Almost a year removed from the infamous brawl in Detroit, the Indiana Pacers are ready to put their best foot forward. And they're getting a hand-or more like a foot in the backside-from NBA Commissioner David Stern.
Stern on Sept. 28 handed down new league dress code and conduct rules aimed at brightening the image of players and making them more accessible to fans, community groups and media outlets.
The rules-which require players to wear sport coats, collared shirts and slacks before and after games and at public appearances-have been largely supported by the NBA Players Association.
When a reporter at a Boston gathering last month pointed out that many of the league's most respected players like to dress casually, Stern shot back: "Well, the job description has changed."
"The job is representing the NBA to all constituencies," he said. "Community relations. Public relations. Sponsor relations."
Sports marketers said an influx of young players on rosters across the league, including the Pacers', forced Stern's hand. After the November brawl, several Pacers were suspended, including Ron Artest, who was lost for the season.
"The Pacers have some very young players, and with Ron Artest specifically, I think they have to be concerned," said Dean Bonham, president of The Bonham Group, a Denver-based sports marketing consultancy. "Any missteps in behavior in the wake of what happened last season would be disastrous in terms of the team's fan and sponsor relationships.
"And when you're talking about a team's relationships with its fans and sponsors, you're virtually talking about every revenue stream, because those two constituencies affect your broadcast contract."
The retirement of Pacers all-star Reggie Miller, seen by many in the league as the consummate professional, also casts uncertainty over the team's image this year.
Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh said he supports Stern's initiative and already has discussed professionalism with Pacers players.
"I think it's good for people to hear this," Walsh said. "It's true, we have some very young players in the league and on our team, but I think for the most part the ones on our team understand that when they're interacting with fans or sponsors, they need to do it at the highest level of professionalism."
Walsh said the team is ready "to move on" from the fracas that erupted last November when Artest and several other Pacers jumped into the stands to fight with fans.
Artest is one of four featured players in the team's advertising campaign leading up to tip-off next month. The tag line of the Pacers' marketing campaign is "United," though two sources close to the team wonder if it will prove accurate.
Artest, for instance, showed up to the team's media day last month donning Tru Warier apparel, the name of his record label. He was quoted in The Indianapolis Star as saying, "I always go my own way," which rankled team brass, the sources said. Artest also said he would be loyal to the team and promised to act more professionally.
"I don't know if you can trust what Ron Artest says anymore," said Ernie Reno, president of Avatar Communications, a locally based marketing and public relations firm. "I think his behavior has put a black mark on this franchise, and that's a problem from a marketing perspective."
Artest, who is lauded as one of the top 10 players in the NBA, makes $5 million per season, a fraction of what other toptier players make. The salary discrepancy would make him difficult to trade, since the Pacers would be hard-pressed to get a player of his caliber in return without exceeding the salary cap.
Bonham, former Denver Nuggets president, said that if he were in Walsh's shoes, he'd unload him anyway.
"Supporting a player is one thing, but when his unprofessional behavior starts eroding your brand equity, that's another thing," Bonham said.
Walsh said so far he is pleased with where the team stands. Season-ticket renewals are running near 80 percent, about where they were a year ago. Sponsorship sales, he said, are also strong. With the return of Artest and the addition of several players, including European star Sarunas Jasikevicius, the Pacers appear poised to make a run at the NBA title.
"Last year, in difficult times, our fan support was tremendous," Walsh said. "This year, I hope, we can repay that support."