It’s been a long time since the Indiana Pacers played a game with significant intrigue in mid-February.
And though the Pacers dropped their Feb. 15 home game against the Miami Heat before a sold-out crowd, fan interest appears to be on the rise for the blue and gold.
Much of the credit for the team’s recent upswing—on the court and with fans—is going to the team’s new head coach, Frank Vogel.
The Pacers won seven of their first 10 games under Vogel and find themselves back in the playoff hunt. Television ratings for the team’s games are up, as are inquiries about tickets—for both this year and next, according to team officials.
All that success puts the Pacers in a tricky position. It would seem natural that the Pacers would want to market their hottest commodity. But Vogel is only the interim head coach, and his future with the team is uncertain.
“If your coach has an interim tag, I don’t see how you can use him in advertising and marketing initiatives,” said David Morton, president of Sunrise Sports Group, a local sports marketing firm. “A team can’t peg its marketing and the team’s future on a guy who has such an uncertain future.”
For the Pacers’ marketing staff, it’s business as usual—at least for now. Larry Mago, Pacers senior vice president of marketing, said there are no plans yet to amp up the team’s ad campaign, and the emphasis of its current campaign will remain on the team and players first, with the coach remaining in the background.
On Jan. 30, Vogel replaced Jim O’Brien, who was fired midway through his fourth season with the team. A 17-27 start this year had led to fan malaise. But many fans entering the Feb. 15 game were buzzing about the resurgence led by Vogel, who, at 37, is the National Basketball Association’s youngest coach.
According to New York-based Nielsen Media Research, TV ratings for the Feb. 15 game on Fox Sports made it the most watched Pacers telecast since a game four years ago that aired on ESPN.
The ratings for Pacers televised games were 2.1 during the O’Brien era this year, and have climbed to 2.7 during the first eight games of the Vogel era.
Ticket sales remain a challenge, with the team averaging just under 14,000 per game, 28th in the 30-team league. But Pacers officials are hopeful that improving television ratings will lead to increased ticket sales.
“Television is your first indicator of interest,” Mago said. “We think these [TV] numbers are a very good sign.”
The team’s improved play comes at an opportune time. The Pacers just this month started the season-ticket renewal campaign for next season.
During a gathering at Conseco Fieldhouse for season-ticket holders on Feb. 13, the line to meet Vogel was lengthy and non-stop for the duration of the evening.
“There’s no question he’s made a connection with our fans in the short time he’s been head coach,” said Pacers Sports & Entertainment President Jim Morris. “He’s becoming an important face of the franchise.”
Vogel has several things working for him, sports marketers said. He’s young, energetic and has the looks of someone who just walked off the set of the movie Hoosiers, and, Morris said, a work ethic players and fans respond to. His upbeat personality is a marked difference from the often dour O’Brien.
Vogel will remain the head coach on an interim basis until the end of the season, when his future will be evaluated, said Larry Bird, Pacers basketball operations chief.
“If [Vogel] does a good job, he’ll be our first interview,” Bird said.•