an AAU past president, recognizes outstanding amateur athletes based on character, sportsmanship, leadership, and ideals of amateurism. Former recipients include Olympic gold medalists Tracy Caulkins, Carl Lewis, Florence Griffith-Joyner, and Greg Louganis. The award dinner continued to be held in Indianapolis until 1996.
In 1990, the AAU had a membership of one million athletes, volunteers, coaches, and officials, and an annual budget of $3.5 million. Until the federal government passed the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, the AAU had been the governing body for 19 amateur sports. The Sports Act required that each Olympic and Pan-American sport create its own governing organization. Many of these governing bodies followed the example of their parent organization, the AAU, and also located in Indianapolis. The Amateur Athletic Union relocated to Orlando in January 1996, when Walt Disney World planned a 160-acre sports complex that the AAU could access for junior-level championships.