All the uncertainty swirling around the Indianapolis Colts hasn’t hurt season-ticket sales, the team says.
Despite coming off a 2-14 season and the future of franchise quarterback Peyton Manning lingering in doubt, Colts officials said season-ticket renewals are running ahead of last year's pace.
That’s saying something, considering the Colts have been among the National Football League leaders in season-ticket renewals in recent years. Last year, season-ticket renewals were about 95 percent, team officials said.
The Colts have sold out the home venue through season-ticket sales for the last decade, with the exception of 2,000 or so tickets held out each year for group sales.
Even after moving from the 56,000-seat RCA Dome to the 63,000-seat Lucas Oil Stadium in 2008, the Colts still have a season-ticket waiting list of 9,000, according to team Senior Vice President Pete Ward.
“You never know how things are going to turn out until after the renewal deadline, but right now things are really going well for us in terms of ticket sales this off-season,” Ward said. “There’s no doubt that having the No. 1 pick in the draft has generated a lot of excitement.”
While the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft—expected to be used on Stanford University quarterback Andrew Luck—is generating excitement, the uncertainty of Manning’s future is just as likely causing angst among some fans and delaying the ticket purchases of some.
March 1 is the deadline for Colts season-ticket holders to pay for next season’s tickets. March 8 is the deadline for the Colts to either pay Manning a $28 million option bonus, renegotiate his contract or cut him loose as a free agent.
Some fans have complained publicly that the Colts are waiting to announce what they’ll do regarding Manning until after the ticket renewal deadline.
“There’s absolutely nothing to that,” Ward said. “Those two things are totally unrelated. The renewal date has always been March 1.”
Irsay said he'll sit down to talk with Manning about his future with the team in the next seven days. So whether it's a coincidence or not, Colts fans may not know definitively about Manning's future until after March 1.
Josh Boling is one of those loyal Manning fans who are still waiting to renew his season tickets.
“I have such strong feelings about Peyton Manning, it’s difficult to separate whether I’m a Peyton fan or a Colts fan,” said Boling, a life-long Colts fans and season-ticket holder for four years. “I suppose I’ll always be a Colts fan because I’m from here, but if Peyton is gone next year, that will leave a huge hole. I know a lot of Colts fans feel the same way.”
Boling said he is leaning toward renewing his tickets.
“They’re so hard to get right now,” Boling said. “I waited a long time to get these tickets, and I don’t want to lose them.”
Edward Holloran III, a Colts season-ticket holder for nine years, estimates that 75 percent of Colts season-ticket holders are pure Colts fans, while the other 25 percent are Peyton Manning followers.
Sports marketers liken the Colts-Manning situation to that of Bob Knight when he was men’s basketball coach at Indiana University. Many fans vowed to stop following the team when the university fired the controversial coach.
“The one thing we know right now for sure is that there are a lot of Peyton Manning fans in this town,” said David Morton, president of Sunrise Sports Group, a local sports marketing firm. “So, I think that’s why [Colts owner] Jim Irsay is handling this situation so carefully.”
Boling doesn’t like the way Irsay and Manning have aired some of their views publicly, but Holloran, an attorney in the local office of Frost Brown Todd LLC, said he thinks Irsay has handled the situation masterfully.
“I think it’s a brilliant PR strategy by the Colts,” Holloran said. “They’re slowly and meticulously preparing Colts fans for the end of the Manning era. They’re not jolting their fan base with this. They’re getting them to slowly start dealing with the emotions of it.”
From talking to fellow Colts ticketholders and reading online fan forums, Holloran has come to believe that those calling for keeping Manning at all costs are “a vocal minority.”
“I do think there are some fans sitting on the fence who wouldn’t renew their season tickets if they knew for sure Peyton wasn’t going to be around,” Holloran said. “But, I think most will stay due to the strength of the NFL product and the thought that with the No. 1 pick, the Colts will turn it around.”
Holloran and Boling agree Irsay and his new staff will be given a grace period to turn the franchise back into a championship-caliber club before Colts home attendance becomes an issue again like it was in the late 1990s.
“As long as they show progress like they did when Peyton first came here, I think the fans will support them,” Boling said. “But if in two or three years, they’re still not playing well, especially if Peyton is playing well somewhere else, I think you’ll see a lot of ill feelings for the team come to the surface.”