Jim Irsay Is On The Road Again

guitars in a display case
The core of Irsay’s collection has always been guitars played by famous rock musicians. But it has grown to include items like JFK’s hat and an Apple II manual signed by Steve Jobs.

of, let’s say… quirky NFL owners, the Colts’ Jim Irsay somehow manages to stand out. It’s not just his Twitter account, loaded with cryptic aphorisms and videos of the 62-year-old delivering motivational speeches from his weight room. Nor is it limited to his unusually public-facing sense of humor, having appeared in two episodes of Parks and Recreation. As idiosyncratic as Jerry Jones or Dan Snyder might be, neither of them spent the fall touring the United States with Jack Kerouac’s original On the Road manuscript in tow, serenading his guests with covers of Rolling Stones hits along the way.

For years, Irsay has been almost as well known for his vast collection of pop culture memorabilia as his second-generation stewardship of the Colts. This past fall, he took that assemblage on the road for the first time, with a nine-city, two-continent touring exhibition that featured not just historic guitars once owned by legends such as Prince and Bob Dylan, but performances from Irsay’s own band, where he moonlights as a frontman belting out hits from the classic rock songbook.

As much of a spectacle as the cover sets might be—with Irsay backed by members of John Mellencamp’s band and R.E.M., among others—they’re simply a warmup act for the main attraction, Irsay’s massive and still-growing collection. There are the shoes Muhammad Ali wore for “The Thrilla in Manila.” There’s the drum set Ringo Starr played during The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. For the traditionalists, there are letters signed by Presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Items from the collection, according to a press release, have been featured at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Indiana State Museum, as well as in Paris, London, and Rome. Overall, it features more than 400 artifacts and is worth more than $100 million.

white boxing shoes next to a Sports Illustrated magazine
Muhammad Ali’s boxing shoes from his championship bout with Joe Frazier are among Irsay’s cultural artifacts on tour.

Irsay’s traveling show was meant as a prelude to a permanent, public museum for his treasures, in a city still to be named. It was also a promotional tool: The circumstances recall one of the most tried-and-true traditions of the sporting world, when NFL owners shop around their franchises to a parade of cities eager to woo them and their revenue. Case in point: the Colts themselves, whose Lucas Oil Stadium is built on one of the most massive public subsidies in the league, to the tune of $620 million. Irsay might be the fun-loving rock enthusiast in front of the cameras, but behind the scenes in the boardroom, he’s as bottom line–minded as the next suit. As recently as 2018, Colts Chief Operating Officer Pete Ward refused to close the door on a potential relocation in the next decade if certain conditions weren’t met.

As such, it’s almost impossible not to compare the current shopping-around of Irsay’s acquisitions to such a situation—especially as the owner has publicly stated he’s looking for a similar “public-private partnership” in establishing a home for his items. Cities on the tour included Nashville, Washington, D.C., Austin, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and, yes, right here in Indianapolis. But a pop culture museum, as impressive as this one might be, is a far cry from an NFL franchise when it comes to its money-generating potential.

“The economic impact is larger with sports stadiums, but the arts are such a part of our culture and the fabric of our society,” says Brenda Lee Johnston, associate professor and chair of the arts administration department at Butler University. “The incentives just aren’t the same, but they are there.”

a person looking at a wanted posted for John Wilkes Booth
An original Wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth.

Ward, who has worked closely with Irsay on the project, describes the future home as “a community that is open, welcoming, and progressive,” with “a vibrant and innovative arts and cultural scene” and “a great visitors and tourism infrastructure.” As well as, of course, “a strong history of public-private partnerships.” All of which, especially that crucial last factor, could reasonably describe Indianapolis, which Ward says would be “ideal” as the collection’s home base.

“If it’s Indianapolis, that would make sense given his family’s history here and the connections,” Johnston says. “I understand why it makes sense financially for him to look at other cities, but I’d think you would want something like that close to home.”

The best comparison one could plausibly make to what the Irsay camp has in mind for their collection is something like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, established by Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun in the early 1980s and home to thousands of relics from rock’s history. The “Rock Hall,” as it’s known colloquially, earned $36 million in total revenue in 2019, according to public filings, and serves as a national mecca for music fans despite its relatively out-of-the-way location in Cleveland. (Part of the city’s pitch for the hall was, you guessed it: an offer of $65 million in public subsidies for its construction.)

a man in a hat with his feet up playing the guitar
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay

So, could a similar gambit work in bringing Irsay’s assortment to his adopted hometown, despite its relative lack of rock heritage compared to cities like
Nashville, Los Angeles, or even Austin, which has a parade of music fans each year by virtue of the South by Southwest festival? In October, Chris Gahl, a senior vice president at Visit Indy, told The Chicago Sun-Times that the group was investigating how a public display might draw visitors to the city. He was circumspect, saying they would “look for ways to continue to diversify and grow our tourism ecosystem to attract more visitors and keep them here longer, spending more.” But to estimate Indianapolis’s chances, all one has to do is look at the massive perks Irsay’s Colts have already extracted from the city in order to keep it their home.

Irsay’s team says all options are on the table. One can’t necessarily compare his collection to a sports franchise from a financial standpoint, given the obscene amounts of revenue generated by the latter. But there’s one very un-rock-and-roll thing the comparison does reveal, as this small-scale, cover version of a franchise relocation plays out: You don’t get the opportunity to buy Jack Kerouac’s manuscripts, or build a $720 million football stadium, or trek back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean with Elton John’s piano in tow by leaving money on the table.