The Baltimore Colts relocation to Indianapolis was a successful effort by the then-owner of the Baltimore Colts (Robert Irsay) to move the American football team from Baltimore, Maryland to Indianapolis, Indiana. The team began play as the Indianapolis Colts for the 1984 National Football League (NFL) season. The Colts' move was completely unannounced and occurred in the early hours of March 29, 1984, after years of lobbying for a new stadium to replace the inadequate Memorial Stadium. The franchise's move continues to embitter many Baltimore natives decades afterward, and would have a lasting impact on the NFL, including another controversial relocation twelve years later that resulted in Baltimore receiving its current NFL team, the Ravens.
Although the Colts had been successful since arriving in Baltimore for the 1953 NFL season, Memorial Stadium was claimed to be "inadequate" for both them and Major League Baseball's Baltimore Orioles. In May 1969, the city of Baltimore announced it would seek a "substantial" increase in Memorial Stadium rental fees from Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom and the team itself. Rosenbloom had already called Memorial Stadium "antiquated" and had threatened to move all Colts home games out of the stadium unless improvements were made. Rosenbloom even considered using $12–20 million of his own money to help fund the building of a new football only stadium on land in adjoining Baltimore County. By November 1971, Rosenbloom announced that the Colts would not return to Memorial Stadium when their lease ran out following the 1972 season and that he was not interested in negotiating with the city anymore. He wanted out of Baltimore for a few reasons—team revenue, problems with Baltimore Orioles ownership relating to Memorial Stadium revenues, a running feud with the Baltimore press, and his new wife's desire to move to the West Coast. Real estate investor Will Keland was originally slated to buy the Colts from Rosenbloom. Keland could not generate enough funds necessary to purchase the team, but his golfing buddy Robert Irsay, who originally was only slated to own 1 percent of the team, did possess the necessary funds and moved in to make the purchase. On July 13, 1972, Irsay became owner of the Colts. Under the terms of the arrangement, he bought the Los Angeles Rams for $19 million, then traded them to Rosenbloom for the Colts and $3 million in cash.
In 1971, Baltimore mayor William Donald Schaefer and the state's governor, Marvin Mandel, created a stadium committee to examine the city's stadium needs. Their report was a blow to Memorial Stadium. Some of the problems mentioned: 10,000 of the stadium's seats had views that were "less than desirable"; 20,000 seats were out-dated bench seats that had no back support; 7,000 so called seats were actually poorly constructed temporary bleachers that were installed for football games only. Also, there was not enough office space for the front offices of either the Orioles or Colts, much less both teams combined. Both teams had to share locker rooms, the upper deck of Memorial Stadium did not circle the field, ending instead at the 50-yard line. Any expansion plans for the stadium had usually mentioned less attractive (and less expensive) end-zone seats, not upper deck seating. Lastly, the number of bathroom facilities in Memorial Stadium was deemed inadequate.
Maryland's planners came up with an ambitious project. Nicknamed the Baltodome, the original plan was to create a facility near the city's Inner Harbor known as Camden Yards. The new stadium would host 70,000 fans for football games, 55,000 for baseball, and 20,000 as an arena for hockey or basketball. For an estimated $78 million, the city would build a facility that would have kept all parties happy; Orioles owner Hoffberger, Colts owner Irsay, the Stadium Complex Authority (whose Chairman Edmond Rovner reiterated in 1972 that "A major consideration in Mr. Irsay's trading of franchises was the city's firm commitment to proceed with these plans."), Baltimore Mayor Schaefer, and the state's governor, Marvin Mandel.
But the proposal did not receive support to pass the Maryland legislature, in spite of assurances that contributions from taxpayers would be limited strictly to city and state loans. On February 27, 1974, Maryland's Governor Mandel pulled the plug on the idea. Orioles owner Jerold Hoffberger was blunt: "I will bow to the will of the people. They have told us what they want to tell us. First, they don't want a new park and second, they don't want a club." Robert Irsay was willing to wait. "It's not a matter of saying that there will be no stadium. It's a matter of getting the facts together so everybody is happy when they build the stadium. I'm a patient man. I think the people of Baltimore are going to see those new stadiums in New Orleans and Seattle opening in a year or two around the country, and they are going to realize they need a stadium ... for conventions and other things besides football."
