For much of the nation, Peyton Manning was the personification of Indianapolis, the most visible face of what many see as a faceless city.
But no more.
While Manning will likely always be remembered as an Indianapolis Colt, his time as informal city representative is over, according to sports marketing experts. And it will be up to Manning whether he resumes that role after his retirement.
Manning, who became one of the top 10 most recognizable pro athletes in the country during his days with the Colts, lent his name, image and voice to numerous civic and philanthropic efforts in the Indianapolis area. But his strong association with the city is likely to fade when he puts on another National Football League uniform.
"I'm not leaving Indianapolis. I just won't be with the Colts,” Manning said Wednesday during a press conference in which he and Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay announced his release from the team. “This city's been so great to me and it's still a big part of my life. It's a departure from the Colts, but certainly not from the great city of Indianapolis."
The Colts are likely to draft Stanford University quarterback Andrew Luck with the first pick of the NFL draft to replace Manning.
“It’s not fair to Peyton to try to hold on [to that association with Indianapolis], and it’s even more unfair to Andrew Luck or whoever the quarterback will be,” said David Morton, president of Sunrise Sports Group, which does sports marketing.
The Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association got Manning to narrate a promotional video about the city, which it has used the past two years. Chris Gahl, the ICVA's vice president of marketing, said ICVA planned to retire the video after Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl in February.
"Once Peyton Manning dons another team’s jersey, and those iconic pictures of him wearing a Colts No. 18 go away, and are replaced by a new shot, certainly, from a pure marketing standpoint, he’s not as big of an asset [for Indianapolis]," Gahl said. But, he added, "He is still so pro-Indianapolis, and always will be, that regardless for what team he plays for, he will always be an influencer. … And his community involvement is so longstanding that that doesn’t go away overnight."
St. Vincent Health operates the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital, and Manning and his wife Ashley invite their famous friends to the city every year for a fundraising gala. Manning’s PeyBack Foundation stages a football game each year, which also serves as a fundraising event.
Those organizations will continue to operate in Indiana, even after Manning is playing for a football team in another city.
But Morton isn’t so sure about other ties to the city. He noted that Manning has no extended family in Indianapolis (he’s a native of Louisiana and attended college at the University of Tennessee). While Peyton has homes in Indianapolis, he also has a home in Miami.
Besides, Morton said, Manning would be prudent to lessen his public association with Indianapolis in order to further cultivate himself as a national-level spokesman for corporate brands.
“If Peyton wants to be associated with Indianapolis, it is candidly more for the benefit of the people of Indianapolis,” Morton said. “If he were my client, I would advise him that it’s important to move on. Cut the umbilical cord.”
That, indeed, is what former Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller has done, after spending his entire 18-year career in Indianapolis. The California native returned to his home state after his retirement in 2005 and has made few public appearances here since then.
But not every sports star takes the same approach. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman have remained in Dallas. Staubach, especially, has been active in promoting the city.
“If he plays a short amount of years somewhere else, and is not entirely successful there, and comes back and does sort of the Roger Staubach model, maybe his legend grows,” said Whitney Wagoner, a former marketing exeutive for the NFL who is now a sports marketing instructor at the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “That stuff could potentially even become stronger.”
The key, Wagoner said, is where Manning’s heart is.
“It needs to seem authentic. That’s the piece that makes marketing and endorsements and connection to markets work,” she said. “I wouldn’t want him to try to stay connected to the city just because he felt there would be some future marketing benefit to him.”
Kevin Speer, chief strategy officer for St. Vincent Health, expects Manning to remain personally involved in Indianapolis for a long, long time to come.
“His presence off the field in Indianapolis will remain in perpetuity,” Speer said Thursday after St. Vincent scrambled to arrange a news conference assuring the public that Peyton Manning Children’s Hopsital would not become Andrew Luck Children’s Hospital or anything else.
“His commitment to us is unwavering. Our relationship is unwavering and we’ll continue to move forward together,” Speer added.
Elizabeth Ellis, executive director of Manning’s PeyBack Foundation, declined to answer a question about whether the annual PeyBack Classic—which pits high school football teams against each other at Lucas Oil Stadium—will continue after Manning’s departure from the Colts.
Nor would she say if the level of grantmaking the Foundation does in Indiana would remain the same in future years. In 2011, the Foundation doled out $800,000 in Indiana, Louisiana and Tennessee, with $361,000 of it going to 71 organizations in Indiana.
She issued an e-mail statement, saying, “The Foundation will continue in Indianapolis and support youth-based organizations in Indiana, Tennessee and Louisiana. The grant distribution amount differs every year; we should be distributing the 2012 funds by the end of April.”