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Indianapolis in fight to keep NFL Combine

NFL may move the event, despite seemingly no one connected to the Combine wanting it to move

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The 2022 NFL Scouting Combine is history. Indianapolis’s 35-year run as host of the might soon be history, as well.

Like it did when it moved the NFL Draft out of Radio City Music Hall in New York City, turning it into a glitzy, traveling spectacle, the league is considering taking the Combine on the road.

The contract between Indianapolis and the NFL is up, and the league is currently considering three cities as potential hosts of the event for the next two years.

Indianapolis Colts GM Chris Ballard opened his media session last week with an endorsement of keeping the event in his city:

“Good to be back. Good to be back in Indy, all of us together, back at the Combine,” Ballard said. “Can’t have a better city to do it in. We’ll see where it ends up in the future, but I’d be hard-pressed to find another city that does it any better.”

Ballard isn’t the only one who thinks that way.

Teams don’t appear to want the event to move. Every media member I spoke to about the Combine possibly leaving Indianapolis doesn’t want to see that happen.

Why would they?

Indianapolis is located smack in the middle of the country, making it relatively easy for everyone from both coasts to get there.

The city is perfectly set up for the thousands of players, team personnel, medical professionals, television networks and other media members. Why shouldn’t it be? The city was basically built for, and grew up around, the Combine.

National Football Scouting Inc. started what has become the Combine in 1982 to allow member organizations a centralized place to look at NFL Draft prospects. The event moved to Indianapolis in 1987 and has stayed there ever since, growing into the monstrous TV and media spectacle that we see today.

“There’s a sense of pride that we’ve had the event here, and as the city has grown so has the event,” said Chris Gahl, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Visit Indy. “Not a month goes by, not a day goes by that we don’t think about and strategize and brainstorm about how to keep the Combine in Indianapolis and keep it growing.”

Gahl said the city is “very fixated” on keeping the Combine.

“This city in large part what you see today has been built in and around events like the Combine,” Gahl said.

Lucas Oil Stadium, built in 2008 as home of the Indianapolis Colts, was constructed as a multi-purpose venue with Combine-specific features.

There is fiber-optic cable, laid before construction began, that runs underground to IU Health. That way real-time medical imaging can be done, with results sent immediately back to the stadium. There are meeting spaces and exhibit halls large enough to handle all of the medical aspects critical to the Combine.

The massive Indiana Convention Center is right across the street, and an underground tunnel means prospects, team executives, media and anyone else needing to go back and forth does not need to go outside.

In fact, prospects, team executives and media members lucky enough to stay in one of the downtown hotels connected to the convention center by a series of skywalks don’t have to venture outside the entire time they are in the city.

In all, Gahl said there are 12 hotel and more than 4,700 rooms connected by skywalk.

“We have more hotel rooms connecting into our convention center and the stadium than any other city in the nation,” Gahl said. “There’s not another city in the nation where prospects can stay under one roof, walk seamlessly into the bench press, do their media interviews, do their testing, their medical and on-field without going outside.”

There is also the fact that everything outside — restaurants, bars, shopping, other attractions — is within easy walking distance of the stadium. You can walk to just about anything you want to see within a half-hour from Lucas Oil.

“We understand what it takes to pull off a Combine. The convenience of our hotel packages where you can walk and you get in the sky bridges. They don’t have to get in a car during the course of the whole week while they’re here,” said JW Marriott General Manager Phil Ray. “I’ve been in the city for 18 years. I’ve been in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Dallas. There’s no other city that is able to do it as well as Indianapolis does.”

Over the years there have become established places that are must visits during Combine week, and places where everyone knows you can rub elbows with team executives, coaches, national media members, scouts, etc., if you’re willing to stay out late enough and work enough early mornings on three or so hours of sleep.

All of those patterns are well-established, and another thing that makes the city both perfect and comfortable for anyone and everyone participating in the Combine.

There is, of course, a massive economic benefit to the city. Gal said the week-long event adds $10 million to the city’s coffers.

“Part of the ethos of Indianapolis is sports. We’re a city largely built on sports – amateur, professional. The combine is a fixture in our landscape,” Gahl said. “Each and every year our entire hospitality community, our entire city looks forward to welcoming the epicenter of the football world to Indy. We prepare for this event year-round.

“With the exception of the Indy 500 there’s not another event that has this staying power, 35 years, that is such a fixture in our community.”

That financial boost, though, is obviously something other cities would like to take advantage of. The NFL, as it always does, would like to make the event glitzier, more glamorous, more fan accessible.

Lucas Oil opened its doors — for free — to a smattering of fans this year.

“We obviously are going to do everything we can to retain Combine,” Ray said. “It’s a high profile event. Financially it’s a great event. It would be a big loss.”