By: Joe Strupp
When the Pittsburgh Steelers knocked off the favored Indianapolis Colts in last Sunday’s NFL playoffs, the unexpected loss didn’t just cause grief for fans and team members. It also put the brakes on some major coverage plans for The Indianapolis Star.
The Gannett-owned daily had been closely tracking the Colts’ best season ever. The team started the season off 13-0, earning it the always-unenviable comparison to the ’72 Miami Dolphins, the only team to ever complete a season undefeated.
As the playoffs began, most picked the Colts, who ended up 14-2, to cruise to Super Bowl XL in Detroit with no problems.
Among those predicting victory were editors at The Star, who had already booked eight hotel rooms in the Motor City. The newspaper was planning to send 20 staffers to the big game, and was preparing to print special victory editions for distribution after the game in both Indianapolis and Detroit. The paper had even commissioned a book on the “Super Bowl” season, with 16 chapters already written by Colts beat writer Phil Wilson.
“It would have been out the Friday after the Super Bowl [Feb. 10]. It would have been between 140 and 160 pages, a nice coffee table book,” said Tim Wheatley, assistant managing editor/sports, who said a week’s worth of special sections leading up to the game were also in the works. “We had reporters working six or seven days a week to get all of the copy for these done.”
So when the hometown team failed, losing 21-18 to the boys from Steel City, the Star shelved it grandiose plans. While it’s not the first newspaper in an NFL city to gear up for championship coverage when a team does well, the Star took such preparations to an even higher level, editors said.
Wheatley admits that the Colts expectations were so high, the paper had taken the view that the championship was a foregone conclusion and they’d better be prepared. “My mindset was that they were going all the way and we had to be ready,” he told E&P. Although the Colts had been major playoff contenders during the previous two seasons, even reaching the AFC championship game in 2004, Wheatley says “we never got this far along [in planning].”
The special section efforts actually began last Friday, with a 16-page section, followed on Monday with a 10-page wrap-up. Copy and layouts were already being done for a similar effort this weekend, while a five-day run up of such sections was to have begun Feb. 1, leading up to the Feb. 5 Super Bowl.
“We had a very aggressive plan and we had been working on it for some months,” said Editor Dennis Ryerson. “The response from advertising was very strong.” Neither Ryerson nor Wheatley would disclose what kind of advertising revenue was being lost without the sections, or what costs had gone into the preparations so far. But, Wheatley said most of the costs so far were related to overtime.
The Star, which ordinarily sends about five to seven staffers to Colts road games, had planned for 20 to attend the Super Bowl, it’s most ever for the big game. Editors had already booked eight hotel rooms, with plans to submit non-refundable deposits for the other 12 this past Monday. At least two members of the news crew would have been devoted solely to Web content, a first for the paper. “We were going to do both audio and video online,” Wheatley said.
But the early exit from the Super Bowl run was not the first disruption to the Star’s Colts plans. Several weeks ago, when the team failed to complete an undefeated season, the paper had to drop another handful of promotions aimed at capitalizing on that unfulfilled dream.
Among the efforts in the works had the Colts gone 16-0 were: a special late edition distributed after the final regular season game via hawkers; a commemorative 32-page magazine for sale the week following that game; and a poster of the Star’s front page reporting on the undefeated season.
“It is a big letdown,” Wheatley said of the surprise early playoff ending. “But we are on to the next thing. At least now we’ve got a great plan for next year.”