Indianapolis (and Indiana as a whole, for that matter) really owes an awful lot to Peyton Manning. As has been written on this blog and something I would very much like to write a book about one of these days, Indianapolis long ago hitched it’s economic wagon to entertainment, sports in particular.* It is no accident that downtown Indy has evolved the way it has, to be compact, walkable, and dotted with nicer hotels and restaurants. It is no accident that the big facilities, Lucas Oil Stadium and Bankers Life Fieldhouse,** are not situated in a sea of concrete parking lots, instead being well-integrated into downtown. Say all you want about Bob Irsay, by most accounts he seemed like a pretty unlikeable person. But Indianapolis had a pretty solid plan by building the Hoosier Dome and openly inviting any NFL team to come a'calling. Oh, and don’t miss that the dome opened just a decade after the Pacers moved into their own downtown arena. It was also no accident that the NCAA offices ended up in Indianapolis after moving out of Kansas City and the ensuing deal that brings the Final Four to town every five years. Or that Indianapolis further cemented itself by hosting the Pan Am Games in 1987. All very calculated, and wildly successful, decisions.
*Indianapolis also has a pretty vibrant convention scene. Gen Con in particular stands out. I would still certainly classify that as entertainment, though.
**Even Victory Field, though it doesn’t have the capacity of a Major League Stadium.
While Indianapolis was paving their way to “Major American City” status through sport, though, the city wasn’t really considered much of a destination. There’s a reason Indianapolis was often referred to as “In No Place,” especially when referring to the Star. And, well, there were some reasons for that. Some was geographic,* was socioeconomic. And, well, some of it was those very same sports that Indianapolis was trying to use. There was some economic problem there, as professional sports in the ‘70’s and even ‘80’s, while profitable, were nothing like the multi-billion dollar entities they have turned into today. And, well, the professional teams just weren’t winning.
*Being so close to a city like Chicago understandably takes some attention away.
If you remember the Pacers Week I did a while back, or just know a bit of sports history, you certainly remember that the Pacers were an awfully dominant ABA team. Which was a great first step, especially in a state that’s kind of a big deal in basketball. But, well, the ABA was always going to be the little brother to the NBA.* When that merger did happen, the draconian terms set the Pacers back quite a ways, and they really wouldn’t catch up until those great Reggie Miller teams of the 90’s. When the Colts got here, folks here were thankful, sure, but the team just wasn’t very good.** There were a couple surprise years with Jim Harbaugh, but in the pre-Manning years, there just wasn’t any reason for that national media to pay attention to the Colts.
*This was by design. The ABA wanted to be a respected league, but the end game was always to force a merger with the NBA.
**They weren’t that good for the last several years in Baltimore, either. The Colts only made it to the playoffs once in the ‘80’s, which was in 1987, after the move to Indy.
So, yeah, Indianapolis, probably much more than most cities, needs the Pacers and Colts to succeed. That’s the way the local economy, for better or worse, is set up. With that in mind, remember what Peyton Manning did for the Colts. He basically created this franchise in the era of Big Football. You could very easily make the argument, and I’m sure people have, that the growth of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady both on the field and off has really created the modern NFL.* Peyton Manning and the offenses he led for the Colts are what made this team one of the premier teams in the league and a nightly fixture on ESPN, and just in time for football, and the NFL in particular, to become the King of Sports. Without Peyton Manning and those teams,** the city might have had a harder time putting in the money for Lucas Oil Stadium, especially when the Pacers were having a hard time getting anybody to go to the Fieldhouse at that time. Without Lucas Oil Stadium, well, the Colts probably aren’t here any more, and Indianapolis is likely going through a bit of turmoil trying to figure out a new economic model.
*Although, thanks to a better understanding of head trauma and the effects of football on the brain, you could also argue that we’re now in a post-Manning and Brady era with the different player safety rules that have been put in, even though both of those players are still active, if in the twilight of their careers.
**This brings me to what might end up being a rather lengthy aside, so bear with me here. Should Jim Irsay have said what he did? Probably not, but clearly Jim Irsay is only marginally better speaking with reporters (or anybody, really) than his dad. You might have heard about his Twitter feed. There’s a reason for that. But was he wrong? No. There was no reason those teams didn’t have the talent to win more than one Super Bowl. Look at the regular season wins they piled up. Was it a dig at Peyton? Well, I’m not an Irsay, so I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think it was at all directed at Peyton. But, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t pointed. The blame, I and most of the sports literate (I don’t really like that term I just coined there, but I’m failing to come up with a better one), felt, was laid at the feet of Bill Polian. Irsay said the teams put up Star Wars numbers on offense. Clearly he wasn’t disappointed in that. But it was no secret those teams were constructed entirely on offense and to just plain outscore people. You just hoped the defense would do enough. That worked once in the playoffs, and there’s a Lombardi Trophy for it. It was a dumb story made out of next to nothing, drummed up mostly by ESPN, where Bill Polian happens to work now. Maybe there’s a bit more tin foil there than I would like to admit, but that seems meaningful, doesn’t it?
Does that feel like hyperbole? Maybe, but it really isn’t. Hell, even with Peyton Manning, there were definitely the threats made to move the team to LA. It made sense, from Irsay’s point of view. The RCA Dome had become outdated by that point. He had a highly-touted, highly-potent team. LA is a pretty big media market, as you may be aware. And, well, the Irsays have a history, you know? With no stadium, no team, no firmly established fan base, there’s no way in hell the Super Bowl ever comes to town. And, well, that Super Bowl was just the culmination of all the gambles that Indianapolis had placed on sports business in this town. And, well, this is probably more religious than I probably get, but I do believe that God or karma or whatever you believe in smiled upon the city that week and blessed it with the absolute perfect weather,* leading to nothing but an amazing, and maybe surprising, for people not familiar with Indianapolis, experience for everybody involved. Google around. You will be hard pressed to find many negative articles about the Super Bowl here once it happened.** I’m sure it also helped that the teams involved were the Giants and Patriots. New York and Boston are pretty influential cities with very influential journalists. It elevated the city several notches in many minds that week. To the point where Indianapolis is a finalist for the 2018 Super Bowl, and nobody bats an eye. Why? Because this city took several decades worth of work and planning and absolutely nailed it. And in a lot of ways, Peyton Manning gets an awful lot of credit for making it possible.
*For real, that was the nicest February Indiana has probably ever had. It was everything that Dallas didn’t have the year before, and, well, Jerry Jones didn’t do himself any favors, either.
**It isn’t as hard to find skeptical articles when Indianapolis was awarded the game.
I was originally going to write this on Sunday morning, but life got in the way a little bit. And, boy, I’m glad I waited. I’ve heard local shows say it, and I couldn’t agree more. Colts fans just crushed it last night. The crowd gave the appropriate welcome to Peyton Manning, and for the most part, showed up in their old Colts-era Peyton Manning jerseys, which I felt was the perfect choice for this game. When the game started, though? He was the opposing quarterback. Andrew Luck is our guy now, and did he ever deliver. The crowd responded appropriately, and there really didn’t seem to be any of the feared overwhelming Bronco support. It was a Colts crowd through-and-through. I’m sure the flow of the game helped that. But, hey, give yourself another pat on the back anyway, Indy. You deserve it. Peyton Manning laid the groundwork and took this city to yet another level, but it’s clear that the team, and the engine of this city, didn’t die when he left.