Two years ago, when the Colts first opted to hold an open (and free) minicamp practice at Lucas Oil Stadium for the public, 4,000 people showed up. That number was considered (at the time) to be a rather telling sign that, despite the Colts losing Super Bowl XLIV to the Saints just four months prior, fans were still rabid for football. Keep in mind, people were still stinging from the team balking on an undefeated regular season that year and Bill Polian going on the radio and blatantly insulting fans. Last season, there was no minicamp, as the NFL owners were in the middle of locking out their players.
This year, Bill Polian is gone. So is Jim Caldwell, Jeff Saturday, and some dude named Peyton Manning. As a result, 13% of the franchise's season ticket holders said "see ya," opting not to renew. People can whine, complain, and rant all they want about that number being repeated here (and other places), but facts are facts. Losing 13% of your season tickets after just one bad season makes the franchise and the city look bad.
However, in a rather smart P.R. move, the Colts opted to bring back the free, open practice thing at Lucas Oil. Even though the team is a shell of its former self (50 new players on the roster, including 27 rookies) and an entirely new coaching staff, 7,500 people ditched work and showed up to watch Andrew Luck and the "new era" Colts play what is the equivalent of flag football.
7,500. To see a practice!
Damned impressive, Indy. Damned impressive.
Now, before we all start patting each other on the back and crowing that the city isn't flaky and fair-weather when it comes to professional sports (because, let's face it folks, we are), the big question still lingers out there: Did the 7,500 that showed up help refill the season ticket shortfall?
I keep hitting on this point because, at the end of the day, the NFL doesn't care if 7,500 or 15,000 show up to a free practice. If a team doesn't sellout their season tickets, then the local market is not viewed as truly supportive of the franchise.
All sports is about money. Even that little high school basketball tournament thing everyone in Indiana is debating and arguing over is, when it is all said and done, about money. In the modern age of exhibition sports, if customers in a local market are not actively buying the product (and the product in the case of the Colts is season tickets, not regular gameday ones), then the franchise doesn't necessarily have to work to make the product more appealing. They simply move the product to customers more willing to buy the season tickets. Ironically, the Colts are an example of that.
I don't think the Colts and Indianapolis are in that realm yet, but just ten years ago (with a young, healthy Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy as the head coach) they were.
So, when you see me continuing to write about this subject of ticket sales, season tickets, and fair-weather fans, I'm not doing it because I personally enjoy writing about how everything just sucks right now. I'm not that much of a masochist (at least, I don't think I am). I'm doing it because it is THE story right now. It might not be the story you want to hear, but that's just too bad. I don't want to hear it either, but pretending it isn't important doesn't make it go away.
Andrew Luck playing well and replacing Peyton Manning (and, again, replacing is the appropriate word in this context) isn't so much about him getting the franchise back to prominence so it can win more Super Bowls. If Luck flops or is, at best, mediocre, people are going to stop coming to games, ala the way the city abandoned the Indiana Pacers after Reggie Miler retired in 2004. Unlike the NBA, the NFL isn't going to tolerate that. I can't tell you how many times NFL people have told me, "Football in Indianapolis was a mistake. If that franchise were in another city, it would make soooooooo much more money."
I have no idea if that statement is factual or not, but it almost doesn't matter. It is a perception (and a strongly held one at that) by league people.
So, please, my beloved and rabid readers, don't tell me or anyone else here that the season ticket story is a dead horse. It is very much a live horse, and its bucking and mad. Events like yesterday make me personally feel better about the story having a happy ending. Unlike league people, I think football in Indianapolis is important. The NFL, and football in general, is a Rust Belt sport. I'd rather see it there than to have one or two teams playing in front of Los Angeles fans, people who pretty much define the term 'flake.'
[UPDATE]: Phil Richard's just tweeted this:
Colts sold 260 season tickets at minicamp practice Weds. Have about 2,100 remaining, per team COO Pete Ward.— Phil Richards (@PhilRichards6) June 14, 2012
It's good news to hear that 260 season tickets were purchased, but that isn't enough. Having 2,100 remaining is not good. Not at all. This was a franchise that had a wait list (which they would often crow about) of thousands for season tickets. Now, after just one bad year, they have a 2k shortfall. Hopefully, that will change as the season opener gets closer.