At this point, it is no secret to anyone that the 2011 season sparked the catalyst for a total team overhaul in Indianapolis. One of the most consistent franchises over the period of a decade lost major names on the field, on the sidelines, and in the front office. No loss was bigger than losing a player who could go down into the record books as the greatest quarterback in the history of the game.
With many heroes of an era moving on and a complete shakeup from general manager down to position coaches, along with a drastic change defensively, concerns will form about fielding a competitive football team. Season ticket waiting lists will be impacted, fan confidence levels will drop, uncertainty will ensue, and media attention will drop significantly.
Does all of this mean that the Indianapolis Colts franchise is in trouble? Does it mean the team is no longer relevant? Should the team drastically alter it's approach to outside opportunities in order to "create" attention?
In my opinion, these kinds of concerns are overblown and -- time will show -- very fleeting. In fact, the turmoil in Indianapolis creates a great deal of intrigue within the fan base about how the team will look. Fans from all over the league won't think of the Colts as world beaters and Super Bowl front runners in 2012, but they'll be interested to know how a team formerly led by Peyton Manning will fair under the leadership of the top overall draft pick -- who happens to be the most highly touted college prospect in 14+ years.
How will Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis transition to outside linebacker? How will the two best tight ends in the 2012 NFL Draft transition to the NFL with a quarterback and offensive coordinator familiar with tight end heavy schemes? How much will the Colts rushing attack change behind a revamped offensive line that is much larger than fans in Indianapolis are used to seeing? How will the move to a 3-4 defensive focus be handled by defensive linemen whose experience has only been in 4-3 sets? Can the team improve in the secondary under such tight 2012 cap restrictions?
Moving on from Greatness
Anytime there is a major quarterback change from a superstar veteran to a rookie or first-year starter, there will be intrigue and coverage in the media and amongst football fans. When Favre moved on from Green Bay and Rodgers stepped in, there was a lot of attention about what happened for each respective team following the move. When Montana left San Francisco and Young stepped in, it was a monumental swing that grabbed the attention of football fans for every team -- and drew media focus.
The storyline this year and in the next few years in the media will surround Luck's early career success versus Manning's twilight years. If Luck is able to get the Colts two or three early season wins, media will swarm to discuss the implications of his development and compare it to Manning's rookie season, along with Manning's success in Denver. If he fails to get off to a "attention grabbing" start, he'll still receive the attention of media members who will discuss Irsay's decision to move on from Manning.
When training camp starts, you can bet that there will be significant attention paid to the Colts and Redskins as the 2012 rookie quarterback competition begins.
Shaking Things Up
Indianapolis has always been a very boring team to cover during the off-season because very little movement takes place each season. Some veteran players are allowed to walk in free agency and minor acquisitions for depth are sometimes made throughout the summer but this front office is more aggressive. The number of free agents targeted and acquired is higher, their potential to have starting impacts is significant, and the ability of Ryan Grigson to give the team the pieces it needs for short- and long-term success under a very tight 2012 salary cap is an interesting story.
Grigson's focus in the NFL draft received considerable attention, especially for a team that is being projected as one of the worst in the NFL. Players like Josh Chapman and Brandon McKinney were no where to be found on previous Colts teams. Players like Fleener and Allen seem like high-impact, long-term offensive players who are built for an Arians/Luck offensive system.
The Colts have made trades for players at target positions, are in the middle of trade talks for a cornerback who would significantly bolster the team's depth and who would likely start across from Jarraud Powers. The team has gone from slumbering giant to major player. This alone will create attention and intrigue.
Fickle Fan Base?
Much ado has been paid to Colts season ticket renewal dropping well below what it has been every year for a decade. Kyle Rodriguez examined the renewal rate drop in a story last month that helps make sense of things.
The problem with the whole argument regarding the fan base is it is built on some pretty illogical and hypocritical foundations. On the one hand, people are quick to claim that season ticket holders and Hoosiers in general have the right as taxpayers who paid for a new stadium to get upset and demand that the team's front office make changes or make decisions one way or another, and to make their dissatisfaction known by not attending games or choosing to not purchase season tickets. On the other hand, when the team is going through its biggest overhaul in over a decade and is projected to perform poorly over the course of a season or two the same people want to criticize the fans.
The reality is that some kind of season ticket turnover should be expected in such an environment. Manning is gone, fans left with him. No shock here. It certainly is not indicative of the overall quality of the fan base.
When the team returns to winning, and I believe it will sooner rather than later (2-3 years tops), the season ticket renewal rate will increase again. The consumers simply must see things heading in the right direction to justify their investment for the future. Not complicated.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have to create ways to invent a full stadium. The Indianapolis Colts had a 6% drop in season ticket renewal rate and will sell out every game in 2012, legitimately. Calling the fan base fickle under such circumstances is silliness.
Winning Cures All
Although a connection between the Indiana Pacers fan support in 2012 is convenient because it is in the same market, it's certainly not indicative of how fan reaction will occur for the Colts. The Pacers lost the support of fans not so much because of winning or losing -- which certainly didn't help -- but because of a team culture shift that was widely unpopular amongst the team's fans.
Many will go back to the brawl in Detroit as the beginning of the end for Pacers support in Indiana but recovering from the brawl would not have been overly difficult. Following up the brawl by losing out on the team's best opportunity for a championship, and by having numerous members of the team get in legal trouble in Indianapolis over the following two seasons put the nails in the coffin.
Now it will take the team some time to regain the interest of fans, regain the trust of the fan base, and prove that Larry Bird is putting together a team that plays with class on the court and lives with class off of it. Once the team accomplishes those things, the fan support will return.
The Colts don't have those obstacles to overcome. Jim Irsay has put together a franchise with one of the best reputations in the NFL. Indianapolis has been used to winning for over a decade, has been to two Super Bowls in the last five seasons, won one Super Bowl, and has played an exciting style of football that fans from around the league enjoyed to watch.
Once the team returns to an exciting level of competitive football, the interest and fan support will return quickly. The Pacers and Colts comparison is simply not instructive and should not be used as reason to create concern about the loyalty of Indiana's sports fan base.
The point is that there are plenty of reasons to be interested in what is going on in Indianapolis, and that doesn't escape the minds of football fans or the media. Will the winners receive the bulk of the attention? Of course, winning always drives attention your way. Does that mean Indianapolis needs to jump up and down and say "look at me, look at me" in order to be relevant?
The team will be in the hunt for a playoff spot within the next two season, at the very latest. In the weak AFC South it's not even outside the realm of possibility for the team to finish second in the division in 2012. When the team starts winning again and the excitement returns, when the uncertainty about the team's future wanes, all will return to normal, the Colts will be one of the most exciting stories in the NFL again -- and worry about fan base loyalty will prove foolhardy.
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