The Past, Present, And Future Of The NFL Combine In Indy

A lot of the talk at the NFL Scouting Combine was the Combine itself. What - and more importantly, where - is the future of the NFL Combine? Insiders weigh in. 

2020_0225_Combine_0880

It began as a way for NFL owners to gather medical information on the top draft eligible college players.

From regional camps in Florida to a national camp in Louisiana, then Arizona - in 1987, the NFL Scouting Combine found a home in Indianapolis. 

And that's where it's been for 33 years.

"The event in its infancy was closed off to the public," said Chris Gahl, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Visit Indy. "It was meant for coaches, staff, some agents, players, and the NFL had a few media attend to report on what was happening - but other than that, it was literally walled off with no access." 

Over the years, it's evolved in many ways, but the path to the NFL Draft still starts in Indy.

2020_0225_Combine_0979

It's a tradition as significant as any other, said Colts owner and CEO Jim Irsay.

"There are traditions that stay in place - a Thanksgiving game in Dallas, Detroit - we talked about that as owners and we said we wanted to keep that in place because it's been almost half a century."

During his time covering the Colts for the Indy Star and now FOX59/CBS4, Mike Chappell has attended every Combine in Indy.

"What they've done over the last 10 years," he said, "It's incredible how the league has marketed and magnified the event. It's grown from let's say 50 to 1500 media credentials. Many teams send their dot-com people. We have colleges here, Ohio State and people like that." 

In the early years, it was less formal and almost everything happened at the Crowne Plaza hotel. 

"You just grabbed players walking through the lobby," Chappell said.

One of his favorite Combine memories goes back to 1999. The Colts were in the market for a running back and Ricky Williams was a top prospect - so local media surrounded a player who fit his description. 

"Two questions in, he said, 'I think you want Ricky Williams. I'm Edgerrin James.' And as it turned out, that's who they drafted." 

From a quiet gathering to a primetime event - as the NFL Combine grew, the city of Indianapolis grew with it. 

"If you look back on the history and the evolution of this event and the growth, it mirrors Indianapolis' physical growth," said Gahl. "That's not just in the stadium, in our hotel core - but the overall footprint."

See all the action from media day in Indianapolis as the entire NFL gathers for the 2020 Scouting Combine.

One of the challenges for the future is to balance the event's growth with its intended purpose. 

"You strip all this away, it's grown in hype and it's grown in pomp and circumstance, it's grown in viewership with national prime time, with the public being able to step into Lucas Oil Stadium to see portions of the workouts," Gahl said, "yet at the end of the day, this event - the purpose, the objective is to put 400 or so college athletes through a rigorous amount of testing - psychological, in-person, and physical, so that NFL owners can make a decision on who they want to draft." 

The NFL Combine is an event any city would covet. And the bigger it gets, the more in demand it becomes. 

Jeff Foster is president of National Football Scouting. Based in Indianapolis, Foster and his team spend 365 days a year thinking about, talking about, and planning for the NFL Combine. 

"There's no question there's a lot of value to us being in Indianapolis and it's not just the history, it's not just the people and experience year after year that manage the event and the pieces around the event," he said. "It is truly the investment of the city and the individuals who are playing different roles for us - it's really their commitment and their pride in this event that make it go so smoothly, especially when we make significant changes like we have."

Foster, his team, and their partners make it look easy. But what you don't see is the work that goes on behind the scenes.

"Without question, logistically, this is the most complex event the city hosts year in and year out," said Gahl. "It's because it involves the convention center, the stadium, a level of security on par with hosting a Final Four or a Super Bowl mixed in with 1,500 national, international, domestic media, and 400 visitors - college athletes - who have very different schedules and who have to be moved to very specific places at very specific times within the Downtown area."

That's where the walkability of Indianapolis comes into play - players and team executives can get around Downtown quickly, efficiently, and safely - no matter what time of day.  

"Last time I looked, there were about 65 employees per club here - so when they come and stay in Indianapolis, they can walk indoors the entire time and go from their hotel room to anything they need from a restaurant standpoint and then into our two secure venues to do all the examinations and watch the workouts in comfort in February, even when it was snowing outside," Foster said.

It's always 70 degrees and sunny in Lucas Oil Stadium, the convention center, and the skywalk - and visitors are greeted with a warm welcome to match.

2020_0225_Combine_0734

"It's that Indianapolis hospitality, the Hoosier hospitality that we've all become accustomed to and we probably take it for granted," Foster said. "I think the NFL saw it on a much greater scale when the Super Bowl was here and we get the chance to see it every year with the Combine."

It takes a team effort to put together the NFL Combine - one that involves the entire community. And they couldn't pull it off without their MVP - IU Health. Located just blocks up the street, technology allows results from medical tests to be read in real time via fiberoptic lines that run from the hospital to Lucas Oil Stadium.  

"When you think about doing 600 MRIs and 1200 X-rays and examinations and labs on 337 players in four days," Foster said, "it's mind-blowing, the amount of scheduling and logistics and coordination that takes place."

Foster won't say it's impossible to do somewhere else, but it would be a challenge. 

There's a risk, he said, in taking something that's good and changing it in hopes of making it great. 

"I certainly understand why the NFL looks at the possibility of moving it, especially when they've had so much success with moving the draft recently," he said.

But the NFL Draft and the NFL Combine are very different events - with the draft being primarily for entertainment and the Combine primarily for information. 

Still, after moving on-field workouts to prime time - Foster sees endless possibilities for fan engagement at the Combine.

2020_0225_Combine_0888

"Our goal is always to make this better," he said. "I just had a meeting with the general managers advisory committee where we talked about the fan experience in the stadium and how we make this more lively for the players and create more energy and and maybe invite fans in and allow them to do different things simply to make this more exciting."

With many NFL teams within driving distance, Indianapolis is an ideal place to host visiting fans.

"As we're growing and learning and evolving, I think there will be more opportunities and I hope the focus is improving the event here as opposed to taking it someplace else," Foster said.

The NFL Combine is contracted to Indy through 2021 with an option through 2025. But Irsay hopes to lock it up longterm. 

"We look forward to having it for many years to come," he said. "I'll fight for Indy tooth and nail to keep it here." 

That commitment from ownership is something Gahl and his team don't take for granted. 

"The Irsay family in particular is incredibly close to this event emotionally and has studied why it should be here, has advocated why it should be here, and has advocated why it should stay here," he said. "It starts at the top."

Colts General Manger Chris Ballard sits on the general mangers advisory committee for the Combine. Ballard has also advocated for Indianapolis and will continue to do so - for one reason.

2020_0225_Combine_0799

"Nobody does it better than Indy."

Raiders General Manager Mike Mayock agreed - even though his team's new city, Las Vegas, has been mentioned as a potential future host. 

"I think the NFL would be crazy to move it from Indy. I've been here for close to 20 years now," he said. "If you go anywhere else, I don't care where - you're not going to have anywhere near the portability and the convenience of this city."

Colts head coach Frank Reich would love to see Indianapolis host the NFL Combine and the NFL Draft.

2020_0225_Combine_1115

"Indy is a proven commodity. We've been winners with the Combine. We've been winners with the Super Bowl. Indianapolis knows how to do it. We know how to put together a national event. We know how to do it with class. We've got the right leaders in place to do it and we're undefeated - so, bring it on."

The path to the NFL Draft starts in Indy.

IMG_1935

And many say that's the way it should stay.

Related Content

2021 Season Tickets Available Now!

Our 2021 home opponents are locked in. Secure your seats for the next season and defend home turf against the Seattle Seahawks, LA Rams, New England Patriots and more.

Advertising