INDIANAPOLIS – Reverberating evidence of some semblance of normalcy returning will be found in August and the ensuing months at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Fans in the stands. Lots of ‘em.
After the COVID-19 pandemic limited or completely denied fan access to NFL stadiums – and so many other venues across the landscape – for the 2020 season, everyone is anticipating full stadiums for ’21.
That includes the Indianapolis Colts, who were the last of the league’s 32 teams to gain clearance from the Marion County Health Department for a full-capacity Lucas Oil Stadium this season.
Tickets remain for all nine regular-season home games plus the Aug. 15 preseason meeting with Carolina, but sales have been especially brisk for four home games. The most attractive: the Sept. 12 opener against the Seattle Seahawks, Sept. 19 against the Los Angeles Rams, Oct. 31 against AFC South rival Tennessee and Nov. 28 when Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers come to town.
Backstories boost the interest level of two of those games.
With the Rams in town week 2, Peyton Manning and Edgerrin James will be presented their Pro Football Hall of Fame rings. And as if Brady and the Bucs visiting isn’t enough, Robert Mathis will be inducted into the Ring of Honor Nov. 28.
Also, the Nov. 14 meeting with the Jacksonville Jaguars gives fans the first up-close glimpse of quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the 1st overall pick in the draft, and the New England Patriots, always an attractive draw, visit Dec. 18 or Dec. 19.
“It’s going to be a really fun year for the fans in terms of our home games,’’ chief operating officer Pete Ward said. “Plus we have a young, talented team.
“Hopefully the fans are as excited as we are.’’
What a difference a year makes. The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered most of the planet in 2020.
The NFL cancelled its four-game preseason schedule, and attendance for regular-season home games was dependent upon local restrictions and guidelines.
The Colts’ home opener against the Minnesota Vikings unfolded in front of 2,500 fans in the 63,000-seat Lucas Oil Stadium.
“That was surreal,’’ Ward said. “It was something you hope you never have to go through again.’’
Attendance crept to 7,480 in week 3 for the New York Jets and topped out at roughly 14,450 for Cincinnati, Baltimore, Green Bay and Tennessee.
Now, Ward and the Colts are optimistic sellouts loom.
The most encouraging barometer involves a 93% renewal rate from the 2019 season-ticket base, which was roughly 55,000.
“That sounds impressive to me because this is uncharted territory,’’ Ward said. “We had never gone through anything like (2020) in the course of American sports. We didn’t know what to expect.’’
Sellouts used to be the norm, and an obvious byproduct of the on-field successes with Manning and Andrew Luck under center. The Colts enjoyed 129 consecutive sellouts, including the postseason, before the streak ended in the final game of the 2017 season; 60,557 were on hand for a 22-13 win over the Houston Texans.
There has been just one sellout in the past two seasons: week 15 of 2018 when the Dallas Cowboys were in town (66,654). Seven of the eight home games in ’19 had an attendance of at least 60,295, but fell short of the sellout standard.
Ward made it clear maintaining a solid working relationship with the team’s fan base is critical. Sellouts were never taken for granted, even during the unprecedented Manning years.
“Never. Never,’’ Ward insisted. “We’re not a big market. Every fan is valuable to us when you’re in a smaller market. The well is only so deep.’’
While the Colts are anticipating raucous crowds this season, it’s imperative to be prepared for another sudden change. According to Johns Hopkins University data, the United States is experiencing an increase in new COVID-19 infections. Infections and deaths are rising globally.
The Tokyo Olympics will unfold without fans at any of the venues. Japan is under a state of emergency because of a spike in COVID-19 cases.
It’s anyone’s guess whether COVID-19 might once again impact the NFL in the coming months.
“You can’t worry about it, especially after what we’ve been through,’’ Ward said. “You just have to be prepared as always in case you have to change up.
“We’ve been through it once. Last year when we were selling and renewing we were preparing for full capacity, and things evolved. You can’t become preoccupied with it, but we’re prepared if something unforeseen happens. We always are.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.