Winning season gives Colts reason to cheer and fear

December 19, 2012
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There’s been much discussion about the vibrancy of Indianapolis’ sports market.

I’m not talking about infrastructure or the national and international events hosted here or even the sports organizations headquartered here.

I’m talking about the fans who pay the freight. I’ve heard from more than a few inside and outside this market about how soft Indy’s sports fan base is.

The rising, falling and now resurrected fortunes of the Indianapolis Colts are certainly heartening for the local NFL team in the short-term. But long-term, I wonder if it makes teams like the Colts and Indiana Pacers a little uneasy.

I won’t go into all the details of the Colts 2011 season, but suffice it to say, the team tanked. During and after last season, fans became upset with team management, season ticket renewal and merchandise sales dropped, and the lengthy waiting list for season tickets dried up.

The fuming that bled into the off-season hadn’t stopped earlier this season. There were more than a few nervous souls in the Colts sales department as the team lost two of its first three games and the early renewal period for the pricey club seats ($232-$283 per seat per game) approached in early November.

One club seat holder told me he was not likely to renew and was annoyed at team owner Jim Irsay’s lack of commitment to fielding a competitive team. He added that the entertainment value of a Colts ticket had faded badly.

He was far from alone. Several season ticket holders said they were waiting to see how this season turned out before deciding if they would renew for next season. Some told me they’d rather spend their money on the recently revitalized Pacers or IU men’s basketball team.

More than a few out-of-towners crowed that what was happening here was typical of Indiana sports fans: abandoning a team down on its luck and chasing whoever is winning at the time.

Then something unexpected happened. Colts Coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia—and the team went on an unlikely winning streak, putting them in prime position to make the playoffs. The Colts this year are poised to win 10 or 11 games. The team’s success is beyond almost anyone’s expectations. After all, the Colts only won three games in Peyton Manning’s first year.

Suddenly, consternation was replaced with glee in the Colts sales office. Last week, team officials told me that multi-year contracts for more than 90 percent of the 4,300 club seats that expire at the end of this season have already been renewed. And with a waiting list for those prime seats at 1,500 and growing, Colts Chief Operating Officer Pete Ward has little doubt they’ll sell out the club seat inventory in early 2013.

The team’s merchandise sales are up 38 percent this year, and sponsorship sales are up 8 percent. And a year after the team saw its 15,000-name season ticket waiting list shrink by half, it’s growing again and is above 8,000, Ward said.

While this is all good for the Colts in the short-term, you have to wonder if it’s a cautionary tale for sports properties in this town—the Colts and Pacers in particular. And you have to wonder if the local fan base is soft, fickle, just looking for the best economical value—or all of the above.

After IBJ ran a story on Dec. 17 about the Colts’ recent sales success, I received the following comment via Twitter: “Bandwagon nature of Indy is a joke. Colts were calling begging for ticket buyers after just one terrible season.”

It’s a painful accusation for central Indiana sports fans, to be sure. But I’m not certain it’s completely unwarranted. Colts fans in recent years have complained that it’s either too hot or too cold in Lucas Oil Stadium. They’ve complained about sunlight streaking through the large window at the stadium’s north end. They’ve complained about the roof being open. They’ve complained when it’s closed. They’ve complained about the price of beer, soda, popcorn and other concessions.

And last year—after more than a decade of winning—they complained about a lack of commitment from the team’s owner and about the lack of entertainment value from the team on the field.

They cheered when Colts President Bill Polian was fired. They took a wait-and-see approach with Polian's replacement, Ryan Grigson; the new coach, Pagano; and even with the highly-touted No. 1 draft pick, Andrew Luck.

The Pacers, meanwhile, can’t fill Bankers Life Fieldhouse, despite offering myriad cheap tickets and fielding a team that has shown marked improvement over the last two years.

Of course, Colts and Pacers officials are extremely careful never to label any potential or current fan as fair-weather. And I’d never be one to criticize the way people—sports fans or otherwise—spend their money, especially after the type of recession we  endured.

But some observers are less kind. A new Colts season ticket holder this year suggested to me that without the fair-weather season ticket holders who abandoned the team after last season, the fans left in Lucas Oil Stadium are a lot more rabid and loyal.

“Thanks to all the fans who jumped ship last season. I’m really enjoying your seats this season,” one new season ticket responded to me via Twitter.

Colts fans came rushing back this year as fast as they fled the sinking franchise a year ago. It’s great for the team’s near-term financial fortunes.

Still, I’m not sure whether fans like that should make Colts executives breathe easier or fidget with anxiety. After all, you can’t win ‘em all. And you can’t always count on turning around a losing team in a single year.