But Hyman Pressman, Baltimore's comptroller, was against using any public funds to build a new stadium. During the 1974 elections, Pressman had an amendment to the city's charter placed on the fall ballot. Known as Question P, the amendment called for declaring "the 33rd Street stadium as a memorial to war veterans and prohibiting use of city funds for construction of any other stadium." The measure passed 56 percent to 44 percent, and the same political motivations that had been used to upgrade the then Baltimore Stadium, originally built in 1922, in the late 1940s and rename it Memorial Stadium, effectively destroyed any chance of a new, modern sports complex being built in Baltimore.
Although the Colts made the playoffs for three straight years from 1975 to 1977, there had still been no progress made on a new park for the team. Robert Irsay first spoke with Phoenix, Arizona in 1976 and then Indianapolis, Indiana in 1977 about the possibility of relocating his team to one of those cities. In 1976, he acknowledged publicly that he had received an "attractive offer" to move the franchise to Phoenix, Arizona. Then, in 1977, he said, "I like Baltimore and want to stay there, but when are we going to find out something about our stadium? I'm getting offers from towns like Indianapolis to build me a new stadium and give me other inducements to move there. I dont want to but I'd like to see some action in Baltimore." In 1979, Hoffberger sold the Orioles to Washington D.C. attorney Edward Bennett Williams, who declared 1980 to be a trial year for the fans of Baltimore. He then went on to explain his concerns with Memorial Stadium, saying it had "inadequate parking and inadequate access and egress. Frankly, I don't know if those problems will ever be solvable at that location." Irsay began shopping the Colts around in earnest, talking first to officials from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission, Memphis, Tennessee, and Jacksonville, Florida where he visited the Gator Bowl packed with 50,000 cheering fans trying to convince him that Jacksonville would be the best home for the Colts. That same year Irsay presented Maryland's Governor Harry Hughes with a request for $25 million in renovation to the 64,124 seat Memorial Stadium. Irsay's request for $25 million in improvements was decreased to $23 million by the Maryland legislature. The plan added more seats (but none of the revenue-generating skyboxes), improving the plumbing and would have given both teams better office space. The plan's approval was contingent on both the Colts and Baltimore Orioles signing long term leases. The Orioles challenged the requested football improvements and refused to sign anything more than a one-year lease. Irsay also refused to sign long term. As a result, the funds and improvements never came.
Under the administration of Mayor Richard Lugar and then continuing with successor William Hudnut, the City of Indianapolis was making a serious effort to reinvent itself into a "Great American City." In 1979, Indianapolis community leaders created the Indiana Sports Corp. in order to attract major sports events to central Indiana. The next year, Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut appointed a committee to study the feasibility of building a new stadium that could serve primarily as a boon to the city's convention business and, secondarily, as a lure for an NFL team.
In 1982, construction on the Hoosier Dome (later renamed the RCA Dome) began. Deputy Mayor David Frick, who would later lead the negotiations with the Colts and then go on to become chairman of the Indiana state commission that would oversee construction of the RCA Dome's replacement, Lucas Oil Stadium, would say that the RCA Dome was a key to changing the city's image. "Sports was an element in our game plan to change the image of the city back in the late 1970s, early 1980s."
In February 1983, after relations between Irsay and the city of Baltimore had deteriorated significantly, Baltimore Mayor Schaefer asked the Maryland General Assembly to approve $15 million for renovation to Memorial Stadium. The legislature did not approve the request until the following spring, after the Colts' lease had expired, and only half of that $15 million would go toward improvements that the Colts were seeking (The other half for the Orioles'). However, Baltimore reportedly did offer Irsay a $15 million loan at 6.5%, a guarantee of at least 43,000 tickets sold per game for six years, and the purchase of the team's Owings Mills training facility for $4 million.
