Native son Kurt Vonnegut Jr. referred to it in 1970 as “the 500-mile speedway race, and then 364 days of miniature golf, and then the 500-mile speedway race again.” People used to roam city streets on Sundays, picking off pigeons with shotguns as part of “Operation Pigeon-Rid.” For decades, there was no reason to stay downtown after dark.
This week, as 150,000 visitors descended on a new, vibrant district before Super Bowl Sunday, even cynics agreed that the city had successfully shed its image as a bastion of boredom in what was once called “flyover country.” Hotels, restaurants, theaters and a 3-mile canal walk flank Lucas Oil Stadium and Super Bowl Village. Thousands of residents have moved into downtown apartments and condo complexes are rapidly rising. And visitors have noticed.
“Incredulity is in the air. Naptown is alive and thriving. The urban Super Bowl is a huge success, where everything is in walking distance, and everyone feels the electricity,” wrote Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic.
The transformation was decades in the making, beginning long before city leaders ever dreamed of bidding for the Super Bowl. In the 1970s, then-Mayor Bill Hudnut decided that sports was the ticket to revitalizing the city and putting it on the national map.
It seemed to be a good fit. Indianapolis was the capital of a sports-crazed state that had Notre Dame winning national football championships in the north, Indiana University winning national basketball titles in the south.
The city had one professional team, the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, but it struggled financially; a telethon was staged to sell tickets to ensure the owners didn’t move the team.
But, Hudnut said, “we needed an NFL team.”
Hudnut, mayor from 1976 to 1991, began attending NFL meetings with other city officials in the late 1970s; in 1978, he traveled to Chicago to meet with Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay about moving the team to Indianapolis.
“He wasn’t that interested at that time in talking with me,” Hudnut said.
In 1982, the city began construction on a $77.5 million stadium without any guarantee it would ever house an NFL team.
“Politically, it would have been regarded as folly and as a white elephant if we had not been able to acquire a team,” said Hudnut, now a professor of real estate at Georgetown University. “But I knew what we were doing was right. I wanted to make Indianapolis a major league city. In order to do that, you had to have major league sports.”
The city lured the Colts from Baltimore in 1984, a year after making a presentation to NFL owners to gain some interest in an expansion team.
Irsay, meanwhile, had thought of moving the Colts from Baltimore to cities including Phoenix, Memphis, Jacksonville and Indy. City officials began negotiating with Irsay in secret in 1984. Just weeks later, with Maryland lawmakers threatening to use eminent domain to keep the team in the state, the Colts sneaked out of Baltimore in the middle of the night and moved to Indianapolis.
“It changed the spirit of the city. People were really excited,” Hudnut said. “It enhanced our image.”