  • Really?
    Did you run out of real topics to discuss? Yawn!
  • On the mark
    Actually, given what the Colts have been through in the last year, I think this is quite topical. Indy fans will never be long-suffering, they simply don't have it in them, unlike their neighbors to the north.
  • Have to agree with Twitter comment
    Well, I have to agree with one of the Twitter comments above... thank you for my seats! I would have never gotten in at the seats we have now, without a bunch of people jumping ship. So, I'm happy that a bunch of people jumped ship so that I could get in at great seats without waiting. And I love the Colts whether or not they're winning or losing. Yes, the losing part is still tough... but I hang in there. As for the "soft fans"... well, only time will tell. We won't know this year, since we're having a great season and only had one bad year, last year... and the bandwagon fans are already back on.
  • Well...
    ... This article might be interesting if you couldn't simply replace "Indianapolis" with the name of any of a number of other major league city and still have the same story. The fact is we are blessed to have a number of pro and college level options from which to choose and, as should be the case, the fans are going to go where they get the best entertainment and value. Is this really such an alien concept? Something that occurs only in Indy? Hardly.... I think this article was a case of needing to come up with something to fill a quota. Boring.
    • Tickets
      Looks like there isn't a very good chance of getting my 2 sets of tickets closer together any time soon... It's crazy how many season tickets are owned by brokers. 1 bad year didn't seem to change that. Every game is a whole new set of fans around my seats.
    • Thanks for the Tickets!
      I agree with the Twitter comment and "Colts Fan". If people had not jumped ship, I would still be on a waiting list with very little hope of getting season tickets to the Colts. Now I am the proud holder of great season tickets. I will not be letting them go. To the people who gave them up - thank you. I have enjoyed my season tickets thoroughly. I am thrilled every time there is a home game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
    • Agree totally!
      I agree with this article! Yes, I appreciate the economic challenges of many fans but I do think Indy fans are soft with their loyalty. I'm a Pacers season ticket holder and get frustrated when people expect me to give them tickets for free (even if they're reasonably well off) or only want to go see the Heat, Lakers etc. Indy fans only want to cherry pick certain games/opponents and not invest in supporting the teams throughout the season. Yes, the Pacers did themselves in a few years ago with the brawl but those days are LONG GONE! Quit using that excuse as why you don't want to support the team!
    • Nature of Indy Fans
      This is very topical. I am a long-time Colts season ticket holder and I can't tell you how many people I know jumped ship. In our case, we felt the Colts had built up a lot of equity with us over the last 12-13 seasons and we would sit through a few losing seasons. This year has been a big surprise. Also, 10 games are a lot easier to follow and we love tailgating. On the other hand, I had Pacer season tickets for 15 years until 2009 - I held on as long as I felt I could - 44 games is a lot. And after broken promises from the front office and Jim O'Brien just got too hard to take, we moved to Butler Men's BB and got really lucky. The value is so much better and the play is much more inspiring than the NBA. There is only so much time and money to go around and we feel we are set for awhile.
    • Indy fans kidding themselves
      Those that think it's the way it is in Indy in every major city in the U.S. are kidding themselves. Or maybe they don't have any experience with sports or sports fans in other cities. I've never seen fans run faster from a franchise experiencing a little trouble than I have in Indianapolis. It must be really hard for the Pacers and Colts to build a long-term relationship with its masses. And yes, there are tons of ticket brokers who have season tickets. In a true sports town that would never happen. True season ticket holders would never let the ticket brokers get in in such large numbers. You think there are lots of ticket brokers with seats at Lambeau. No way!
      • How about a Little Customer Service?
        Sometimes, it's the little things that are so very important. Customer service is a big point here-- the Colts need to figure out how to provide better customer service. The Colts feel that the fans should be honored to be paying huge sums of money. In this past off-season, I attempted to upgrade my season tickets (i.e., throw more money at the Colts). However, the Colts season ticket "representative" couldn't be troubled to upgrade my tickets (although she admitted that several upgrades were available). When asked why, she responded that some unpublished deadline for season ticket upgrades had passed. She said it would take too much effort to change things at that point. These calls were made in June. This is NOT customer service and is a very offensive attitude to take with a paying customer. At least I know where I stand with the Colts organization. They were too lazy to even be troubled to take more of my money.... And they seem to wonder why the fans are so fickle? Perhaps the Colts should remember that they need to provide a product that people want rather than expecting us fans to continuously kiss the Colts' pinky ring like the serfs they seem to think we are.
      • No Thanks