On March 2, 1984 NFL owners voted to give Irsay permission to move his franchise to the city of his choosing. Irsay continued discussions with several cities hungry for an NFL franchise (New York City, Phoenix, Arizona, Indianapolis, Indiana, Birmingham, Alabama, Jacksonville, Florida, and Memphis, Tennessee) eventually narrowing the list of cities to two, Phoenix and Indianapolis. In January 1984, Baltimore's mayor Schaefer stated, "We're not going to build a new stadium. We do not have the bonding capacity. We don't have the voters or taxpayer who can support a $60 million stadium. One-third of the people in Baltimore pay taxes. Unless private enterprise builds it, we won't build it." The Phoenix Metropolitan Sports Foundation, headed by real estate developer Eddie Lynch, along with Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt and other top Arizona officials, had secretly met with Irsay early in January 1984. Preliminary talks seemed promising. Phoenix was offering a below market rate $15 million loan and rent-free use of the 71,000 seat Sun Devil Stadium on the campus of Arizona State University. (Sun Devil Stadium would later serve as the home to the Arizona Cardinals from 1988 to 2005 after the team moved there from St. Louis, Missouri; that team has since moved into University of Phoenix Stadium within that market.) A second meeting was scheduled between Irsay and the Phoenix group. But when word of a second scheduled meeting leaked out and was reported by the media on the Friday before the Super Bowl, Irsay canceled. Meanwhile, Indianapolis and local real estate developer Robert Welch, were lobbying the NFL to bring an expansion team to the city, with Welch as team owner. Welch also had personal discussions with New Orleans Saints owner John Mecom about buying the team and moving it to Indianapolis.
In January 1984, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle announced that expansion had been put on hold. As a result of that announcement, Indiana Pacers' owner Herb Simon contacted Colts officials in order to take negotiations between the club and Indianapolis to the next level. Mayor Hudnut then assigned deputy mayor David Frick to begin secret negotiations with Colts counsel Michael Chernoff. On February 13, Colts representatives came to town to look at the Hoosier Dome construction. Colts owner Robert Irsay visited on February 23. "He [Irsay] was visibly moved," former deputy mayor Dave Frick said commenting on Irsay's reaction to entering the brand new domed stadium. "Emotionally, he was making the move."
Meanwhile, in Baltimore, the Maryland State Legislature became involved in the dispute. On March 27, 1984, the Maryland Senate passed legislation giving the city of Baltimore the right to seize ownership of the Colts by eminent domain, an idea first floated in a memo written by Baltimore mayoral aide Mark Wasserman. Robert Irsay said that his move was "a direct result" of the eminent domain bill. Chernoff would say of the move by the Maryland legislature: "They not only threw down the gauntlet, but they put a gun to his head and cocked it and asked, 'Want to see if it's loaded?' They forced him to make a decision that day."
On March 28, 1984, due to the Maryland Senate's actions, the Phoenix group withdrew its offer. That afternoon, Irsay paid a call to Mayor Hudnut and the city of Indianapolis offered the Colts owner a $12.5 million loan, a $4 million training complex, and the use of the brand new $77.5 million, 57,980 seat Hoosier Dome. Irsay agreed, which set a chain of events into motion that would bring about the move.
After he got off the phone with Irsay, Hudnut called his neighbor and friend, John B. Smith, after the deal was finalized. Smith was the chief executive officer of Mayflower Transit, an Indiana-based moving company, and Hudnut asked him to assist the team in their move. Smith sent fifteen Mayflower trucks to Owings Mills and they arrived at the Colts' facility at around 10 p.m. The reasoning for the late hour of the move was out of fear that the Maryland House of Delegates would also approve the eminent domain bill the State Senate had, which would have resulted in the team being seized the next morning once Maryland Governor Harry Hughes signed the bill into law. Workers loaded all of the team's belongings and the trucks left for Indianapolis. Within eight hours of the Mayflower trucks' arrival in Owings Mills, the Colts were completely gone from Baltimore. Later that day, the House of Delegates indeed passed the bill by a count of 103–19 and Governor Hughes signed it, but by that time it was too late.
All fifteen moving trucks took a different route to Indianapolis from Baltimore, done as a diversion tactic so the Maryland State Police could not delay them until the eminent domain law was signed (which they would have been able to act upon once it took effect to force the Colts back to Baltimore). Once a truck got to Indiana, the Indiana State Police would meet it and escort it to Indianapolis—a process repeated until all fifteen vans had reached the destination. Indianapolis Mayor Hudnut held a press conference March 29 to announce the agreement. The deal was sealed March 30 with approval by the Capital Improvement Board, which operated the Hoosier Dome. Two days later, 20,000 new Colts fans cheered as Mayor Hudnut proclaimed March 29, 1984, "one of the greatest days in the history of this city." Baltimore's Mayor Schaefer appeared on the front page of the Baltimore Sun in tears. After the Colts left, and in spite of his earlier stance that the city of Baltimore would not build a new stadium, he placed the building of a new stadium at the top of his legislative agenda.
