A multifaceted sales and marketing effort is being executed amid a front-office reorganization that includes replacing the team's longtime marketing mastermind and adding nine positions to bolster ticket and sponsorship sales.
The offensive is being quarterbacked by former strength and conditioning coach Tom Zupancic, who took over for Ray Compton when Compton left this off-season to form a consulting firm.
The team says its sales and marketing initiative is already putting up big numbers, but today's good news will quickly spoil if the new stadium can't maintain capacity crowds.
"This is a critical time for this franchise on several fronts," said Zupancic, Colts senior vice president of business development.
With 10,370 more seats to fill in the new stadium than in the 55,500-seat RCA Dome-including nearly 2,900 more club seats and 36 more luxury suites-the Colts have shifted into overdrive.
"I think there were people who expected us to sit back now that the new stadium has been approved," said Greg Hylton, Colts director of marketing and ticket sales. "This is the most aggressive summer we've had in terms of sales and marketing. And we're still turning up the heat on this effort."
The red-hot summer has seen seasonticket sales grow from 43,000 last season to more than 48,000 already this season, a 15-year high. Renewals are running above 90 percent, with 99-percent renewal for the Dome's 4,228 club seats.
Single-game tickets go on sale July 30, and Zupancic is optimistic all eight regular-season games and two preseason games will sell out. Hylton predicted a full-season sellout by the season opener Sept. 13.
The RCA Dome's 104 suites are sold, as are all club seats, with growing waiting lists for both. But Colts officials admit those lists are not yet long enough to fill the new stadium.
News on the sponsorship front is also encouraging, with an anticipated doubledigit percentage uptick.
It's a far cry from recent years, when the sales staff was scrambling 72 hours before kickoff to sell out games to avoid local television blackouts.
The Colts, coming off a 12-4 season and third straight playoff appearance, have momentum to build on. The General Assembly's approval of a plan to build a $600 million stadium added fuel to the fire. But making the stadium pay off will require an upfront investment by the franchise.
"The Colts have a huge task in front of them that will take an enormous effort and a lot of money," said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based consulting firm that works with NFL teams and playing venue operators. "Trust me, the Colts have been preparing and building internally for this new stadium for quite some time. I think you're starting to see some of those efforts pay off. But there's much more to do."
Adding marketing muscle
Zupancic, a former iron-pumping gym operator who joined the Colts in 1984, will handle the heavy lifting for the sales and marketing staff. He moved to the front office in 1998 to help sell luxury suites, and progressed through the ranks before being handed this assignment.
Zupancic, his subordinates said, delegates duties the way quarterback Peyton Manning distributes the ball in the Colts' explosive offense. He's also quick to hand off credit for the team's recent financial growth.
"Tom uses a real team approach," said Jay Souers, Colts executive director of sponsorship sales. "He gets everyone involved to get maximum input and output. He also stays involved in a lot of our initiatives personally."
Zupancic and his staff fashioned a new marketing campaign-an extension of the strong man's style-with the tag line "make it personal."
"It's not business as usual here," Zupancic said. "We take every victory, every defeat personally. We want the fan to take it personally, too."
The campaign has fan and sponsor outreach as a primary goal.
"We think this is a way to lead by example," Zupancic said. "If we want fans to make it personal, we have to make it personal with them first."
To that end, the Colts have hired three people whose sole responsibility is serving season-ticket holders. Another staffer was added to coordinate statewide youth initiatives, including football leagues and clinics, with the idea of creating young Colts fans.
The outreach programs are especially important, Souers said, with the new stadium on the horizon and the league pressure to increase revenue.
"As the salary cap continues to increase, there's more pressure on us to sell," Souers said. "That's vital to remain competitive both as a team and a business."
The player salary cap is determined by NFL teams' average revenue. Teams like the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins who have aggressive owners in large markets have driven up average revenue-and the salary cap. Teams that fall behind can't sign the marquee players they need to compete. Small-market teams, Ganis said, are especially in jeopardy of falling behind the curve.
Hitting the road
This off-season, the Colts have taken their "make it personal" tour to more than 20 stops statewide and even branched into parts of Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio.
"Not only is Indianapolis one of the smallest markets, it's also one of the less affluent in the NFL," Ganis said. "They'll have to be very creative and very flexible to work with ticket buyers and corporate sponsors from all corners of the state."
The Colts sponsorship sales staff, Souers said, tailors packages for almost any-size company, at costs ranging from $20,000 to $1-million-plus annually.
Ganis thinks the team's front-office shakeup could be coming at the right time.
"This team needs a different mind-set now," he said. "They're not just dealing with a bigger RCA Dome. This [new stadium] will be a quantum leap, and their job goes well beyond sales. They have to switch into prospecting mode."
The Zupancic-led team has shown a willingness to change.
The Colts recently ended a decades-long practice of using an advertising agency, dropping locally based Roman Brand Group in favor of handling advertising inhouse.
"We feel no one knows our product like we do," Hylton said.
Coordinating their own advertising gives the Colts flexibility to expand efforts and increase staff as they continue to regionalize the team, Zupancic said.
The Colts have also started a statewide fan experience tour, using players, coaches and cheerleaders to attract new fans and sponsors.
The Colts Business Alliance, which was founded in 2002 to rally business support and has more than 450 members, continues to grow. Hylton said the Alliance is now an integral part of the strategy to broaden ticket and sponsorship sales.
"I'm convinced we have one of the most aggressive sales and marketing approaches in the NFL," Zupancic said.
Mark Rosentraub, former dean at IUPUI and author of "Major League Losers," a book about professional sports business operations, agrees. Rosentraub said Zupancic has proven he can carry a heavy load, but wonders if he will be able to carry it for the long haul.
"They've proven they can capitalize on one of the most exciting on-field products in the NFL, and they've been foresighted in working several years out on issues related to the new stadium," Rosentraub said. "But they have to have a transition plan post-Peyton Manning. It remains to be seen if they can maintain the way the [Indiana] Pacers have. If they can't, it will be a long fall down.
"The new stadium is just a tool. It won't be the team's long-term savior alone."