This series will take a look at the ever growing perception of the exaggerated "problem" of Colts' fanhood. Specifically that the Colts' fan base is fairweather and weak when compared to similar markets such as Pittsburgh, Green Bay, and Kansas City. While I find the outcry over the slightly lower rate of season ticket renewals to be very exagerrated (and way offbase), it's impossible to argue that the Colts' fan base is comparable to the near-rabid fans of the Packers, Steelers, or Chiefs. So, over these pieces, we'll be connecting these franchises, finding their similarities and differences in how their fan bases grew to what they are today, and figure out how the Colts and their fans can emulate that.
Two weeks ago, we looked at the first part of growing a rabid fanbase, which, predictably, was winning early.
The first step in the process of growing a resilient fanbase is having a stretch of winning football to draw people in. This must include winning over a period of time, with recognizable, connect-able faces, and winning a championship. The Colts have completed this step over the last 13 years, winning at an incredible rate, having recognizable faces, and winning a championship while appearing in another.
The second step, and one of the hardest to do, is becoming the number one option for professional sports.
Step Two: Becoming a Priority
In order to win over a city and state as a professional franchise, the franchise must first become the number one option for the locals (in terms of professional sports). The winning over a period of time hooks people in, and then, if the franchise is the number one option for people in the area, they stay hooked.
We can see this in Green Bay and Kansas City fairly easily.
What professional sports are in Green Bay? Well, there are the Packers. The rest of Wisconsin professional sports resides in Milwaukee, with the Brewers in baseball and the Bucks in the NBA. The Packers had the huge advantage in Wisconsin of being the first. The first legitimate target for Wisconsinite's passionate following, the Packers joined the NFL in 1921. The Bucks didn't join the NBA until 1968, and the Brewers moved to Milwaukee in 1970.
By that point, the Packers had staked their claim in Wisconsin as the ultimate state pride. The Packers had hooked people with nearly 20 years of winning, including several NFL championships. They then had a run of losing seasons and mediocrity throughout the late 40s and 50s, but it didn't matter. The Packers had people hooked and were the only option in the area. The run of championships and elite teams in the 60s (Five NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls) merely solidified their spot as number one in the hearts of the Cheeseheads.
In Kansas City, there is nothing. I mean, look at this list of professional sports by an online KC tourist site. The Royals, a minor league baseball team, and women's tackle football team, and a professional ROLLER SKATING team. It's not exactly the most daunting of lists. This of course doesn't mention Sporting Kansas City, the MLS team (although, they do play in KC, Kansas, while the Chiefs reside in Missouri).
Really, the only rival for the Chiefs' fans attention was the Royals. The Royals didn't arrive until 1969, the tail end of the Chiefs' hook. The Royals' run in the 70s was impressive, but ever since the mid 80s, the Royals have been terrible, while the Chiefs bounced back from a 14 year playoff draught to be very competitive for the last 25 years. The number one option is the Chiefs.
Pittsburgh is the hardest to crack, with the historical prowess of the Pirates and Penguins being much longer than the other two cities' competing franchises. Fortunately for the Steelers, the timing worked out perfectly.
The 1970s was glory time for Pittsburgh. Not only were the Steelers' the cream of the crop in the NFL, but the Pirates and Penguins were also kicking along. The Pirates made the playoffs six times in the decade, and won the World Series twice. Meanwhile the new Penguins franchise was starting successful (1967), going to the playoffs eight times from 1972-1982.
But, after that things changed. The Pirates didn't make the playoffs once in the 80s, and the Penguins had a six year dry spell from 1982 to 1988, losing much of the fanbase they had built up. Meanwhile the Steelers made the playoffs four times (spread out) and won enough to keep people interested. This coupled with a skyrocketing in the NFLs popularity made the Steelers' franchise king in Pittsburgh.
Indianapolis is a little harder. The Colts came to Indianapolis in the 1984, when many Indiana natives already had NFL allegiances to other teams, such as the Bears, Lions, etc. Indianapolis is also the only city out of the four in this comparison with an NBA team, and the Pacers were firmly entrenched as Indiana's team when the team arrived.
Nevertheless, the Colts can become the number one option in Indianapolis, and Indiana. Their first competitor is the locals: the Pacers. The team was firmly ahead of the Pacers during the Manning era, being consistently competitive and elite while the Pacers struggled with bad seasons, bad PR, and messy transitions. Now, as the Colts head into a new era, they need to make the transition quick, so as to keep Hoosiers' attentions and beat out the Pacers for Indiana dominance. If the Pacers are consistently good over the next ten years, and the Colts are not, they will be wasting valuable time. The Colts also will need to be winning over old Bears and Lions fans, while staying ahead of the Rams, Browns, and Bengals.
