Indy no soft market when it comes to Colts

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Despite struggles to sell out the Colts’ Jan. 4 home playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis appears to be one of the strongest NFL markets.

The NFL gave the Colts multiple extensions to sell the playoff game out before a television blackout was imposed. Naturally, that raised the question about a soft fan base here.

This question seems to be asked often. It should be pointed out that three of four opening round NFL playoff games had difficulty selling out.

NFL and Colts officials insisted the struggle was due in large part to an unusual set of circumstances and didn’t reflect the local market. League-wide attendance and TV ratings numbers prove that might be right.

Let’s look at TV ratings. According to New York-based Nielsen Media Research, the Colts had the seventh-highest average rating in their own home market for their regular-season games. The 36.6 average rating equates to almost 400,000 homes tuning in to each game. Not bad for a small-market team.

The Colts’ TV rating in their home market is up 8 percent over last year and 25 percent over 2011. Of course, 2011 was a 2-14 disaster. Nevertheless, the Colts had the fourth-biggest two-year jump among the 32 teams.

The Colts this season trailed only New Orleans (52.0), Denver (43.5), Milwaukee/Green Bay (42.9), Kansas City (42.9), Seattle/Tacoma (38.6) and Pittsburgh (38.2). The Colts home market TV rating this year was far ahead of the league average of 28.5, according to Nielsen.

That puts Indianapolis—in percentage of people watching—ahead of several other hard-core football markets, including New England (34.1), Chicago (31.5), Dallas/Fort Worth (28.9) and Philadelphia (28.3).

It’s worth noting that during the 2011 season, one of the Colts’ worst on-field performances in Indianapolis, the local rating was still 29.2, which put it in the top half of the league.

Maybe Indianapolis-area fans simply spend less freely on expensive Colts tickets. Maybe more Hoosiers like watching the game on TV than attending live. I think to a degree that could be true.

But before we jump to that conclusion, let’s take a look at attendance this year.

Could the Colts draw 88,043 fans per home game the way the Cowboys did this year? Even if Lucas Oil Stadium was big enough, I think we can all agree the answer is a resounding “no way.”

Still, the team does a fine job of filling the stadium it has. Actually, the team is doing more than filling its stadium. This season, the Colts drew 527,606 through the turnstiles for eight regular season home games, according to the Colts and NFL. That’s an average of 65,951 per game.

We all know how popular the NFL game is these days. Still, with the proliferation of big-screen TVs and surround-sound systems, the Colts were only one of 11 teams to sell out every home game this year.

In fact, the Colts averaged 104.1 percent of Lucas Oil Stadium’s capacity. NFL teams can squeeze a few more people into luxury suites or put up a couple hundred folding chairs to exceed capacity. Only one team this season—Dallas at 110.1 percent—was further over capacity.

The Cincinnati Bengals, which had a playoff run, only reached 98 percent of its capacity for three of eight regular-season home games. The Bengal’s average attendance was 2,654 fewer per home game than was the Colts.’

The Miami Dolphins, a team with a rich tradition, and which this season was in the playoff hunt right down to the final regular-season game, had zero games where the team drew at least 98 percent of capacity, and its average attendance was 64,319.

Are other NFL markets as avid or even more avid than Indianapolis? Sure. Nashville probably doesn’t get enough credit for being a good football market.

This year, like most years, the Titans had eight sellouts while averaging 69,143. Philadelphia easily sold out its home playoff game against New Orleans after stuffing its home venue for every regular season game.

It’s true that some stadiums are bigger than others, and in terms of total regular season attendance, the Colts ranked No, 20. But remember, stadium sizes are built to correspond with market size.

Fan avidity is more a measure of the size of the fight in the dog than the dog in the fight. And the numbers show there’s plenty of football fight in this town.

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