Winning Over a City and Growing a Fanbase, Part I

Over the last few weeks, much has been made over the Colts’ (irrelevant) “issues” to sell their season tickets. Because of the slight drop in season ticket renewals, Indianapolis natives and fans have been berated for being fickle, fair-weather, and flaky (among others). 

I find this all to be an extreme exaggeration, for reasons that I laid out earlier this year. The drop of season ticket renewals (only 6% lower than the usual renewal rate) is to be expected when you lose icons of the teams, have a historically bad season, and are still in the midst of a five-year economic downturn. That doesn’t even take into account the amount of ticket scalpers and other third party groups who likely dropped a lot of their ticket purchases. 

Indianapolis is generally known as being a fantastic sports town, hosting events such as the Indy 500, March Madness, and a very positively received Super Bowl week in 2012. And while the Colts admittedly do not have the rabid fan bases of cities like Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Green Bay, they have turned Indiana’s sports priorities towards football, in a previously predominately basketball state. The comparisons of those three cities has been used in multiple articles, although the comparison is not really valid. Each of those franchises has had decades of football to win over their fans, whereas the Colts have only been in Indianapolis sine 1984.

But despite the differences in circumstances, the fact remains that the vast majority of Colts’ fans (especially in Indianapolis) do not have the passion found in some of the older, more successful franchises. But, instead of complaining about that and needlessly insulting an entire city, I propose that Colts fans look towards those teams and fan bases to learn and grow in their own circumstances. If Indianapolis fans are not the way we want them to be, then figure out how to change that, and then do it. The Colts have been successful in the last 15 years in building a successful franchise, but how can we turn that into a city of Colts’ fans? To do that, we’ll be looking at several steps to creating a rabid fan base over the next few weeks, looking at successful fan bases to learn from them. Indianapolis is a young football town, and has much to take from other cities/teams. 

Step One: Early Success

The first step in building a fan base is success. This is an elementary concept, and one that the Colts have done well in over the last decade, building a base that can be the foundation of a nation of fans. 

There are thee parts to this success: First, a team needs to have  string of consistent successful seasons. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers started out very poorly, having just eight winning seasons from 1933 to 1971, all spread out over the years, with little consistency. The result of this was that the Steelers were losing money, and were the laughing stock of the NFL. Art Rooney sold, bought, and partially sold the team several times during the period, and the Steelers’ fanbase, while loyal, was small. But as the NFL’s popularity grew to new heights with the NFL-AFL merger, Pittsburgh coincidentally had a run of success, with eight straight appearances in the playoffs, including seven divisional titles and four Super Bowl appearances. 

The Kansas City Chiefs were successful from the get-go in Kansas City, getting their first winning season in their third year in Kansas City. This would start a nine year streak, including four playoff appearances and Super Bowl appearances. 

The Packers, like the Chiefs, enjoyed early success, having only ONE losing season from 1919 to 1947. Another run of success as the NFL grew in popularity in the late 60s (leading to the AFL/NFL merger) can be pointed to as well. 

The Colts, on the other hand, started out like the Steelers: inept. Not only did they have just three playoff appearances from 1984 to 1998, but they were marred by historically terrible seasons, with multiple three win seasons, four win seasons, and even a 1-15 season in 1991. While the Comeback Colts in 1995 and 1996 made the playoffs, they were followed by another 3-13 season in 1997, prompting the hiring of Bill Polian and the drafting of Peyton Manning. After their inaugural season, a 3-13 campaign, the Colts began a twelve year run of success, including nine straight playoff appearances from 2002-2010, tying the league high. 

The second part of early success, the catalyst of a rabid fan base, is recognizable names. 

The Steelers had Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, and Jack Lambert during their 70s dynasty, with coach Chuck Noll running the show. The Chiefs had innovative owner Lamar Hunt, Hall of Famers Len Dawson, Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan, and Emmitt Thomas. The Packers had Curly Lambeau in the early years, along with Don Hutson, and the 60’s Packers included greats like coach Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, and Ray Nitschke. 

The Colts have had numerous fan favorites over the years, but Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Jeff Saturday, and Dwight Freeney have given Colts fans players who they connected with each week, and will go down in history as Colts’ greats. 

The third and most important part of early success is championships. The consistency (for a while) in success is critical, but if it always results in broken dreams and failed playoff runs, fans get restless and disinterested. On the other hand, once success is sniffed, fans cannot get enough of it. 

The Steelers run in the 70s included four Super Bowl championships, and six conference championship appearances. The Chiefs won the fourth Super Bowl, as well as appearing in the first Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers. The Packers were NFL champions six times before 1945, and then won five more in the 60s (including the first two Super Bowls). 

The Colts have not enjoyed the same level of success as the Packers’ or Steelers’ dynasties when it comes to championships, but they did win a Super Bowl in 2006, appeared in another in 2009, and have appeared in three conference championships since 2003, all in a hotly contested AFC with the Patriots and Steelers having near-dynasties as well. 

So, in my opinion, the Colts have set themselves up with a solid base of success, one that is the first step in winning over a city and creating a rabid fan base. They’ve had consistency, superstars, and championship-level play. They have completed the first step. 

But, will it last? While I don’t find the drop of season ticket sales to be significant, it would be silly to ignore the possibility of fans losing interest. Next week, I’ll be examining another step in creating a loyal city of fans, and how Colts’ fans can aid in that process. 

Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.