By Meghan Rominger | @MeghanRominger
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — Footballs whizzing through the air, Bulldog and Crimson Tide branded Indy cars, and Dr. Pepper pong: there was no shortage of football-themed fun this weekend at the Playoff Fan Central event at the Indiana Convention Center. Georgia and Alabama fans, along with some neutral fans and locals, packed the Convention Center on Saturday afternoon to celebrate the College Football Playoff national championship and soak up the heated rivalry in a laid-back, fan-centered environment.
Playoff Fan Central is a free event that runs from January 8-10, and it offers a host of exciting activities for intense and casual fans alike. Playoff Fan Central is a part of the 2022 National Championship events schedule, along with other events like the AT&T Playoff Playlist Live! Concert series, the Extra Yard 5K, Taste of the Championship at the Indiana State Museum and the Allstate Championship Tailgate.
According to the Indianapolis Star the National Championship, which is being hosted outside of the Sun Belt for the first time in its eight seasons, is expected to generate up to $150 million for the city of Indianapolis. The weekend is expected to generate more than double what the 2021 NCAA Men’s Final Four generated with limited attendance, and city organizers expected approximately 100,000 people to visit the city for the big game.
“The planning for these events started four years ago and ramped up in late 2020 when a majority of the host committee’s staff came on board,” said Visit Indy Senior Communications Manager Nate Swick in an email. “It truly takes a village, as community partnerships, volunteers and committee members have all come together to ensure this event goes off without a hitch.”
At the Convention Center, event organizers leaned into showcasing the highlights of the college football season in an interactive and innovative way. Fans are able to view and take pictures with some of college football’s biggest trophies – including the Sugar Bowl trophy, the Cotton Bowl trophy and the National Championship trophy — and participate in their favorite football activities by kicking field goals, challenging themselves to vertical and broad jumps and competing against each other in an obstacle course.
But the event doesn’t come without a few logistical difficulties. Without a mask mandate in place in Indianapolis, most fans weren’t compelled to wear face coverings; the event set up in an enclosed room in the Convention Center precluded social distancing. Playoff Fan Central employees and volunteers and a small percentage of fans wore masks, and sanitizing stations were placed in a few locations throughout the room. An announcement played over the loudspeaker encouraged fans to wear masks, though the request was mostly drowned out by the hustle and bustle of the crowd noise. Swick noted that the host committee has worked closely with the Marion County Public Health Department and CFP leadership to follow proper COVID-19 protocols and ensure fans and players remain safe and healthy.
Perhaps one of the most exciting selling points of Playoff Fan Central, especially for those fans who might’ve felt ambivalent about attending the event, is the merch and auction store. Alabama, Georgia and College Football Playoff branding is available on almost every merchandise item imaginable, allowing fans the opportunity to score keychains, hats, scarves, sweatshirts and t-shirts in support of their favorite team.
Fans also have the opportunity to bid on Alabama and Georgia auction items like a Nick Saban autographed helmet or a Sony Michel autographed framed photo.
“We have two fan bases in Indy this weekend from the SEC, many of which have never been to Indianapolis before,” Swick said. We have rolled out the red carpet and greeted them all with the Hoosier hospitality we know best. Indy has already received lots of positive feedback from both fans and media alike, as first-time visitors realize how great Indianapolis is.”
While the current COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying variants have almost certainly attenuated the crowds that would’ve shown out in years past, Indianapolis remains an unrivaled host city for the most exciting and precious sports events.
“To all of our Hoosiers and volunteers, we say thank you,” 2022 Indy Host Committee Board Chair Mark Howell told Indianapolis Monthly. “And to you, thank you for choosing to spend your time with us here in Indianapolis, a city known for hosting major sporting events and crowning champions.”