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Sports Business

IU hoops, Colts fight for spot as state's top sports brand

March 22, 2012
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A post like this can only serve to get me in trouble.

Yet with the recent resurgence of Indiana University men’s basketball, the fall of the Indianapolis Colts and the enhanced play of the Indiana Pacers, it begs to be written.

In sports, brand management has become of paramount importance. Any sports marketer will tell you that a strong brand equals big bucks.

You can define brand strength a million ways. I’ll define it like this: If a merchant lined up really cool shirts at the same price for each sports property in a market, which would sell more? Or if fans in that market were offered good, free seats to one game for one franchise (to view the game, not re-sell) which game would they chose?

Brand value in this conversation is NOT any kind of moral judgment.

In a city like Indianapolis, with only so many people and finite disposable income and a seemingly infinite number of sports properties fighting for fans’ attention, it might be more important here than in most places.

These brand values aren’t set in stone. Not only do opinions on them vary, but the values themselves—much like stock prices—ebb and flow as fans’ fancies change. It certainly happens season to season and in some cases seems to happen game to game.

I’m talking about stick-and-ball sports here, so I’m not going to mention the Indianapolis Motors Speedway, Indianapolis 500 or any Indy Car Series teams. That’s not to say that some properties in open-wheel racing don’t have strong brands. That’s simply a different discussion.

For the sake of argument, I’m going to forward two lists. It’s a rough order of where I’d say the brand values of the state’s top teams were in 2000 and where they are now.

2012
Indianapolis Colts
IU men’s basketball
Notre Dame football
Indiana Pacers
Purdue football
Butlermen’s basketball
Purdue men’s basketball
Indianapolis Indians
Purdue women’s basketball
Notre Dame men’s basketball
IU football
Indiana Fever

2000
Indiana Pacers
IU men’s basketball
Notre Dame football
Indianapolis Colts
Purdue football
Purdue men’s basketball
Indianapolis Indians
Purdue women’s basketball
Notre Dame men’s basketball
IU football
Butler men’s basketball
Indiana Fever

OK, take it easy. I would never suggest these are definitive lists. Actually, I’m hoping to generate debate through this blog’s comment section.

Some of these brands are so close, it’s difficult to call which is stronger at a given time. And the fluid nature of the values make it even harder to gauge strength. Just last year I would have had Purdue men’s basketball on par with IU’s. And I never would have considered the Hoosiers basketball brand on par with the Colts. But that all changed in 12 months.

One thing about IU you can’t deny is that the men’s basketball program has followers that stray far outside its alumni base. The same can be said for Notre Dame’s football team. That dramatically increases the values of those teams.

In the 1970s and 1980s it would have been silly to even mention any other Indiana sports brand in the same breath as IU basketball and Notre Dame football. Like I said, a lot changes.

Some brands simply don’t register at all with fans, particularly in central Indiana. That’s why the IU women’s basketball team, for instance, didn’t make the list.

Other teams make spot appearances on the list and then just as suddenly disappear. The Ball State football team leapt onto the scene as Nate Davis led it to 12 straight victories in 2008. Then the Cardinals just as quickly evaporated from sporting fans' consciousness.

Some brands have more potential for upward mobility than others. The IU football program is at the top of that list. If IU Athletic Director Fred Glass can ever find a way to make the Hoosiers football team competitive and exciting to watch, the IU football brand could, I repeat could, rival that of the Colts and Notre Dame football. Let's just say this, a high-octane IU football team would make traveling on State Road 37 unpleasant during Saturdays in the fall.

So you might ask, what about the brands of the people who make sports go? That, too, is an interesting topic. I won’t provide a list of them, but here are a few observations.

In their heyday in this market, Peyton Manning and Reggie Miller were the gold standard for the brand of an individual player. Manning, of course, is still at his pinnacle in terms of brand here, though he may never return to his former self on the field.

Former Colts Coach Tony Dungy has an enduring and strong brand here, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the indelible mark left by former Pacers Coach Slick Leonard. Neither quite measures to the brand strength of Bob Knight of course.

Manning and Knight have come the closest to having bigger individual brands than that of the teams for which they were a part. If you want to throw in one racing reference here, the same could probably be said about A.J. Foyt.

Then there are the team owners. Pacers owner Herb Simon along with his late brother, Mel, may have the most stable sports brand in this market, because they’ve been owners here so long and also because of the consistent, buttoned-down way they’ve conducted themselves.

Colts owner Jim Irsay may have the most tenuous brand value among major sports figures in this town. A lot depends on how things turn out with his franchise and the impact of the changes he’s made. Ever since he took over for his dad, Robert, as Colts owner, this community has been trying to figure him out. That’s probably why his brand value fluctuates more based on the team’s success or failure.

Speaking of fluctuating, no sports figure’s brand value has fluctuated more than Pacers player personnel boss Larry Bird. Honestly, I have no idea why.

As a player, his brand in Indiana and Indianapolis was higher than most—if not all—Pacers players. As a coach, he did nothing to hurt that brand. As a front office executive, he’s taken somewhat of a beating. And even as he’s re-built the team, his brand value seems to waver a bit.

Now I have a feeling my own brand value—which is next to nothing compared to the icons mentioned above—is about to fluctuate one way or another.

I’d be interested in reader perspective on how they view the sports brands in this market.

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