By Maureen Hayden
CNHI News Service
INDIANAPOLIS — Leaders of Indiana's capital city spent years gussying up their downtown by building big sports and convention venues and luring nice hotels, popular restaurants and a four-story shopping mall to locate here.
By the time 5,000 credentialed media rolled into town for the spectacle known as Super Bowl XLVI, those leaders were convinced the city had long outgrown its derogatory nickname: "India-no-place."
But reputations die hard.
On the Sunday before Super Sunday, an Indianapolis-embedded reporter with The New York Times opened his story about the city with not-too-kind references to tractors, homespun scarves and heartland values.
Indianapolis, he wrote, was a "useful antonym" for glamour.
The newspaper story — like a multitude of ones just like it in recent days — posed the basic question: How did an un-hip, super-square city like Indianapolis score a Super Bowl?
The answer: By letting Indianapolis be Indianapolis.
As two East Coast teams — the New York Giants and the New England Patriots — get ready to play in Sunday’s game, the city hosting the event seems to be embracing its Midwest identity.
"I wouldn’t want anybody to take this wrong, but we don't ever want to be New York," said Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Letting Indianapolis be Indianapolis is what may have landed the city the Super Bowl on its second try.
Five years ago, the NFL's 32 team owners who pick Super Bowl sites four years in advance were impressed with Indianapolis’ pitch: It included a new $720 million stadium built mostly with public money; a long history of hosting big sporting events, from the 1987 Pan Am games to multiple repeats of the NCAA Final Four; and the availability of 18,300 hotel rooms within walking distance to the downtown stadium.
But they weren't impressed enough. Indianapolis lost out on the 2011 Super Bowl to Dallas’ super-sized promise of hosting the best and biggest Super Bowl event in history.
Alison Melangton, the president and chief executive officer of the 2012 Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee, said her committee members decided to launch a different kind of charm offensive.
It built on what she said was a native Hoosier value: "The human touch is really important to us here in Indiana."
Among the ways the committee employed the touch: It recruited 32 eighth-graders to deliver, in person, the city's 2012 bid packages to the 32 NFL team owners. And it recruited the city's legendary St. Elmo’s Steakhouse to gift each owner with a delivery of its signature shrimp cocktail.
The committee also promised to launch a $100-million-plus "legacy" project aimed at renovating a long-neglected near-downtown neighborhood. And it promised to recruit an army of some 8,000 volunteers — each adorned with a handmade blue-and-white neck scarf — to greet visitors with a super-friendly attitude and directions for how to get around downtown.
Helping the effort along was a promise by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay that his team's hometown would make good on its promise of Hoosier hospitality.
At a press conference Monday, Irsay said the Indianapolis host committee adopted an approach that he described this way: "Ask not what the Super Bowl can do for you. Ask what you can do for the Super Bowl."
That approach has paid off in dividends, said Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard. "Those of you coming in from out-of-town, you’re going to absolutely love our city," he said.
That expectation might be a little high. It’s true that CNBC's popular sports-business reporter, Darren Rovell, gave the city a boost recently when he declared on ESPN's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" that Indianapolis was "the best Super Bowl city I’ve ever seen."
But it might be a little harder to convince others. On the Sunday before Super Sunday, a columnist with the New York Daily News panned the city, saying its old "Nap Town" nickname was well-deserved. "You stand on a curb and call your friend with a rental car," he wrote. "If you actually need a taxi, the best place to locate one is in Chicago."
Maureen Hayden is the CNHI Statehouse Bureau chief in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.