The Colts' hook was Peyton Manning and company, a better hook than they could have hoped for. Now, with a new staff and dynamic franchise quarterback, the Colts must look to stay the number one option for Hoosiers, a difficult task.
I'm not sure how relevant the other pro sports teams are to the intensity of fan support. The Packers may have Green Bay to themselves, but most Packer fans are from elsewhere in Wisconsin. Pittsburgh seemed pretty nuts about the Penguins during the Lemieux era. At any rate, I don't see that the Pacers are much of a threat. This has been a basketball state, but it's been a high school and college basketball state. A Final Four appearance by an Indiana school generates comparable excitement to a Pacer title run.
I think the real key is that the Colts need to establish a great image that fits the city. Steelers have that great image of blue collar toughness that ties in with their city's position as a steel town. Packers have that image of playing in the frozen tundra. Colts during the Manning/Dungy era have built an image of winning with lots of "high character" players, which Irsay, Grigson & co. seem intent on continuing. It fits well with the city's image as a great place to raise a family.
@ECB Yes, this. The other pro sport in town offers a lesson on the price of winning with bad characters. The hit the Pacers took from that has not abated yet, and it's been 8 freakin' years already.
As long as the Colts keep on getting those visible high character players, and minimize the number of poor character ones, they'll have the potential to keep the core fanbase loyalty. But screw up and bring in a bunch of toxins and locker room cancers, and it won't matter how much they win.
Yes, I do remember Nick Harper getting stabbed by his wife, and Dominic Rhodes's DUI. And Big Ed Johnson not being able to resist The Weed. That's why I said "minimize". You didn't see any bad charges like those against Wayne, Brackett, Freeney... Peyton. While very new, you have definitely not seen a hint of problems from Nevis, Castanzo, Ijalana, or Carter (yes, Rucker is the nod towards "minimize" instead of eliminate, but at least he's not gotten into trouble while a pro). And if things hold true, I don't expect one bit to see any such problems arise in the future with Chapman, Allen, Fleener, or Luck. The point being that the Colts crowd wants to have both a high character team to be proud of *and* a team that wins. That's just the way the town is.
@ECB That's a fantastic point. I'll definitely hit on that later in the series.
Well and outside of Indy (remember me in sweaty Florida?), the Colts built a reputation for being the "good guys". Didn't play dirty, didn't have a bad attitude, didn't over celebrate, didn't get arrested for a prostitution cruise. And for the fans I meet down here, that's one of the reasons they liked the team. Folks like Joe Addai, Austin Collie, Dallas Clark, Brandon Stokely, Jeff Saturday, Peyton Manning, Gary Brackett - those guys are all really nice guys. It wins people over. Heck, it's the only reason I'm okay with Tony Romo - that he's sort of a goofy guy who appears to be pretty darned nice. That being said, I hate the Cowboys.
The Colts already are a priority. I do appreciate that you alluded to the fact that the fan base is still developing. The people who grew up with the team and don't remember the move are still young (I'm 30). The young kids in this city are Colts fans. I'm a teacher, I see it all the time. They wear Colts jerseys to school. It's going to take a little more time for the Bear and Bengal fans to get phased out. When we drafted Manning, the season ticket base was 38,000. Now we have no Manning, every player this market has ever identified with has been cut, and the team is coming off a 2-14 season and we have 63,000 or so season ticket holders. I think that's pretty good progress and proof that it's still in progress.
You know how you endear yourself to the city of Indianapolis? Win.
The reason we loved Reggie and Peyton and their respective teams were because they were winning. Nothing else mattered. If the Andrew Luck-era Colts want to be top dogs in Indianapolis, all they have to do is win. It really is just that simple.
Your points are well made.
In fact, the Steelers knew that winning and establishing yourself as the #1 option for fans was so important that they invested heavily in steroids before everyone else was... thus giving their teams of the 70s a vastly superior physical advantage. How do I know this... well how else do you explain that they won 4 Super Bowls with that walking hat rack at QB?
@DougEngland I'm pretty sure Bradshaw admitted that a lot of that team used steroids...he seemed to think it wasn't a big deal. The media certainly doesn't seem to care.