The ball is now in the court of the Indiana Pacers’ marketing team.
After news broke Wednesday that Lance Stephenson is bolting Indiana for Charlotte, many Pacers fans have one thing on their minds: What are the Pacers doing to improve?
It’s a legitimate question, and it’s up to the sales and marketing staff to craft a message that answers that question.
Love him or hate him, most fans admit Stephenson was a contributor.
The questions fired at the Pacers by their fans this week are especially pointed in the wake of the ad the Pacers began running in mid-June featuring basketball operations boss Larry Bird. In that ad, Bird touts the accomplishments of this past season and promises to do better next season.
Local sports marketer David Morton called the Bird ad “in your face. It says, ‘C’mon, follow me.’”
The fans’ response now: “Where are we going?!”
The Pacers' can't simply give their fans some salary cap mumbo jumbo, and they certainly can't tell them losing Stephenson is just life in the NBA. Fans don't want to hear it.
To be fair, there’s still time for the Pacers to make acquisitions and trades to bolster the lineup. Remember, the Pacers didn’t trade for Luis Scola until July 27 last year. In 2010, Bird waited for all the free agency dust to settle before trading for Darren Collison in the second week of August.
But time is not Pacers sales chief Todd Taylor's friend. Earlier this month, the Pacers began selling 11-game packages.
Next week, Taylor will get his first glimpse of the preliminary 2014-2015 NBA schedule. The league is set to release the schedule to the public during the first week of August, and that’s when Taylor and his staff will throw their sales effort into overdrive.
As of mid-June, Taylor told IBJ, the season-ticket renewal rate for next season was around 93 percent, and season-ticket sales were 15 percent ahead of the same period last season.
But Taylor has tall orders from Pacers owner Herb Simon. After seeing attendance grow from 13,538 during 2010-2011 to 17,501 last season, Simon is pushing to fill the 18,165-seat Bankers Life Fieldhouse for all 41 regular season home games.
Taylor knows if he and his staff are going to reach their ultimate goal next season they can’t afford a slipup. That effort must start now.
“One of the first things we’ll look at are November and December games that will be difficult to sell out,” Taylor told IBJ last month.
Taylor knows the hard-core Pacers fans are already sold. That means the remaining seats will have to be sold to fickle fans, the bandwagon bunch and product samplers. Those are more difficult sales.
If you listen to local sports-talk radio, you know even the hard-core fans were blasting the Pacers on Wednesday for letting Stephenson walk—and more importantly, doing little to improve their roster while several Eastern Conference opponents upgraded. How much more skeptical must those fans be that are already sitting on the fence?
I’m guessing Taylor and his staff are still formulating their plan. He wasn’t available for comment Thursday morning.
Taylor isn’t in the business of guaranteeing wins. The sports sales veteran who came to the Pacers from the Texas Rangers three years ago knows better. But now, he finds himself in a tricky situation. He’d like nothing more than to keep Simon smiling by pushing ticket sales even higher.
But to keep the momentum he’s built over the last two plus years, Taylor has to assure fans Bird and his brain trust have a plan.
He has to convince fans things are going to get better. Even if deep down, in the short term, he’s not sure they will.