By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- Lucas Oil Stadium is about to open up a new world for the Colts and the city of Indianapolis.
There's the retractable roof, the giant sliding window in the north end zone and an economic package owner Jim Irsay believes will keep his team competitive for decades to come.
To the Colts, the brick building with blue seats represents more than a new home. It's a lifeline to the future.
"This was never about becoming the L.A. Colts, and nothing like that was ever even suggested in negotiations," Irsay told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "This was about not becoming the Florida Marlins, not becoming a team that couldn't compete. People don't know how close that really was."
By his own estimate, Irsay believes he has spent about $130 million out of pocket on players and staff since replacing his late father, Robert, as owner in January 1997. He sunk another $100 million into the $720 million stadium project, bringing his total debt to $230 million.
Irsay is now banking on Lucas Oil Stadium, which hosts its first regular-season NFL game Sunday night, to change things.
For nearly a quarter-century, the Colts have played in one of the league's smallest markets and what had become the NFL's smallest stadium. It took years to craft a deal with the city, in part, because Irsay now acknowledges some early market studies did not show the Colts could generate enough revenue in a new stadium.
But when the team emerged as a perennial Super Bowl contender during this decade, the attitudes of fans and the city stance started to change.
In December 2004, the two sides reached a deal to build a new facility with more seats, suites and amenities in return for a 30-year lease that would keep the Colts in Indy. By all accounts, it's been worth the wait.
Designers took ideas from other new stadiums that were built, then added their own special touches to create a venue that has drawn looks of awe from players and coaches.
"You can see the difference from what you came from, to what you're going into, and it's a great feeling," coach Tony Dungy said after the team's first practice there with the roof open. "There wasn't anything that you saw that you said, 'Boy, I wish they had done this better' or 'they could have done that.' It's just a well-done place, and I think it's going to be a great home for us."
For that price, they should have something for everyone.
Players will dress in larger locker rooms, fans are treated to a fair-like atmosphere at the front entrance and there are field level suites just yards from the back of the south end zone. There are immense HD television screens in the upper level corners of both end zones, and there are two giant video games that give fans a chance to run the one-minute drill.
Yet the crowning achievement is the sliding window that serves as a real-life billboard for the city. No other NFL stadium has anything like it.
When the roof and window are both open, the stadium has a genuine outdoor feel with wind blowing through. The only downside is that the field does not have a crown, meaning if there's even a threat of rain, the roof will remain closed.
What players like most, however, is a friendlier environment for fans.
"They are close to us," said Bob Sanders, last season's defensive player of the year. "I thought they would be much farther away, but they are right behind our benches. That's definitely exciting because they can experience it with us."
It's a far cry from the team's previous home across the street.
The RCA Dome was built for an unknown, future occupant in the early '80s, and lured the Colts away from Baltimore in 1984 when that city refused to build a new stadium and then threatened to take the team from Irsay's father through eminent domain.
Things never got that bitter in Indy, which always viewed the stadium as more than just a home for the Colts.
"It's a big-time multipurpose facility," Irsay said. "That's what people have to realize. Even though I put $100 million into it, it's the people's stadium."
Indianapolis is already starting to reap the benefits.
The first two games played there, a high school doubleheader sponsored by Peyton Manning's charitable foundation, drew nearly 35,000 fans. All 63,000 seats were filled for the Colts' first home preseason game Aug. 24, and the city also has an unprecedented contract to hold the NCAA's Final Four there an average of once every five years through 2039. In fact, the NCAA helped design it.
Plus, Indy has won the 2012 Super Bowl. City officials believe that event will create $400 million in economic benefits and make the city a more attractive place for convention planners and businesses.
And fans have rushed to the stadium to get a look. Those who haven't already seen it can tour the stadium next month for $7.
But, in the players' minds, the real grand opening comes Sunday night when they face Chicago, the same team they beat in the Super Bowl.
"This is our first game, really, at home," defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "I know we played there in the preseason, but this is really our first game at home and it's going to be an electric atmosphere."
Irsay prefers taking a broader view of what the stadium will bring.
He sees the stadium as an opportunity for the community to expand, a better environment for the players and the fans. He also believes it will help keep one of the NFL's most successful franchise since 1999 on top of the NFL world -- and he can't put a monetary value on that.
"When you have $230 million in debt, I'd say we'd be lucky if the Colts were out of debt in 25 years or so," he said. "But I think we have the perfect story here because we have great management and the way we're able to market, and all of that will keep us competitive."