Anderson using Colts training camp in year-round tourism effort

Indianapolis Colts and Anderson officials are hoping for a rebound this year in attendance at the team’s training camp at Anderson University. The city's tourism effort is counting on it.

Colts camp, which consists of 16 days of practice, opened Sunday and concludes Aug. 17. It’s one of Madison County’s biggest tourism drivers.

“This camp is huge for us, and that’s not an overstatement,” said Tom Bannon, executive director of the Anderson/Madison County Visitors & Convention Bureau. “Colts camp has become a huge tool in the effort to get people to realize how close Madison County is to Indianapolis.”

In 2010, its first year in Anderson after 11 years at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, the camp drew 85,000 visitors, according to Anderson University officials, and provided an estimated economic impact of $6.5 million.

Attendance declined last year to 76,000 with an economic impact of $6 million. National Football League officials said a number of team training camps saw attendance declines last year, mostly due to the messy labor situation between the players and owners that wasn't settled until July 25, 2011.

The lockout pushed the start of Colts camp later into the season and reduced the number of practices open to the public.

“Certainly last year, the lockout affected training camp attendance, because there was no time to market and hype it,” said Colts Chief Operating Officer Pete Ward.

Attendance at Colts camp also was likely hampered last year due to the on-field absence of superstar quarterback Peyton Manning, who was out all season with a neck injury.

“We expect attendance to be more in line with where it was the first year, and maybe, we’re hopeful, an increase from that,” Bannon said.

The camp’s impact spans far beyond the two-plus weeks it’s in town, Bannon explained. Anderson and Madison County officials have launched an advertising campaign targeted at camp visitors to position the city and county as a year-round entertainment and tourism destination.

The local visitors bureau started an advertising campaign aimed at visitors and sends workers and volunteers to the camp to distribute tourism guides and point out local eateries and other destinations.

“We’re starting to see the visitors from Colts camp come back year-round to experience things like Hoosier Park and the Paramount Theater,” Bannon said. “We’d like to see that year-round impact double.”

In addition to making a marketing push to increase return visits to Madison County, local officials intend to more closely study the year-round economic impact from Colts camp and design ways to increase that impact, Bannon said.

League-wide trends bode well for Anderson. Attendance at training camps across the NFL are up from last year, league sources said, with several teams—including the Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, New England Patriots, New York Jets and Washington Redskins—setting single-day training camp attendance records.

The Broncos, Jets and Redskins are likely getting a boost from intrigue at the quarterback position. The Broncos signed Manning this offseason after the Colts cut him; the Jets got Tim Tebow from the Broncos; and Washington signed Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III No. 2 overall. The Colts are expected to get a boost from their own high-profile quarterback, rookie Andrew Luck, who was drafted No. 1 overall out of Stanford.

Strong crowds in Anderson—near 5,000 on Sunday and about 3,000 on Monday and Tuesday—have bolstered optimism among Anderson officials that this year’s camp will realize attendance of 80,000 or more.

There was no open practice Wednesday, but activities—including a Colts City entertainment and retail area, and an open practice—resume Thursday, with big crowds expected this weekend.

Unlike the first two years in Anderson, there will be no morning practice, and Colts officials said it is unclear how that will affect attendance.

“Early on, we’re seeing really good crowds for training camp this year,” said Anderson University spokesman Chris Williams. “It looks very good so far.”

Despite Colts City not opening until 12:50 p.m. each day and practice not starting until 1:50 p.m., Williams said fans begin to arrive shortly after 10 a.m.

There’s a lot of excitement from fans about meeting and getting autographs from new Colts players and coaches.

“Not surprisingly, Andrew Luck has been a big draw,” Williams said.

New head coach Chuck Pagano is also turning out to be a major attraction at this year’s Colts camp, Ward said. Pagano made headlines on Monday when he made a fan take off a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey and replace it with a complimentary Colts No. 12 Luck jersey.

Colts Owner Jim Irsay has been a considerable draw in past seasons and is expected to make several appearances to address fans this year.

Player and coach interaction with fans at the camp is key, Ward said, to maintaining and growing the team’s following. The Colts mandate that their players sign autographs after each practice.

“The players are always very gracious with the fans,” Williams said. “It’s a unique opportunity to get to experience the team and its players up close. That’s the biggest attraction of this camp—experiencing Colts football up close.”

Crowds could swell to near 10,000 for weekend and night practices, Williams said. On those days, Anderson University officials are prepared to use the Anderson Municipal Airport for overflow parking. Night practices will be held Aug. 7 and Aug. 16.

“That’s what we’ve seen in years past,” Williams said, “and we think we’ll see large crowds for those practices again this year.”

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