Marketing plan takes bad bounce: Owners of local IT firm, ABA pro hoops team get caught in snare of negative publicity

March 14, 2005

Unfortunately, the stories have focused on a series of bizarre events surrounding the team and its owners. The Rhythm's third owner, recording artist Sally Anthony, Bucher's wife, found herself at the center of several of the stories.

Neither Bucher nor Christian returned repeated calls seeking comment for this story. Anthony was also unavailable for comment.

The trio initially made a series of savvy moves, including filling the team roster with top talent just short of making the NBA. The owners also hired former WNBA player and Vanderbilt University star Ashley McElhiney as coach, marking the first time a woman coached a men's professional team at any level.

The Tennessean even reported that the trio bought a $500,000 house, with plans to house the players there and film a reality TV show.

Bucher and Christian saw team ownership "as the coolest form of marketing around," Bucher told IBJ for a story last March. The computer consulting firm ranked as the Indianapolis-area's sixthlargest in IBJ's 2005 Book of Lists. The owners reported growth from 59 full-time employees in 2003 to 142 in 2004.

"It took us five years to become really established in Indiana, and this will allow [the company] to become established much more quickly in sought-after markets," Bucher said.

But it all went bad in late January, when Anthony stormed the court during a game. She reportedly shouted and cursed at McElhiney over a dispute about playing time for forward Matt Freije, a Vanderbilt hoops hero the Rhythm had signed to a two-game contract.

Anthony, who was led off the court by security, fired McElhiney after the game. McElhiney was reinstated by Bucher and Christian.

The Rhythm drew 500 to 1,000 fans per game most of the season at home games at Allen Arena on the Lipscomb University campus. The team even amassed a 21-10 record, qualifying for the playoffs.

But in another bizarre move, Bucher and Christian informed league officials after the season concluded earlier this month that the team would not play in the playoffs.

"[The team] did a beautiful job and this is a solid market for us," said ABA Chairman Joe Newman, an Indianapolis entrepreneur. "But the personal situation took a lot of joy out of it."

Bucher and Christian are attempting to sell the team, Newman said, adding finances have never been an issue with Rhythm ownership. Newman said they pulled out of the playoffs because three of their key players left the team to play overseas.

"It's been the farce of all farces as far as I'm concerned," said Joe Biddle, longtime Tennessean sports columnist. "A lot of their plans never got off the ground and in the end it turned out to be a real joke. There's no question team ownership torpedoed their reputation in this market."

That's bad news for an IT firm looking to enter the burgeoning Nashville market.

"If there's a boomerang effect from what's happened with this team to their other businesses in this market ... it can be real trouble, especially if the media keeps the story going," said David Schumann, University of Tennessee's David J. Taylor professor of business and director of marketing for the school's doctorate program.

The worst thing Bucher and Christian can do is go underground, said Randy Schwoerer, president of Schwoerer & Associates, an Indianapolis-based sports and entertainment marketing consultancy.

"I'm a believer that any press is good press until you start talking about irrational movements," Schwoerer said. "It shows your entire brand is irrational. They have to be proactive, get out in front of this and show people they're not on the skids."

Bucher Christian
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