Sports Business

SPORTS: We've arrived as a big-time football town-for now

October 17, 2005

Are you ready for some football?

Of course you are.

That the Indianapolis Colts are making the first of not one, not two, but three appearances on ABC's "Monday Night Football" is once again recognition of the obvious, which is that Jim Irsay's ownership, Bill Polian's leadership and Tony Dungy's coaching have made the Horseshoes as hot a commodity nationally as they are locally.

Not that Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, Dwight Freeney, Gary Brackett, Cato June et al don't have plenty to do with it, too.

But someone has to set the table, and Irsay, Polian and Dungy deserve the credit, just as they would absorb the blame if the franchise were going south, and I don't mean to Jacksonville.

By extension, "MNF" is also one of those occasions that serves civic as well as sporting duty. Splashed among the football are plenty of opportunities for sparkling nighttime shots of Our Town Indy, and rest assured that Al Michaels and John Madden will be fed with speaking points galore, including the news to anyone in the national audience who hasn't been paying attention that ground has been broken on the multipurpose stadium.

For those still suffering from a small-market, we're-not-worthy, Indy-feriority complex, the Colts' thrice presence on "MNF" is confirmation, validation and accreditation.

We belong.

And, yes, in the 22nd season-some of them long seasons-after the Colts arrived from Baltimore, you can make the case that Indianapolis finally has arrived as a legitimate pro football town.

No, they still don't inspire the same kind of regional passion or following the Packers, Browns, Steelers, Chiefs, Raiders, Broncos, Redskins and Cowboys-just to name a few-do. In the evolution of the franchise, the next steps are (A) to put one generation of Colts fans on top of the next and (B) to broaden its regional influence and fan base.

The gap is closing, and is evidenced by the number of youngsters who have grown up knowing no one else to root for except the Colts. Now, many of those are young adults who are entering their money-earning, ticket-buying years. They also are bringing their own children into the world and quickly immersing them in Colts culture, not to mention Colts gear. It may be nothing more than anecdotal evidence, but when I look out on my kiddie-filled cul de sac most days in the fall, all I see are mini "18s", "32s", "88s" and "97s."

Certainly, everyone loves a winner (including the tykes) and if the Colts were still reeling off those miserable 4-12 and 3-13 offerings instead of the 12-4 variety, there wouldn't be this groundswell of support. It's even possible, I suppose, that the south lot still would be paved with asphalt and the stadium debate would be raging. Once again, we see that timing, if not everything, is at least the most of it, and the stars have aligned in a most remarkable way to position the Colts, the city and the stadium/convention center expansion initiative as a necessary next step.

The test for Indianapolis comes not Oct. 17 on "MNF," but several years from now, when Peyton Manning is no longer taking snaps or, if he is, is no longer performing with today's proficiency. It will come when Irsay's ownership, Polian's leadership or Dungy's coaching-that is, if Dungy still is coaching-seems not so capable and the Colts are not nearly so rich in promise as they are now.

What we have yet to see, when the new stadium is up and the price of supporting the NFL has risen along with it, is whether the Colts fans who are there today in the funshine will be there tomorrow if the picture becomes bleak.

The critics are hoping they won't be, so they can look at empty seats, Sunday afternoon blackouts and no chance of "Monday Night Football" and crow that they told us so.

Sure, it's realistic to think the Colts and their following can ride this wave for quite a while, but the crash of that wave on the beach is only as far away as a significant injury to you know who, a bad draft or a few free-agent defections.

The measure of Indy as a real pro football town-or of Indiana as a real pro football region-will come when the entertainment product is not all that entertaining, when fans have to persevere through a down season or two, perhaps several.

Ah, but that's for then. This is for now, and the joy ride continues. Are you ready for some football? Are you ever.



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 email to bbenner@ibj.com.
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