        With regards to the pacers, it's not really their fault people won't attend. The NBA is horrible to watch. I used to love it, but I rarely watch any basketball anymore. With regards to the Colts, I had season tix way back when, when they really sucked and loved going. I was fortunate to get season tickets again a few years before the Colts won the super bowl and kept them through the first season at Lucas Oil Stadium. I dropped my tickets after that season because I despise LOS, I loved the dome, which was built to watch football, not much legroom, but you could see the game fairly well even from the cheap seats. Not true at LOS. The extra 8 inches of legroom pushed all of the seats back significantly and I found myself watching too much of the games on the JUMBO Trons. If I am going to watch the game on TV, I can do it for a hell of a lot cheaper at home. The thing I miss most is the tailgating and the time with friends. If the colts were still at the RCA dome, I would still have season tix. Great Memories!
      • Matt
        Actually, for games at Lambeau you can find tickets on StubHub. In fact, over 2000 are available for the first playoff game at Lambeau; some of those have to be brokers.
      • LOYALTY
        When my Mom & I moved from Steelers Country to Fort Meade Maryland, I decided to start rooting for the Colts - mainly because my Mom was a die-hard Redskins fan. Over the past 48 years, through the ups & downs, the struggles & the few bright spots in the late '90s, I have put up with a lot of grief. As the saying goes, if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Or better yet, "Stay true to your school".
      • brokers be gone
        There must be some way for Colts sales office to distinguish between a fan and a broker. With some many on the waiting list, get Colts fans in those seats. I'm a season ticket holder, up high on the 48 yard line. The four seats behind me are always occupied by the opponents fans. How does Green Bay deal with the broker issue? Needs to be a solution.
      • Marshall Is Correct
        Boring article. We are used to winning and we love Peyton. The team was practically gutted, so (of course) people are going to "wait and see" and not waste their money if we are abysmal. We drafted well and Irsay has done a great job by selecting Grigson. No wonder sales are up. It's a new era!
      • Spoiled
        Sound like a lot of spoiled people to me, justifying why they don't support a team after one losing season. Detroit, Cleveland and others have been waiting for years and years for a good team, yet they support their teams to the end. We are so fortunate to be in a situation where we only suffered on poor season.
      • My reasons for giving up my tickets
        I was unhappy with the Colts, but not because they had a terrible season, but they way I felt they treated me. First the Superbowl: I went to all the home games and bought the playoff tickets and went to those games too. I got my money's worth, so no complaints there, but when they made it to the Superbowl, I was in the lottery to get offered tickets and wasn't expecting to get any and sure enough I didn't. I didn't mind this too much, but days after being notified, the Colts sent me an email offering me 2 tickets with hotel, for thousands of dollars more than the face value of the tickets. This was clearly them trying to rip me off and it made me wonder whether there was ever a chance getting tickets legitimately or did the Colts try ripping fans off en masse. Second, Peyton: Just days *after* the season ticket renewal deadline, the Colts announced Peyton was out for the season. This did not feel like coincidence, rather it was a blatant effort from the Colts to withhold information until it was too late for season ticket holders to decide. I would have purchased the tickets if they made the announcement before the deadline, but I felt duped when they did it just after. At that point, I decided that I loved the team, but not the organization and was not going to spend the 2-300 dollars I typically spent every home game, as well as the ticket costs, on an organization that treats me like a mark. Now, I watch the games at home or with family and I'm out of the routing of spending my entire Sunday being all about the game. I won't be looking for season tickets any time soon.
        • Scalpers
          Check out STUBHUB to see how "loyal" fans are in Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit, etc. THOUSANDS of tickets available.
        • AB
          AB, if you were waiting to see what happened to Peyton before renewing your tickets, then you are in the "bandwagon" category. Respectfully.
        • Same as it ever was...
          The bottom line is there are two teams in this state with hardcore fanbases that will still draw fans even as the teams go through tough eras. IU basketball and Notre Dame football. End of story. Sure, more people get excited, jump on the bandwagon, etc. when any team wins but if you want to talk about longterm, hardcore fanbases that will still show up for the games even when the team isn't winning those are the only two teams in the state that holds true for. And it's been true for decades.
          • IU
            Indy Todd, I could EASILY get tickets for IU b-ball when they were crappy. Notre Dame football sells out, but I know a big chunk of that crowd comes from out of state.
          • IU
            Jenn, Try taking at look at the attendance figures for IU basketball over the last forty years and get back to me. They have always brought in big crowds and have been in the top fifteen for college basketball attendance EVERY single year since Assembly Hall opened in 1972 with many years in the top five. They've had consistently strong fan support with almost every game sold over for the last 40 years. Most years the only IU games that any tickets have been available for have been the ones against low level opponents over the student break at Christmas. The fact that they were still almost sold out even in Crean's first season with six wins speaks volumes.
