INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - The National Football League relishes associating their Super Bowl with celebrity and glamour, but the choice of Indianapolis as host for this year’s game has struck a more authentic tone.
It could be felt already Tuesday, five days out from the clash between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants, as fans of all ages, decked out in the local Indianapolis Colts’ blue and white colours, bustle around the compact city center.
That didn’t happen last year in freezing Dallas nor in past years have Floridian fans turned out in Tampa and Miami days before the game in local team jerseys.
The air of anticipation could also be felt among the 7,300 fans who bought tickets to attend Media Day activities at the Lucas Oil Stadium, deep in downtown, listening in to interviews on headsets while sat in the stands.
Yes, there will still be Madonna for the half-time show, Kelly Clarkson for the national anthem and the usual list of expensive, celebrity parties at the weekend.
But it feels like at the heart of this week, for once, is the sport itself and Indianapolis is a sports town.
The capital of Indiana, ‘The Crossroads of America’ is home to the Indianapolis 500 motor race, has frequently hosted the hugely popular NCAA college basketball tournament and is home to an NBA team the Indiana Pacers as well as a century-old minor league baseball team - who like the Colts, live right in the center of town.
The warm response that former Colts head coach Tony Dungy received Tuesday from volunteers, bedecked in home-knitted scarves, was a reminder not only of the affection for the coach, but also of the status of his team.
Dungy’s Colts won the Super Bowl at the end of the 2006 season, beating the Chicago Bears with quarterback Peyton Manning named the Most Valuable Player.
“At it’s core, Indianapolis is still a basketball city, always has been and always will be. But since Peyton Manning showed up in ‘98, there’s been a major transformation,” Indianapolis Star sports columnist Bob Kravitz told Reuters.
”Once upon a time, the Colts would play Miami and there would be as many aqua jerseys as there were Colts blue jerseys. But as the team got better and started winning big, this town fell in love with the Colts. Meanwhile, the Pacers were struggling and the college basketball programs were in a slump.
“Again, at it’s core, this is a basketball area, but this run of success has turned a once ambivalent football town into a hard core football town,” added Kravitz.
Peyton Manning is in the headlines this week as he fights to get back to fitness after missing the entire season with a neck injury and it is his younger brother Eli, the Giants quarterback, who will be center stage Sunday.
“It’s been great. Indianapolis has done a great job - the people, the town, the city has really welcomed the Giants and our organization,” said Eli Tuesday, expressing a view that has been widely heard this week and not only out of courtesy.
Perhaps the experience will prompt NFL decision-makers to give some thought to bringing their biggest event to more cities in the midwest and other parts of American where fans truly relish the sport.
“It is good to be in a town like this,” said Patriots center Dan Connolly, “I‘m from St. Louis, another mid-west town and I feel kind of at home here.”
Reporting By Simon Evans; Editing by Alastair Himmer