Did Peyton Manning really lead to the revival of Indianapolis?

Lost within the Vice President’s protest of a protest at the Indianapolis Colts game was the retiring of Peyton Manning’s number. A great NFL quarterback – but also the savior of Indianapolis?

So now Indianapolis, with its compact downtown packed with hotels and restaurants, has had a Super Bowl—and the city performed so well the NFL might go back for a second one day. Indianapolis has won a Super Bowl. Indianapolis has had Final Fours, men’s and women’s. Indianapolis is even hip, with Manhattan-caliber restaurants like Bluebeard. On Saturday, with two big conventions and a Colts game in town, downtown was bursting at the seams; there was a line at St. Elmo’s. And a crowd of 10,000 to 12,000 people came to the city to watch the unveiling of the half-ton bronze statue for the man who, more than anyone, made it possible. GM Bill Polian always maintained Lucas Oil Stadium got built on the back of Peyton Manning, and the former two-term governor, Mitch Daniels, echoed that in remarks to the adoring crowd. Locals were giving Daniels a hard time about the cost of Lucas Oil Stadium early this century, and he said: “Just build it. Peyton will fill it.” Fitting, too, that the shiny upscale JW Marriott—representing boom times in the first 17 years of this century for $320-a-night rooms in ritzy downtown hotels—could be seen through the legs of the bronze number 18.

“He didn’t do it alone,” Letterman said. “But by God, look around us. He changed the skyline. This used to be a small town. This man has changed the skyline.”

Never wonder again about the effect of a winning quarterback on a city, a state, a region. It’s why every team that doesn’t have Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan spends so much time and money looking for one. As Browns owner Jimmy Haslam told me this summer: “There’s nothing that compares to it. You need a great starting pitcher, a great closer in baseball. You need a great point guard in basketball. But there’s not one position that comes anywhere close in sports, I don’t think, to quarterback in football. If you ask any one of our football people, they’d all say getting the quarterback right is number one. I can tell you this: It’s on the top of our list daily. Once you get that, the game’s much easier.”…

Manning got emotional talking to the crowd. The crowd—at least via signs from as far west as Hawaii, as far east as New Jersey—ladled love on him for an hour. “WE LOVE YOU MAN,” punctuated the affair three times from the crowd. A friend, Angie Six, was in the middle of it and texted me afterward: “Being a part of the crowd was a truly moving experience, enough to make this fan and those around me a little misty-eyed. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the shadow of Lucas Oil Stadium, I saw a diverse crowd of Colts fans: young, old, black, white, Hispanic, men, women. We are all Hoosiers, proud to claim Peyton as our own. When Peyton left to play for Denver, we watched heartbroken from afar. We never had a chance to say thank you. Today, we were able to express our gratitude in person, and the crowd was giddy. The woman behind me said, ‘What a great day to be a Colts fan.’”

I do not buy these two common arguments made by sportswriters and others:

(1) stars and championships can change the course of major cities and regions and

(2) sports truly bring together communities in ways that other spheres or events cannot.

Development and community-building does not work this way. Cleveland finally winning a championship does not change everything. The Bulls winning six championships in the 1990s followed by the White Sox, Blackhawks, and the Cubs (!) winning in the following decades has not solved the problems facing many poor neighborhoods. J.J. Watt raising a lot of money in response to hurricane relief in Houston is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed to clean up and more importantly help Houston and other regions develop ways to be resilient in the face of disasters. Peyton Manning becoming the most recognized face of Indianapolis – even though he is from Mississippi and the team dumped him when they thought they could do better without him – is a nice story but there are plenty of players who do similar things (just not at one of the most visible positions in sports).

This does not mean that winning or doing good things in the community are bad. Indeed, following sports is worthwhile in the long run when your team finally wins and team and player efforts to help communities are much appreciated. But, cities and regions are much bigger than this. Cities and regions can recover from major teams moving away. (Does anyone make a serious case that Seattle lost big when losing the Supersonics or that San Diego is going to decline with the Chargers now in Los Angeles?) People will find other ways to spend their money and local officials will continue to use whatever tools they can – including sports – to promote economic development and boost the status of their community.

I would enjoy seeing academic research on the influence of players and teams on local communities. Even in places where the teams are intimately wedded to the common insider perceptions of what a place is – think the Pittsburgh Steelers – what influence does a team really have? Perhaps Indianapolis is a unique case of sports contributing to economic development because Manning’s stardom came alongside a thriving amateur sports scene (from high school basketball to the NCAA). But, can we also imagine an alternate universe Indianapolis where the city changes over several decades with no influence of major sports?