Later John Moag, Jr., chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, stated in sworn testimony before the U.S. Senate subcommittee responsible for the Fan Freedom and Community Protection Act: "It was the failure of our local (Baltimore) and state elected officials in Maryland to provide the Colts with a firm proposal for a new stadium that led Mr. Irsay to accept an offer from Indianapolis to play in a new dome in that city."
Not only were Baltimore Colts' fans heartbroken about losing their team, but they also lost the team name. (The Colts were named in honor of the city's Preakness Stakes and Maryland horse farmers.) In elections that year, city voters repealed Question P by a measure of 62 percent to 38 percent. However, the amendment's author (Hyman Pressman) remained as an elected City Comptroller for 28 years (seven terms in a row) until retiring in 1991. The team's move triggered a flurry of legal activity, which ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court and bills were filed in both the U.S. House and Senate seeking to block the move. In December 1985, a U.S. District Court judge threw out the lawsuit which sought to return the team to Maryland, though the city of Baltimore was allowed to keep the Vince Lombardi Trophy that the Colts won in Super Bowl V.
The United States Football League reacted promptly to the move. The league's 1984 champions, the Philadelphia Stars, relocated to Baltimore for the 1985 season to capitalize on the departure of the Colts. Unfortunately for the Stars, the Colts, despite abandoning Memorial Stadium, were still able to block the Stars from using it, forcing the team to move to the University of Maryland's Byrd Stadium, much closer to Washington, D.C and over 30 miles south of Baltimore. The rechristened "Baltimore Stars" won the 1985 championship as well. Had the USFL played its proposed fall season in 1986, Baltimore, by virtue of not being up against an NFL team in its market, would have been a part of it, but the league suspended operations and ultimately folded before the season could take place.
Representatives of Baltimore and the Colts organization reached a settlement in March 1986 in which all lawsuits regarding the relocation were dismissed, and the Colts would endorse a new NFL team for Baltimore.
Ironically, the move would have a highly positive effect, stadium-wise, on the city's remaining major-league team. Stung by the loss of the Colts, city and state officials redoubled efforts to ensure that the Baltimore Orioles remained in town; with no NFL team to share with, the Orioles chose to erect a facility designed specifically for baseball, and when Oriole Park at Camden Yards, near where the abandoned Baltodome project would have been built, opened in 1992, it was a smashing success which revolutionized stadium design, its "retro" look being at least somewhat emulated by every new MLB facility for the next twenty years.
One aspect that would remain in Baltimore would be the Baltimore Colts Marching Band. According to an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary called The Band That Wouldn't Die, directed by Baltimore native Barry Levinson, band leaders got advance warning that the team was being moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis overnight and were able to remove their equipment from team headquarters before the moving vans arrived. At the time of the move, the band's uniforms were being dry-cleaned. Band President John Ziemann contacted the owner of the dry cleaners, who was sympathetic, told Ziemann where the uniforms were and offered to let Ziemann take the company van "for a walk". Ziemann and some associates then hid the uniforms in a nearby cemetery until the wife of then-Colts owner Robert Irsay said they could keep them. From 1984 until the NFL returned to Baltimore in 1996, the band stayed together, playing at football halftime shows and marching in parades, eventually becoming well known as "Baltimore's Pro-Football Musical Ambassadors". The band remained an all-volunteer band as it is today and supported itself. At one point, John Ziemann pawned his wife's wedding ring for the money to buy new equipment.
Colts Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas, who had settled with his family in Baltimore after his playing career was over, was angered by the move to Indianapolis and cut all ties with the team. Unitas aligned himself with the Ravens when they moved to Baltimore, and a statue of him was placed outside of M&T Bank Stadium.
