INDIANAPOLIS – Success in sports most often is measured in the won-loss column.
The glass-house nature of the business makes on-field results the most prominent yardstick by which a team is measured.
Teams just as much are civic entities, and their performances largely affect a community's mindset. While all teams compete in their fields, the best ones truly intertwine with the surrounding areas.
The Colts have produced many victories since 1999. Since the start of that season, the club has a 140-68 (.673) mark, one of the NFL's winningest regular-season records. The Colts have made the playoffs 11 times in the last 13 seasons and from 2002-10, the Colts tied the NFL record with nine consecutive playoff appearances, along with being the only team with 10 victories and playoff berths annually.
By competitive measure, the franchise is an overwhelming success. The person who presides over everything, Jim Irsay, is one who measures success far beyond the playing field, too.
Irsay's family has owned the Colts for 40 years, 28 of which have been spent in Indianapolis. Irsay has grown with the team and has been the owner and CEO of the club since 1997. With an eye toward establishing a franchise with as rich a heritage as any in the NFL and with a commitment to have it serve as a model, Irsay has worked tirelessly to reach his goal.
CBS analyst Charley Casserly, who also served as an NFL general manager with Washington and Houston, has observed Irsay for years and feels he is one of the sharpest owners in the league.
"He understands the ups and downs in the game, which is a crucial part for an owner to understand," said Casserly. "I think Jim brings a very unique perspective to it. I think he's done an excellent job. He's hired good people. He's supported them. He's worked hard in the city. All of those things have made him one of the better owners in the league."
Irsay and Indianapolis had a difficult 2011 season, one that prompted him to make a major move last Monday in deciding a new direction for the team. The decision to part ways with Vice Chairman Bill Polian and Vice President and General Manager Chris Polian was a difficult one for Irsay as an owner and steward, but it was one he reached as the best course to take for his club.
"This type of decision is extremely difficult," said Irsay. "There are many, many components that you look at in weighing the positives and the negatives, and the type of energy, and the type of timing that you feel in your gut that's right for your organization. There is so much that goes into a decision like this. In the end, I think it is an intuitive decision where you feel that the time is right to make a change. It's difficult because of the close relationship Bill and I have. I felt that it was the right move to make. … I think in terms of how do you make a decision like this as an owner? It's an intuitive decision."
Irsay is attuned to every facet of his organization. He is just as attuned to the public following his team. He is an active user of Twitter and has nearly 92,000 followers. The interaction he has on that and other communication levels and in overseeing an organization that made 876 appearances in 2010 and in-kind or financial donations to 2,400 events and organizations in 2011 allows him to keep a pulse on matters. Irsay reaches decisions necessary for the franchise, but those following his team are important.
"Hearing our fans, whether it is season ticket holders calling in, on Twitter, on the blogs and all the ways they communicate (is important). You're always listening to your fans. They are your shareholders, and they're a part of this thing in such a big way," said Irsay. "The bottom-line is to have success. You do hear the fans. I do. I am very aware of the intent interest that we have in our franchise, and you want them (the fans) to be heard. At the same time, they should want the people that really have the total insight and who are in charge to make sure that they do what they think is right. It is important to not block that out, but to just take that in and also make the decisions that you know you need to make."
A long-time local business executive who served with the financial group that helped the Colts' transition to Indianapolis has noted Irsay's dedication for years. He likes Irsay's ability to reach all demographics that follow the Colts.
"I have watched him since the team first came to Indianapolis grow from a young man to a very seasoned, caring person," said the businessman. "I think people have been pleasantly surprised by him as an owner. Along the way, he has had to make difficult decisions. The one he made this week was very, very difficult. It dealt with close members of the football family, and he said that straight-up. He said it was a tough decision. In the end, he put the team and the community ahead of those relationships. That is a very difficult thing to do, but one that sometimes when you're in leadership you have to do."
"He has hit home runs very well, all the way from the money he has donated to causes to send bands to go play in certain places. I know he has done a lot that people never know about. He's been a pleasant surprise, and I think the Twitter use has elevated him to a different level, a different group of people, younger people. He really has become cross-generational in the way he approaches things. He touches older fans as well as younger fans. It is difficult to do. You have to work at it, and he works at it all the time. I think people on the street really admire him for putting his team before himself. It is a dynamic way to run a business."
One dynamic way of doing business is ensuring fan value in following your team. Irsay has been able to do that recently, at least according to ESPN Magazine. Since 2003, the publication has issued its 'Ultimate Standings' where it monitors all professional franchises in the areas of bang for the buck, fan relations, ownership, affordability, stadium experience, players, coaching and title track. The Colts ranked 14th in this year's standings, fourth among NFL teams, and the study measured 122 professional franchises across the national landscape.
Indianapolis has been strong performers annually in the magazine's rankings. In 2010, Indianapolis ranked fourth among the nation's 122 professional franchises. In 2009, the Colts were 14th, placing third among NFL teams.
Indianapolis was ranked the top franchise in professional sports in 2008, while being the NFL's top-ranked team and fourth overall in the magazine's 2007 ratings. Indianapolis placed fourth among 92 teams measured in 2006, ranking second among NFL clubs. The Colts were third in 2005, and were the best-performing NFL team according to the ESPN standings.
Indianapolis is the only NFL team to rank among the top four league performers in the standings annually since 2005. The club's seven straight times among the top four NFL teams is ahead of Green Bay, which has appeared five times since 2005. Indianapolis also is the only team to place as the league's top performing team three times (2005, 2007, 2008) since 2005, out-distancing Pittsburgh (twice), Green Bay (once) and New Orleans (once).
"I think when you are an owner in the NFL, you have to be a leader to be successful," said the local businessman. "Being in a small market, you can't have the swings and misses that somebody in a major market can have. You're not in New York or Dallas. You just don't have to opportunity to have as many misses as they do. You have to hit the nail on the head every time. Jim's done that."
As Irsay finishes the first week of his non-playing season, he continues to keep his global vision intact.
"I think that I am always interested in making sure that we are as good as we can be in every single aspect of the way we manage and run the franchise," said Irsay. "We can do some things better. I think in terms of making sure the whole experience for everyone who you are dealing with is improved and at a very high level. When you are in a medium-to-smaller market you have to be really good at that."