INDIANAPOLIS — When John Clayton covered his first NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in 1990, he was one of seven reporters on hand that hung around the lobbies of downtown hotels to get the latest offseason scoops from general managers, scouts and coaches.
Three decades later, that hustle and spirit remains the same, even as the annual event, and the city that has hosted it, have grown exponentially.
This year, when Clayton arrived in Indianapolis to cover his 30th Combine, he was one of more than 1,400 credentialed media members on hand, many of whom were hanging around the Indiana Convention Center during the day, and then frequenting the various downtown hotspots at night, just hoping that somebody — anybody — would give them all the latest and greatest NFL developments that they could break, one tweet at a time.
Over the years, the Combine has evolved into the league’s most buzzworthy offseason event; a spectacle only the Super Bowl can top in terms of coverage and exposure. And the city of Indianapolis has been there every step of the way, providing all the comforts and logistical elements required to give the 32 NFL clubs the best possible look at the year’s top draft prospects.
But with just one year left on the city’s deal to host the event, there was speculation that the surging marketability of the event could drive the Combine out of Indianapolis. Was Los Angeles, with its sparkling new stadium and facilities, drawing the eye of the league and Combine organizers? Or was it possible, perhaps, that the Combine could follow the lead of the NFL Draft, which has taken its show on the road in a different city each year?
We got our answer on Wednesday, however, as the National Football League announced that the Combine will remain in Indianapolis through at least 2021, “with a series of annual options beyond that,” according to NFL.com columnist Judy Battista.
“The Combine in Indy will be extended to 2021, followed by a series of one-year options,” Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted. “Football ops people around the league are happy!”
Case in point: Colts general manager Chris Ballard.
“I can’t think of a better city to have this event,” Ballard told reporters at this year’s Combine. “(There’s) easy access with everything they are able to get done medically, an indoor stadium – easy access for everybody to get to the players. It’s a great venue, a great city and Jeff Foster does a tremendous job getting everything organized for everybody.”
The NFL Scouting Combine got its start in 1985 in Arizona before moving to New Orleans the following year. But Jeff Foster, President of National Invitational Camp., Inc., which runs the Combine, said it was clear that those organizing the event “wanted a centrally-located city, not only for the club personnel but for the players to travel to.”
Indianapolis, Foster said, was the perfect choice.
“We knew it was going to be in February, so we had to find a city that had an indoor facility,” Foster told Colts.com earlier this year. “So the RCA Dome was perfect for that.”
The Combine officially moved to Indianapolis in 1987, and since that time it’s been an annual mini-economic boom of sorts for the downtown area, which has grown right alongside the event itself. This year, the Combine brought about 5,000 people to Indy, which was expected to generate $8.4 in economic impact, according to Visit Indy’s Chris Gahl.
Beyond the financial impact is the convenience that the downtown Indianapolis area provides the NFL and its teams. Lucas Oil Stadium and the Indiana Convention Center are more-than-capable hosts of the Combine’s various stages, and the area has plenty of hotel space to accommodate team officials, prospects and members of the media.
Over the last few years, the league has even opened up some aspects of the Combine to fans, as the marketability of the event continues to evolve.
“It’s been a great spot for us to have the Combine here,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told fans in 2017 at the Colts Kickoff Luncheon. “It’s become a bigger event, and I think it’s become a bigger event because of the people of this community who I think really recognize the value of it, support it. As you know, we’ve been opening it up to our fans over the last few years — slowly, because as you know the football guys are a little anxious about that. But it’s been great. You know, the fans can come in and it actually added value, in my view.
“And this location — the hospital facilities, the facilities that you have here around the stadium and the convention center — are all things that just make it perfect.”
Those aforementioned hospital facilities might just be the cherry on top for those who have supported keeping the Combine in Indianapolis the past few years.
One of the more useful aspects of the event each year is the opportunity for the NFL’s 32 teams to conduct medical evaluations of the participating prospects, and IU Health, with its centrally-located facilities, has worked with the Combine each year to make those endeavors go as smoothly as possible.
“IU Health, they’ve been doing it for 33 years, and they know how it operates,” Foster said. “They do things that we don’t even understand that they do to make this work smoothly and successfully for the clubs. I ask the 32 teams to tell us, ‘What are the most important elements of the event for you?’ And they still ranked medical No. 1, interviews No. 2, and then it was kind of a mix between sight testing and on-the-field performance.”
So what’s next for the Combine? The league also announced Wednesday that the drill portion of the event, which is televised, will shift to the afternoon and in primetime slots on Thursday through Saturday. This, according to an NFL Network statement, will bring “football to a wider audience.”
“This will enable us to accomplish the goal of reaching more fans while still fully maintaining the football integrity of the event,” the statement continued. “We will adjust the schedule to ensure a positive experience for the players and clubs."
Wednesday’s announcement was music to the ears of journalists like Clayton, who has grown quite fond of his annual winter trek to Indianapolis.
“It’s like you check everything off as far as efficiency, great hosting people, a city that’s aggressive in trying to compete to get these types of events,” Clayton said. “I think the one thing that’s great with Indy is they’ll try to compete and do whatever they need to do to get things done.”