            • Indy Todd
              Indy Todd, I said i could EASILY get tickets, and that is fact. Here's a good site for you: Look up home games in 2008-2010, which are the only years i was there. You will find games with 11,000-15,000 pretty commonplace. Percentage-wise, that probably ranks right there with the Colts when they were losing in the '80s. The "hard core" IU basketball following during down years is a myth.
              • Also...
                To say IU b-ball needs students to return from vacation is basically saying sellouts are the result of a 40,000 strong student body, not a hardcore tickey-buying fanbase. There is a major metropolitan area 45 minutes north! IU basketball has been tremendously successful on the court for decades, and so there have been many sellouts. But the same can be said for Colts/Pacers when they are winning as well. And consider, the Colts sold out all last year (2-14)!
              • What...
                What would the Colts "fear" by having a winning season?? Can the writer honestly think the Colts are trembling in their boots wondering "What if there is a losing season?" They have been here 29 yrs, they know this market and they could have moved if they wanted to. They must have faith in their fan base. I have been a season ticket holder since '84, and i remember plenty of sellouts when they were lousy. Even during REALLY bad years there was always a good crowd at home games.
              • ??
                Anthony, not exactly a scientific survey. All sports teams have up and down seasons. OF COURSE the "entertainment value" goes down when your team is losing. True for any fan.
              • Wow...
                Jenn, You obviously know very little about IU basketball or attendance at Assembly Hall if you think IU basketball fan interest and attendance is anywhere nearly as aligned with the current fortunes of the team as the Colts and Pacers. The Pacers can't even draw people with a good team that came off a great year last year. That says it all. The Colts lost a HUGE chunk of their season ticket base with one bad season after one of the most succesful runs in NFL history. The Colts and Pacers fanbases are very soft and very much aligned to recent success. Notre Dame football and IU basketball are much different. There are always going to be some bandwagon fans with any team but they are much less so than the Colts or Pacers. It's not a case of "many sellouts" for IU basketball in the last 40 years. They have sold almost all of the game out in that time period. The thing you don't undertand about the two or three games over Christmas break is that they aren't able to offer those as part of a season ticket package, etc. because those are the only games available to non adult/student season ticketholders. So, you've got a large number of seats available for a few games a year out of the 20 home games. These are almost always very poor opponents. Despite that fact they still draw big crowds for those games. They drew over 17,000 people for a game this past Wed night against Mt. St Mary's which a lot of people have never even heard of. Tonight was sold out well in advance for the might Florida Atlantic. Wednesday night was the last tickets available for any game this season at Assembly Hall. The Jacksonville game at the end of December is already sold out despite students being gone and of course all the Big Ten games are sold out to season ticketholders as they have been for almost every game not played over Christmas break in Assembly Hall history. Most of the time Assembly Hall has been open there has been a waiting list of several years to get season tickets.
              • Another thing
                Your 45 minute comment is laughable. How many times have you ever made the drive to Assembly Hall for a game on a weeknight that starts at 7pm? I've done it hunreds of times and you're not making it in 45 minutes unless if you live on the extreme southside of the metro area. Even that is pushing it from Center Grove or Greenwood. I live in Fishers and from my office or driveway to Assembly Hall can easily take two hours on a weekday by the time you navigate rush hour traffic after work and all the traffic backed up at the stoplights on 37 heading toward Bloomington. Plus, you've often got extensive traffic backup around Assembly Hall trying to move over 17,000 fans on small roads. Absolutely no way most of metro Indy can make it from their office or home to a seat in Assembly Hall in much less than 90 minutes if not more. Plus, you're often dealing with horrible roads on 37 in the winter and people sliding everywhere. How many people are driving two hours on a sheet of ice to get to a weeknight Pacer's game? Very few.
                • ??
                  Sorry, Indy Todd, I live in Greenwood and get there in 45. Ok, so one hour from downtown Indy, sorry to be so laughable. And shouldn't a team pre-ordained as the national champion sell out every game this December? Not really a surprise. Again, go to the website and look at attendance numbers for various home games when they were losing. I'm not making it up and not trying to argue. Just pointing it out. I mean you said it yourself that they were "almost sold out" during Crean's first season. That's not a bragging point. And sellouts for avid fan bases shouldnt be determined by whether an opponent is good or not. Re the Pacers, I agree (but that's the NBA). :) Remember, also, the Colts suffered more than just a losing season last year. It was practically an apocalypse. Maybe softness applies to all in our state? Notre Dame has a huge following from Chicago and other states. They are "national" like a Green Bay.
