After letting Andrew Luck keep $24.8M, does Colts owner Jim Irsay owe his ticket holders anything?

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

We’re about to see how far the generosity of Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay will extend. He’s about to put a lesser product on his stage for the second time in the past three seasons, making his 2019 profit margins worthy of conversation.

This is what happens when a young franchise quarterback like Andrew Luck suddenly retires on the eve of the regular season and he receives an immense parting gift of $24.8 million from the team. Fans are a little upset. Some want their season tickets refunded. To the point that even former Indianapolis player (and current Jacksonville Jaguars long snapper) Matt Overton has offered to buy up packages from Colts fans and donate them to charity.

To say the least, this whole mess has invited questions among the ticket-buying faithful. Some very fair questions, such as:

When did the Colts know Luck was retiring?

How many tickets did the Colts sell during the days (or weeks) the franchise knew Luck’s future was in question?

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Andrew Luck took over as the face of the Colts franchise after the team cut Peyton Manning. That lasted for seven years. (AP)
Andrew Luck took over as the face of the Colts franchise after the team cut Peyton Manning. That lasted for seven years. (AP)

What responsibility does the franchise shoulder, given that it was selling a product showcasing Andrew Luck while simultaneously preparing for Luck’s departure?

And most pressing of all: Can you tell your quarterback “circumstances changed, but keep your millions of dollars” while telling season-ticket holders “circumstances changed, but we’re keeping your hundreds [or thousands] of dollars”?

Given that this is the NFL – which continues to sell full-price preseason tickets to showcase almost nothing – Irsay could most definitely blow off any kind of gesture to his fans. But should he? Is it wise to be kind to Luck, who made nearly $100 million for 94 games of regular-season and playoff football, but then remain blind and deaf to the complaints of fans who helped subsidize those paychecks?

Probably not. Especially at a time when the NFL is marketing itself as a full-blown form of entertainment — the best reality show in town or on television.

Season-ticket holders have contributed funds that helped to pay some fraction of Luck’s golden parachute into retirement. And none of them had any idea they were doing it. Some will be fine with that. Others won’t. That is why you can’t pin one fan’s acceptance that this is part of football onto another who is paying to see the franchise quarterback used so often in marketing pitches.

And make no mistake, Luck is one of those coveted sales tools that franchises dream of finding. A headliner like Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes or Cam Newton. A guy whose mere existence opens and closes ticket purchases for at least a fraction of the fan base. If you don’t believe that, ask yourself this: How many New England Patriots fans would be OK paying top dollar for their season tickets today, only to find out tomorrow that Brady has pulled the plug on his career? Repeat the question for Kansas City Chiefs fans and Mahomes and Carolina Panthers fans and Newton.

The teams with the best quarterbacks – the truly elite guys – are akin to a traveling rock show. And when people pay Bruce Springsteen prices, they expect him to be standing in front of the E Street Band. When he’s not, the value of that entertainment purchase is diminished. Considering Irsay once paid $343,750 for a Les Paul guitar, he probably understands what it means to pay a premium price while expecting a premium product.

And for NFL teams, there is no bigger premium product than a quarterback who is capable of cradling the future of the franchise within his considerable talent. Luck was one of those guys. It doesn’t mean the team can’t still be good without him. But that’s a far bigger question when he’s removed from the equation, a reality that isn’t foreign to this fan base.

Lest anyone forget, there are Colts season-ticket holders in 2019 who lived through that reality in 2017 without Luck. And likely some who also weathered the storm in 2011 without Peyton Manning. That makes three years in the past nine that some people put themselves on the hook for season tickets believing they were buying an experience that included their franchise quarterback only to find out that’s not the product they were getting.

Colts fans seemed to enjoy themselves during a game against Buffalo at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2018. (Getty Images)
Colts fans seemed to enjoy themselves during a game against Buffalo at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2018. (Getty Images)

All of which would be fine, except the Colts are like every other team, marketing a large part of their experience on the crown jewel that so many want to see. And if you don’t believe that, you either have never listened to a sales pitch from a team with a top-five NFL quarterback, or you’ve never seen the materials that come along with that type of purchase. Here’s a hint: They usually accentuate a guy like Luck, whose image was a prominent part of this season’s 100th anniversary package sent to season-ticket holders.

No matter how much you sell NFL tickets as a team game, there’s no getting around the individual quarterback dynamic when it involves a guy like Luck. And that puts the Colts in a spot that is more difficult than the average player retirement.

So what should Irsay do? What does he owe? And how can he extend his generosity to not only Luck, but also the fans who already paid to see him?

That remains to be seen, with the Colts declining to shed any light on whether they’ll be sticking to their standard no-refunds ticket policy in spite of the Luck news. But there are some options that would curry some favor from fans. Whether it’s opening a refund window for those who want to bail on their purchase or offering some breaks on concessions or parking or merchandise, Irsay could give something of value back. At worst, some modest breaks in the game-day wallet or purse would send a message to Colts fans in 2019.

One that shows Irsay recognizes his rock show changed this week. A front man has departed and the premium attached to him went out the door, too. Now the fan base is hurting. And while Luck walked away with a huge financial break, the rest of the Colts audience remains.

What, if anything, does Jim Irsay owe them?

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