Big dance for Colts - and Indianapolis

Until recently, Indianapolis was the most major of minor-league cities. None of its pro teams had won the Big One (at least not since the old American Basketball Association). When people thought Indiana sports, if they thought about them at all, they focused on high school basketball teams or college powers like Indiana University (in Bloomington), Purdue (West Lafayette), and Notre Dame (South Bend).

That was all before the Indianapolis Colts captivated the state Sunday by beating the New England Patriots 38-34 and advancing to their first Super Bowl. Suddenly, the state's capital city has won some respect in the sporting world.

"It's a huge moment that we're going to be able to ride for a long time," Bart Peterson, the city's mayor, told The Indianapolis Star. "At least the next two weeks."

The dramatic victory was also vindication for Indianapolis's risky foray into professional football three decades ago.

When the city fathers first broached the subject of bringing professional sports to Indianapolis they were met largely with contempt. The city was surrounded by big-time sports venues in Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, and St. Louis. Indy's facilities were nonexistent and except for the Indianapolis 500 automobile race, a fixture since 1911, there was no reason to bring the Goodyear blimp to town.

Hoping to attract an expansion team, Indianapolis officials agreed to build the Hoosier Dome, a sometimes scorned move that predated the Baltimore Colts' midnight move to the Midwest in 1983. Late owner Robert Irsay's controversial transfer was costly to Indianapolis, which made guarantees to Irsay that some considered excessive. Defenders of the deal said the initial expenditures would be repaid 10-fold. It would take awhile. Fans endured long stretches of mediocre seasons. Then in 1999, in quarterback Peyton Manning's second season, the team enjoyed its best ever season and established itself as a powerhouse. Still, with no breakthrough to the Super Bowl, questions arose about Manning's abilities to win the big game.

The city's other pro team, the Indiana Pacers, made it to the National Basketball Association finals once – in 2000 – and lost. It is probably noteworthy that the Pacers, in contrast to the Colts, did not take the name of their home city when the team was founded in 1967. In those days the need for a broad fan base was paramount to the Pacers, who were ever mindful of the statewide interest in basketball.

Not that Hoosiers felt particularly deprived. In rural communities and hamlets that dotted the mostly flat landscape, sports discussions on e-mail – and in coffee shops and barber shops before that – were dominated by high school basketball. Every March, the state tournament grabbed the spotlight, culminating in the championship in Indianapolis.

Even there, an Indianapolis school didn't win the finals until 1955, representing a 44-year gap in which such obscure towns as Thorntown and Milan beat the big boys. The Hickory Huskers, immortalized by Hollywood, really lived; only the names were changed in the movie "Hoosiers."

College teams also captured the imagination: Indiana University's glory days of basketball under volatile coach Bob Knight, Purdue's periodic forays into basketball and football prominence, and the sometimes sparkling, always hugely popular, teams of Notre Dame.

Now, the tables have turned somewhat. The high school basketball tournament has fallen on hard times after splitting into classes a decade ago. The major universities (with the exception of Notre Dame, which has a national fan base) worry about an erosion of interest since the Colts began their winning ways.

"I think both the Colts and Pacers have been good for the state of Indiana," says Clarence Doninger, retired Indiana University athletic director. But "the pro teams have affected attendance some.... I know a lot of Indianapolis people who used to have season tickets to Indiana University who aren't picking those up now."

The effect of professional sports on Indiana and Purdue is especially obvious through the coverage of The Indianapolis Star, the state's largest newspaper. When the two professional teams began playing well, the college news appeared under smaller headlines and occasionally – in unprecedented moves – was moved to the inside pages. The switch in emphasis was especially noticeable during the 2005-06 college basketball season when the Star decided not to cover many of Purdue's road games.

The Colts' triumph represents Indianapolis's biggest sashay into the national spotlight. The city has shown its love by approving the construction of a new football stadium.

Unlike the old days, all roads lead to Indianapolis.

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