Media & Marketing and Sports Business

SPORTS: Championship contenders bring out Mr. Softee

September 5, 2005

My friend, the young radio sports talk show host, tells me I've become Mister Softee. He says I have lost my edge. He wonders why I don't rattle cages like I used to.

He says the Indianapolis Colts have to win the Super Bowl this year, and anything less should be considered an abject failure.

And I say, poppycock.

He says winning a championship is the only measurement of success in professional sports.

And I say, baloney.

He says if the Colts don't win the Super Bowl this time, their "window of opportunity" will be forever shut.

And I say, forever is a very long time. Just ask fans of the Boston Red Sox. Or the Chicago Cubs.

He says I have low expectations.

And I say, I merely accept the reality. There are 32 NFL teams. One will win. Thirty-one won't. The good news: The odds are less stacked against the Colts than most.

That's because-and it's just me talking now-in the professional sports landscape, the Colts, as well as the Pacers, have elevated themselves into annual contender status. And in my view, what is most important is that those two teams, as big-money entertainment entities, maintain the possibility of entering each season with the possibility of winning the championship.

Then, if they close the deal and we have a parade around the Circle and up Meridian Street, well, that's just gravy.

That's not to say that when the Colts lost to New England in January and the Pacers ultimately fell to the Pistons in May, I wasn't sad. But devastated? Not even close. The sun came up the next morning and Indianapolis, and central Indiana, remained a great place to live, work and raise a family.

You should, I believe, place the Colts and the Pacers in the context of their competition. As the saying goes, if they're not at the head of the class, it doesn't take long to call the roll.

In the case of the Colts, they could be the Arizona Cardinals, who languish under the ownership of the Bidwells. Or they could still be the Colts who came here under Bob Irsay. In the case of the Pacers, they could be the annually befuddled L.A. Clippers or Atlanta Hawks.

But instead of being perennial bottomfeeders, both local organizations-through capable ownership and savvy leadership-have become model franchises (except for that dustup last November in Auburn Hills), especially given their supposed small-market limitations.

I don't feel compelled to apologize that the facts are overwhelmingly positive when it comes to the Colts and Pacers. Short of winning the championship-and of course that is and should be their goal-they are going about their business the right way.

Once upon a time, both franchises were woeful. And when they were, the media folks in this city-including yours truly-fired salvos across their bows with the best of them, pointing out shortcomings, questioning personnel moves and doubting commitment to excellence.

Personnel decisions, and how the franchises choose to allocate their salary-capped resources, remain fair game. Anybody can play general manager for a day. But I cannot question the commitment of either ownership or the intent of Bill Polian and Donnie Walsh/Larry Bird to deliver the best on-field and on-court products they can.

Can they do better? Until they win a championship, you have to say yes. Yet as soon as they win one-and I believe it to be a question of when, not if-the challenge will be to win two. Even for champions, there is always next year.

So what about this year for the Colts, which begins Sept. 11 in Baltimore? Certainly, the preseason results-0-4 as of this writing-have been less than encouraging, and the injuries (Brandon Stokely) and suspensions (Mike Doss) disconcerting.

Yet, from my Mister Softee perspective, I maintain that any team that has Peyton Manning at quarterback and Dwight Freeney on defense has a chance to take it all the way. Barring the wild card of injury, come January the Colts will be in the hunt.

Without question, the fans have voted with their pocketbooks. Season-ticket sales are the highest they've been since the Colts arrived.

Which means the partisans must have recovered from last season's disappointment. You remember, don't you? It was the year when the Colts had to win the Super Bowl because their window of opportunity was closing.



Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com.
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