The Indiana Pacers this month launched a six-figure advertising campaign—their biggest by far this season—featuring Larry Bird, coach Frank Vogel and a host of players at an unusual time.
Not that the team, which has won 11 of its past 12 games and is in third place in the Eastern Conference of the National Basketball Association, doesn’t have a lot to trumpet.
“Normally, teams launch their big ad campaigns in the preseason or at the beginning of the season when they have the most inventory to sell for that particular year,” said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports business consultant who counts several NBA teams as clients.
But this lockout-shortened season is anything but normal, and Pacers officials say they simply didn’t have time in the preseason to initiate such a campaign.
NBA teams were unable to contact players during the lockout, much less use them in ad campaigns, and once the shortened training camp and preseason started, the Pacers didn’t have their current roster intact.
Pacers officials didn’t start their marketing push in February because they didn’t want it to “get lost” in the Super Bowl hubbub.
“A lot of teams wouldn’t launch a big ad campaign at the end of the season, but we see this as the beginning,” said Todd Taylor, Pacers senior vice president and chief sales officer. “We believe we are at the beginning of a great time in Pacers history, and we think this is the time to invest. We’re using this campaign to launch into the playoffs and as a springboard to next season, as well.”
The Pacers have already clinched a playoff berth that will include a home-court advantage in the first round.
Though Taylor wouldn’t specify how much the Pacers were spending on the campaign, he said it was “well north” of $100,000.
In February and March as the team gelled on the court, Pacers marketing officials began working with local marketing and communications firm MediaSauce to formulate an ad campaign that would hype the team and boost attendance.
Despite a 41-22 record, the Pacers’ average attendance is 13,937 per game through 30 home games, 29th best in the 30-team NBA.
The initial ads featured Bird, the team’s president of basketball operations, saying “We still have something to prove, and I kind of like it that way. See for yourselves. Come out and watch these guys play.”
Two new TV ads came out this week featuring players including Danny Granger, George Hill, Tyler Hansbrough and David West. One ad has Vogel, stating “In 49 states, it’s just basketball,” and Bird, who is seated next to him states “but this is Indiana.”
Pacers officials will unveil at least two new ads heading into the playoffs at the end of this month.
The TV spots, which air on Fox Sports, ESPN and WTHR-TV Channel 13, aren’t the only high-profile element of the campaign. The advertising onslaught includes Internet, radio and print ads in addition to 46 billboards and 20 downtown newspaper and magazine stands.
“We are using all the elements [we would normally use in a longer early-season campaign] in a very short window to make a big impact, fast and furious.” Taylor said.
Most of the advertising is focused in Marion and the doughnut counties, but Taylor hopes the Internet and billboard ads catch the eye of people in outlying cities like Terre Haute and Muncie.
“We want to be a statewide team,” he said.
While Bird is a focal point in many of the ads, Pacers officials also hope the campaign educates locals about players—including newer acquisitions such as Lou Amundson and Leandro Barbosa.
“We wanted to feature Larry because to many people he is the best known person in the Pacers organization and he was such a big part of turning this team around,” Taylor said. “From a credibility standpoint it made sense to have him involved.”
The occasionally media-shy Bird didn’t hesitate to take part in the ad campaign.
“He totally got what we were trying to do, and he was happy to be a part of it,” Taylor said.
Pacers officials said it was equally important to get players involved.
“We wanted to connect the players with the community,” Taylor said. “A lot of people here don’t know our players, they don’t know the quality of their character and they don’t know how good they can be. Some people are dealing with outdated perceptions.”
The print and billboard campaign pairs a picture of a player along with a word that describes them. West, for instance, is pictured with the word ‘power.’ Roy Hibbert is paired with the word ‘heart,’ Hansbrough with ‘relentless,’ and Indianapolis native Hill with ‘determined.’
One innovative part of the campaign utilizes digital billboards along area highways, including several in Hamilton County. MediaSauce and Pacers officials came up with the idea of using the sites to inform fans of upcoming games and special promotions, then posting game results the following day. A link also directs people to game highlights at Pacers.com.
“We don’t get a lot of attention from the national media,” Taylor said. “We know they’re focused on the marquee teams and players, so we want to keep our fans updated and keep the team in the spotlight here.”
Some of the ads also counteract the negative misperceptions about the team forwarded by national media outlets, including the perception that Pacers fans are not rabid, Taylor said.
The Pacers are coupling the ad campaign with special offers for playoff tickets. Season ticket-holders who renew now for next year are essentially being offered a two-for-one deal for the first round of the playoffs. For example, if they normally pay $150 for two seats, they can get four seats for the first round playoff games in the same area for $150.
So far, more than 70 percent of season ticketholders have taken advantage of the deal, Taylor said. New season ticket buyers for next season are also being offered discounted playoff tickets.
“Sell outs for all the first-round games, that’s our stated mission,” Taylor said. “We feel momentum will build from there.”