It is possible – maybe even likely – that the NFL Scouting Combine has already visited Indianapolis for the last time. It’s the final year of the league’s contract with the city, and the pandemic has taken the Combine virtual for the first time in its history. The NFL hasn’t publicized plans for 2022 and beyond, but the prevailing expectation among those covering the league has long been that it will soon move this particular circus to Los Angeles.
Which would make a certain amount of sense. When the NFL signed an extension with Indianapolis in 2019, it set up a series of one-year options starting in 2022. It hasn’t exercised any of them, all the while setting up its new home base in LA, where there’s a gleaming new stadium that will soon house the offices for the NFL’s army of in-house media professionals.
Officially, the Combine is a central hub for teams to evaluate the physical skills and characteristics of players they might draft the following April. Practically, it’s many other things: a commodities market where athletes are treated like objects, a massive networking event fueled at different turns by alcohol and spreadsheets, and the unofficial kickoff of the NFL’s new season – as much as the league likes to point out that the official “league year” doesn’t begin until mid-March.
I started attending the Combine annually in 2018, and it didn’t take long to realize why the NFL has gravitated to Indianapolis for so long. If the league decides to leave Indy behind, it’ll abandon a uniquely well-suited home to one of the most bizarre events in sports. Those of us with obligations at the Combine, whether we know it yet or not, are going to miss what the city’s got to offer.
Not everything will go “back to normal” after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. Some doctor’s visits will become telehealth appointments. Some remote workers won’t go back to their offices. Some studios will release their films straight to streaming services. The market, in other words, will divorce the physical place from the product. In the case of the NFL Combine, that’s not so easy.
The cornerstone of Indy’s status as a Combine host is its convenient geography. The league moved the event there in 1988 after brief stops in Arizona and New Orleans due to Indy’s centrality on the map, as well as the presence of the Hoosier Dome, an indoor venue where players could undergo standardized athletic tests. Its competitors for the Combine paled in comparison: Detroit, with only the Lions’ much older Silverdome to offer as a venue, and Minneapolis, considerably more remote and frigid.. It didn’t hurt, either, that Indianapolis’s airport is barely a hop, skip, and a jump from Downtown.
Once the NFL’s players, coaches, front office officials, league staff, agents, media, and all other manner of hangers-on got acclimated to Indianapolis, they realized it wasn’t just convenient to get to, but to get around. The city’s expansion of its indoor skywalk system only made it more so, especially for the Combine. \In February, it’s a big deal to be able to walk from the J.W. Marriott to the Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium without setting foot outdoors.
Most people with official business at the Combine stay at one of the hotels within a few blocks of the skywalks, and the Combine’s key events, including workouts, interviews with teams and media, medical examinations, and networking events, all happen within a few square blocks Downtown. Traffic, blessedly, is not an issue.
The NFL wants the Combine to be as much of a media spectacle as everything else it does, which is why it moved on-field workouts to a primetime TV slot in 2020. But the people who actually work in and around the league, especially for teams, just want to do their work in peace. Fortunately for them, Downtown Indy is an easy place to be productive — quiet, walkable, and with plenty of big conference rooms and hotel suites that lend themselves nicely to the work. Significantly as well for players and medical professionals, IU Health Methodist Hospital is just a short jaunt from the heart of downtown. Fiber-optic lines connect the stadium to the hospital, allowing for quick medical evaluations.
When attending the Combine, it doesn’t take long to figure out the landmarks one must commit to memory in order to quickly jaunt around downtown: the J.W. Marriott, where ground-level bar High Velocity is the closest thing to a hub of Combine media nightlife; the Convention Center, which hosts the Combine’s media events and bench press and feels large enough to put several cities inside it; and Kilroy’s, where I go to eat breadsticks and drink cheap gin and tonics while making astute observations such as, “Look! Over there! That’s the former general manager of the New York Jets!” (The Combine is a kind of prom for football dorks and sports media gossip.)
Of course, Downtown doesn’t represent Indianapolis in whole, and there’s plenty about the city that the NFL cadre will likely never experience. But tourism isn’t so much the point of their trip. The point is to get their work done as efficiently as possible while eating and drinking on the company dollar, and Downtown has plenty of nice places to do both. (However, on my next Combine trip, I will weep for the loss of Burger Study, the perfect spot for a quiet but heavy weekday lunch in a dimly-lit dining room. Savvy Combine attendees have learned to branch over to Massachusetts Avenue for drinks.)
Still, at some point people on business at the Combine must actually do business, and that’s where Indianapolis separates itself from the rest of the pack as an event host. The massive convention center allows the NFL to set up several different worlds under one roof: the media workroom and the press conference area, in giant ballrooms on separate floors; the “NFL Combine Fan Experience,” where the league somehow gets thousands of people to show up in an adjacent room to watch young men in tights lift weights; hospitality areas for the NFL Players Association, various broadcast partners, the Madden developers who scan players’ faces for their virtual avatars, and more, all going on in a building that simultaneously hosts what seems like 20 other expos and garden shows.
Every meeting is within a short walk away, as is Lucas Oil. It’s common to see a player practicing casually in one of the Convention Center’s expansive hallways just minutes before they run the 40-yard dash on national TV.
If the NFL takes the Combine to LA, it’ll be fodder for the NFL’s gradual colonization of the sports media calendar, further glamorizing an event that’s already a made-for-TV special. The virtual event in 2021 will prove that it’s not hard to find a way to get standardized athletic testing done no matter the setting, and few in and around the league will mind traveling to LA rather than Indiana in February. There will, in fact, be good things about an LA Combine, and new traditions that take hold after the transition period is over.
But the NFL will miss a lot, too. It’ll miss Indy’s easy navigability, quick connection to a fine hospital system, and the quiet efficiency of a city that perfected the complex planning that goes into such an event. Most importantly, the NFL will miss the people. Indy residents and businesses are unfazed by this particular circus after decades now of hosting it. League celebrities can walk around Downtown unbothered, like they’re part of any other corporate group in town for a trade show without thousands of media eyeballs on it. Indianapolis confers not just simplicity, but a kind of anonymity that many in the NFL value.
Not everyone, though. If the Combine leaves town, that will presumably mean the end of Jerry Jones’ Dallas Cowboys party bus taking up all the parking spaces right outside Prime 47. No bets on whether he’ll be able to find anyone to give him attention in, um, Los Angeles.