When the Canadian Football League decided to expand into the United States in the mid-1990s, Baltimore was viewed as a natural selection for an American CFL team, both because the city was much larger closer to Canada than the other expansion teams' markets, but also on account of the city's lingering bitterness toward the NFL. The Baltimore Stallions were originally named the Baltimore CFL Colts, but an injunction by the NFL compelled the name change to Stallions. Even after the name change, the team continued to use the logo and colours that had originally been designed for the "CFL Colts." After winning a division championship in its first year and then winning the Grey Cup the next, the team disbanded after the NFL's return to Baltimore became inevitable. The Stallions' ownership and front office staff subsequently established a "new" CFL team in the Canadian city of Montreal, where they were able to re-sign much of the Stallions' roster. The CFL subsequently recognized the "new" Montreal Alouettes to be a resumption of the previous Alouettes franchise that had ceased operations in 1987 and not a continuation of the Baltimore Stallions.
Ironically, the NFL would return to Baltimore in a very similar manner to the way in which it left. On November 6, 1995, Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell announced his intention to move the Browns to Baltimore for the 1996 NFL season. Like most other sports teams relocations including that of the Colts, Modell had intended on keeping the Browns name, colors, history, trophies, archives, and other artifacts with him to Baltimore for the rechristened Baltimore Browns. Like the Colts' move, the Browns' relocation led to lawsuits by the City of Cleveland. At the same time, a number of Baltimore football fans balked at Modell's intention to rechristen his team as the "Baltimore Browns." As badly as they wanted to see the NFL return, they were uneasy at the prospect of taking Cleveland's football history in a manner that seemed similar to how they believed Irsay had taken the Colts' legacy with him to Indianapolis.
Eventually, Modell agreed to a settlement that granted him an "expansion" franchise in Baltimore that in turn would assume the then-current contracts of Cleveland Browns players and personnel. However, he was required to leave the Browns' name, colors, history, records, trophies, awards and archives in Cleveland. However, no owner was ready to start a new football organization on such short notice, and Cleveland Stadium had been ruled out even for temporary use until a new stadium could be built. Without a viable owner or facility available in Cleveland, the league agreed to allow the Browns to officially suspend operations until the 1999 NFL season. That season, the Browns resumed operations complete with an established name, colors, history, records, trophies, awards, and archives. For all intents and purposes, however, they were an expansion team with a roster stocked primarily via an expansion draft similar to every other North American professional sports team established in the modern era. The last NFL team to completely suspend operations temporarily, coincidentally, was also a Cleveland team at the time: the Rams, who suspended operations for one year in 1943 because of World War II, moved to Los Angeles in 1946.
Modell's "expansion" franchise in Baltimore would subsequently become the Baltimore Ravens, and would later adopt the Colts Marching Band, which in 1998, when the team, which had played its first two seasons at Memorial Stadium, moved into a new stadium at Camden Yards, was renamed Baltimore's Marching Ravens.
The Colts' final game in Baltimore was played on December 18, 1983 against the Houston Oilers. The Colts won 20–10. Thirteen years later the Oilers would play their final game before moving to Tennessee against the Baltimore Ravens at Memorial Stadium (the Tennessee Titans are currently one of the Colts' division rivals). The Colts would not play another game in Baltimore until 1998. Since then, the Colts have played in Baltimore several more times during the regular season (most recently in 2012). The teams have had three playoff match-ups, playing two in Baltimore (2006 and 2012), and one in Indianapolis (2009). The Colts won the 2006 game en route to their first Super Bowl win since moving to Indianapolis. The Colts also won the 2009 game but lost the 2012 game, in what was Ray Lewis' last home game. The current rivalry between the two teams is in favor of the Colts (who lead the series nine wins to three). In each game that Indianapolis has played in Baltimore the scoreboard has listed only the city, Indy, never acknowledging the team's name, Colts.
Punter Rohn Stark was the last active NFL player who played for the Colts while in Baltimore, retiring after the 1997 NFL season. Stark is also the only player to play for the Baltimore Colts and against the Baltimore Ravens (no player ever played for both the Baltimore Colts and Baltimore Ravens). Ted Marchibroda is the only person to coach the Baltimore Colts, Baltimore Ravens, and the Indianapolis Colts.
Since the formation of the Ravens, both teams have won the Super Bowl. The Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV and Super Bowl XLVII, while the Colts won Super Bowl XLI and played in Super Bowl XLIV. As of the 2015 NFL season, the Colts have now played in Indianapolis longer than Baltimore.