BENNER: Colts' fan base not yet at Green Bay, Pittsburgh level

January 29, 2011

As the Green Bay Packers prepare to play the Pittsburgh Steelers, I have a serious case of Super Bowl envy.

It is about more than the Pack and the Steelers being in Arlington, Texas, while the Indianapolis Colts are not.

It is about the people and places the Packers and Steelers represent.

Real football fans. Real football towns.

No offense to Colts fans and our hometown, Indy. But we’re not there, at least not yet. Not like the ’Bayers and the ’Burghers.

True, the Packers and Steelers have a huge head start on us. The Packers have been around since 1919, and the Steelers (first called the Pirates) since 1933. Pro football is part of the cities’ DNA.

Since our humble beginnings in 1984 as a pro football town, we have closed the gap considerably over the last dozen years.

Thank you once again, Bill Polian, for drafting Peyton Manning instead of Ryan Leaf.

But as much as the Colts have done (and the Indiana Pacers, conversely, haven’t done) to transform Indianapolis into a football city, Pittsburgh and Green Bay are on another level.

I always have had a special feel for Green Bay. How can you not? It’s an absolute anomaly, a not-for-profit, publicly owned team—the only such franchise in major professional sports—from a market of barely more than 100,000 people.

The Packers are, in the truest sense of the term, a public trust. Their ownership consists of more than 100,000 shareholders. Back in the ’90s, when it was determined upgrades were necessary at Lambeau Field, the Packers raised the money not through taxes, but by simply selling more shares. They had no difficulty doing so.

The Packers have sold out every game at Lambeau Field since 1960. The Steelers have sold out 300 straight games. Both teams have long, long waiting lists for season tickets.

By contrast, a few weeks ago when the Colts hosted the New York Jets in the AFC Wild Card game, there were hundreds of empty seats at Lucas Oil Stadium. The game was announced as a sellout, but it went right to the brink of the 72-hour rule to avoid a local television blackout.

I can’t imagine that ever happening in Green Bay or Pittsburgh, especially for a playoff game.

At Miami for the Super Bowl last year, New Orleans Saints fans, who had steadfastly supported their team through a long run of sorry seasons, outnumbered Colts fans 2-to-1. I guarantee you, Jerry Jones’ Cowboys playpen will be a house equally divided among Packers and Steelers partisans. Neither fan base would dare give the other an edge.

Green Bay and Pittsburgh play in open-air stadiums, on natural-grass fields. Fans will sit there in 90-degree heat or 20-below windchill.

The Colts play at Lucas Oil, where the roof will be closed unless the temperature is between 50 and 80 degrees (and maybe not even then) and there is zero chance of rain. When the Colts opened the roof on a sunny, 80-degree October afternoon in 2009, some fans complained that they were too hot.

When it comes to hardiness, Green Bay and Pittsburgh fans are tough as nails. Colts fans are soft as Charmin.

Make no mistake, I love Lucas Oil Stadium. But we’re paying for a retractable roof. Let’s open the dang thing whenever possible.

Green Bay fans wear cheeseheads. Pittsburgh fans wave Terrible Towels. Colts fans have no collective identity unique to them—and, no, No. 18 jerseys don’t count.

The Packers and Steelers have immense national followings. When I watch on television, I’m amazed by the number of Packers and Steelers fans who buy their way into opposing stadiums and the ruckus they make. Packers fans even infiltrated, to a significant degree, Soldier Field in Chicago for the NFC Championship game.

Again, we’re getting there, and maybe in another 10 or 20 years, when we’ve added another generation of fans, the same kind of unbridled, deep-rooted passion will exist here for the Colts.

The measuring stick of Indy’s devotion will come when the Colts aren’t rolling off division titles and double-digit-win seasons. Packers and Steelers fans are there in good times and bad. All we’ve shown in Indy, with the Colts and especially with the Pacers, is that we’re there when our team is a front-runner.•


Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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