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When The Lights Go Down: The city skyline and canal, part of a refurbished downtown that now keeps office workers from heading to the suburbs right at 5 p.m.

Indianapolis has been auditioning for the Super Bowl for a long time. Now this lively, walkable Midwestern city is ready for the spotlight — cold and all.

A few years ago, city leaders in Indianapolis were looking over a bundle of forms from the National Football League. It was a request for bids to host Super Bowl XLVI, and the stakes were high: If they answered the questionnaire correctly, the city might win a chance to put on the biggest show in American sport — and bask in the warm spotlight of the nation’s highest-rated media extravaganza.
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Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art
Will Van Overbeek/National Geographic Society/Corbis

Mark Miles, then president of the committee handling the Indianapolis bid, liked their chances. Seats? Lucas Oil Stadium, completed downtown in 2008 at a cost of more than $700 million, was a state-of-the-art, retractable-roof showplace with nearly 140 luxe corporate suites. Event space? A planned $275 million expansion of the Indiana Convention Center, connected to the stadium, would put more than half a million square feet under a roof — perfect for banquets, parties and the league’s signature NFL Experience attraction. Accommodations? The city had close to 6,000 downtown hotel rooms, and the ink was drying on a deal to build a soaring, 1,000-room JW Marriott hotel just a few blocks from the stadium. Travel? The brand-new Indianapolis International Airport, with nonstop service to 34 destinations, had opened operations to rave reviews.

Everything, it seemed, was in place. Then Miles and company flipped to the page labeled “Championship Golf Courses.” Pause. Central Indiana has lots of nice golf courses — several by renowned course designer Pete Dye. Indianapolis is a great place to golf — from May to October. But the Super Bowl is in February, when the average high temperature is 40 degrees. The committee members looked around at one another. “How do we answer that?” Miles wondered. With a proverbial shrug of the shoulders, they dutifully listed each of the region’s top-tier championship­ golf courses. Then, beside each course, in the space marked “price,” they wrote “free of charge.”

“We thought that was pretty funny,” Miles says.
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Baby, It’s Cold Outside: But it’s cozy inside. Lucas Oil Stadium provides an indoor Super Bowl experience.
Courtesy Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association

Although the Indianapolis Super Bowl Committee was working on behalf of a ­climate-challenged city in a small media market in the middle of Middle America, they were still confident — glib, even. For one, they had precedent on their side. Detroit — even more miserable in February than Indianapolis, in terms of the weather — had won the big prize in 1982 and again more recently in 2006. And games given to Houston and Phoenix suggested that NFL owners were willing to make good on a kind of unspoken, gentleman’s understanding: Cities that ponied up public funds for pro football stadiums would be richly rewarded. In fact, Indianapolis’ bid for the 2011 game, seen as a strong dark-horse contender the year before, likely fell short only because an even more lavish sporting palace in Arlington, Texas, stole the show.

But Indianapolis had more than NFL history on its side. While it might have been a surprise to everyone else when the NFL announced that Indianapolis would host Super Bowl XLVI (Indianapo-where?), city boosters couldn’t help but think it was about time. The fact is, Indianapolis has been auditioning for this main-stage role for a very long time. “This has been at least two decades in the making, and we’ve added $3 billion in new tourism products in the past three years,” says Morgan Greenlee of the Indi­anapolis Convention & Visitors Association. “We’re built to host sporting events of this size.” And she’s not the only Indy booster betting that, after Feb. 5, this clean, attract­ive and surprisingly fun — yes, fun — little city, something of a hidden gem until now, will be a secret no longer.