                • Softness
                  Tend to agree with the above. Softness is when attendance depends on winning or the visiting team.
                  • Colts/Notre Dame
                    The longest sellout streaks currently are Irish and Colts. Colts for the past 10 yrs and Irish for over 30!
                  • Jen's "logic" strikes again...
                    1. Here's some news for you. Most of the population (especially with college degrees) in the Indy metro area lives north of downtown. Most games it is a minimum of 90 minutes for the majority of Indy metro area fans to get from their home or office to a seat in Assembly Hall. 2. The Colts ticket sales last year aren't relevant. The games were sold out prior to anyone knowing Peyton would miss the season. As for this year, the renewal was prior to knowing if Peyton would be back or not and they lost a ton of season ticket renewals. You would have seen the bottom drop out next year if they had put up another awful season this year. 3. It's laughable that you refer to the Colts situation last year as an "apocalypse" yet fail to recognize what IU was dealing with in Coach Crean's first year. The Colts had one player (Peyton) out the entire year and other than that a normal NFL season for injuries. IU had ZERO returning scholarship players in Crean's first year. I would challenge you to find how long it's been since that has occurred anywhere in the United States. The only comparable situation I can recall is when Evansville's plane crashed in the late 70's killing the entire team. Crean had to start with nothing his first year and everyone in the world knew that team was going to be awful for mutlple years. And that was known prior to season ticket renewals being due. Despite that IU still had strong attendance that year and there were NUMBEROUS press mentions in Crean's first few years about the loyalty of the fanbase and how amazing it was that people kept coming to the games despite a situation few ever schools have ever encountered before. Notre Dame football has never had to go through anything remotely close to that, plays a small number of games at home on Saturdays only, and only when students are there. You just can't compare the two things with any relevancy. And I'm not sure why you're even trying when my whole point was that the two loyal fanbases in this state through thick and thin are Notre Dame football and IU basketball. The Pacers clearly don't have that. The Colts went from a season ticket waitlist of over 10,000 to begging people to buying season tickets on the basis of one bad season. And this is with the ticket buying public knowing they had an enormously hyped QB as the number 1 pick. Hopefully the Colts continue to play well in the coming years and Luck gets better (sorry...there have been great moments this year but he's far from a great qb right now) so we don't have to see how soft the Colts fanbase is if they have two or three losings seasons in a row. Ultimately, I'm guessing you are fairly young and just don't have the perspective of following the ups and downs of these teams and the ebb and flow of their fanbases. That would give you more perspective. The Colts really struggled with attendance prior to Peyton and even in his first few years they had a very low season ticket base. Here's a little perspective for you. I started getting Colts season tickets in his third year and have had incredible seats in the 9th row of the lower level for at least 9 or 10 years now. It was easy to get good season tickets for the Colts. I've had IU basketball season tickets for decades and still have fairly mediocre tickets due to the difficulty of getting good seats and the lack of turnover in the season ticket base from year to year. The fact that IU went through the Mike Davis debacle and the fallout of Sampson and continued to be one of the top draws in all of college basketball through that whole era is amazing to most on a national level and frequently mentioned. You apparently missed that. I'm done with trying to bring logic and facts to this debate. I'm also very happy that I have a long drive to Assembly Hall. You couldn't pay me enough money to live in Greenwood!
                  • Wow!
                    So now you're saying IU B-ball needs a large population base with MOSTLY COLLEGE DEGREES in order to sell out? Here's another good one for you: Let's just agree to disagree. Sorry you don't like my home town, I never intended for this to get personal.
                  • Two fans with a BRICK
                    Last season we used one maybe two of our season tickets primarily due to health issues on our end. However, all thru the season we were in agreement that next year would be better. GUESS WHAT we were right!!! We also suffered thru a lot of lean non-manning years as well. So I have this to say to all FAIR WEATHER SOLDERS who jumped ship, and gave up their season tickets, who now are scrambling to get back in the fold. It would be a cold day in HADES before I would sell my seat to you for any reason I could not use it. I would sooner burn it !!!!! So to those of you that are still on the outside looking in next season be thankful that a lot of loyal fans new and old will allow you to watch it from the comfort of your easy chair at HOME when we sellout Lucas Stadium.
                    • Colts
                      If you go by tv ratings it would be the Colts as the top franchise/brand, week after week, they are always top rated program in Indy. I am an IU and Colts fan.

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