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.

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

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.

  • Huh?
    I have to say it. There is no greater brand than IU Basketball. To even suggest anything is even close is wrong. I love the Colts but alot of that is people are football fans or Peyton fans. IU fans are there for the team. They may have been hidden for a few years but they are there waiting to return. Notre Dame is there as well, but not as big in Indiana. As for Purdue, I'm sorry but they are not at the level of IU interest. Perhaps because they do not have the state in their name, or that they have NEVER won a national championship. IU Basketball is tops has been and will be. Everyone else is trying for 2nd place.
  • No Contest
    IU has and always will be. The fan base is expansive and loyal. The others are only runners-up. The top slots belong to the collegiate level sports. The "pros" all to quickly let the $$ go to their heads as better than everyone else. There are exceptions of course as mentioned, Slick Leonard, Reggie and Peyton, but most of the other pros just fall short of the right stuff.
    This comment is worth what you paid.
  • NFL
    You are leaving out a big factor: Local TV ratings. I would dare say the Colts, even in the '90s, drew higher ratings for most games than IU or other local sports teams. It is NFL football, and even though we love IU and Purdue, the NFL is simply the more popular sport to watch. When I am in Europe, people ask me about the Colts, not IU or Purdue. I know a lot of us Hoosier faithful don't want to hear it, and there may be temporary irregularities, but over the long term our state's NFL team will be the top brand.
  • Notre dame
    I think there was a time when back in the 1970s ND football probably rivaled IU basketball. But I've always felt IU football could be absolutely huge if they could just be competing for Big Ten titles once in a while. And if IU's women's basketball program could have the success that Purdue's does they'd have a tremendous following.
  • My how things change
    It's interesting how things have changed in Indianapolis. A few decades ago the major brands were all college teams with a sprinkling of pro and college teams from outside the state being the biggest here. Back in the 1970s, the Reds were almost as big a brand here as IU basketball and the Chicago Bears weren't far off. It's good to see this city grow to the point where it has it's own franchises to cheer and support. And in return the economic impact for those teams resides here, not in Cincy or Chicago.
  • Dungy
    I know Slick is a gentleman and great sports figure in Indy, but I would disagree with the statement that Tony Dungy's presence "doesn't hold a candle" to Slick's "indelible marks." The things Mr. Dungy did in our community AND CONTINUES to do are difficult to match. As an aside, winning a Super Bowl for Indiana has been the pinnacle of sport achievements for our community. No other celebration, no other cathartic moment has matched that night in 2007 (Mr. Schoettle, were you in town at the time?).
    Thank you.
  • Thanks for asking
    Jeff, Thanks for asking. I was born in Indianapolis in 1966, attended my first Pacers game in 1971, my first Indy 500 in 1972 and my first Colts game in 1984. I have worked at IBJ since 1998. That aside, I'm talking about the level or value that person is as a brand. And I think it's difficult to argue that with Slick Leonard's long-time association with this city and the Pacers, which has continued in his TV and radio broadcasts years after he departed as coach, not to mention as a local pitch man, that his brand (his level of recognition)isn't a step higher than Tony Dungy's. I'm not trying to diminish at all who Tony Dungy is, what he has accomplished or what he does for this city. I do, however, think it's pretty clear that Slick Leonard is a more well-known and well-understood brand and his name resonates more within the confines of Indianapolis and its citizens. Thanks for reading.
    • Women's bball must be lower
      Anthony, While succes on the field or court is important, tickets sold and revenue has to be paramount and by that token no way is Purdue women's basketball anywhere near IU Football.As bad as IU football has been it still brings in far more money to IU athletics than even IU basketball and averaged 40,000 in attendance. That would reasonably lead to more sales of IU football "stuff" than any women's bball team. When you look at those numbers it kind of looks silly to rate the IU Football brand lower than Purdue Women's Bball.
    • Sorry
      Wow, Anthony, I disagree. Maybe if you were an ABA fan back in the 60s/70s, and an ardent Pacer follower today this would be true. But Tony Dungy transcends his sport, and is recognized by people who don't even follow sports (just ask down at Riley). Again, with all due respect to Slick Leonard. And I WAS an ABA fan back then! And you are saying he doesn't even hold a candle..?
    • Really??
      Anthony, just curious to know if you, as a journalist, have taken ANY time to do research on the topic? By almost any measure the Colts/NFL are FAR AHEAD of any other sports brand in Indiana. IU hoops had a nice run this year and have a loyal following. However look at TV ratings, tickets sold, revenue generated, even apparel sold over the past 10 years, local AND national attention given, etc. The Colts/NFL are FAR AND AWAY the leader, are a year round sports brand--upcoming draft with Colts having the #1 overall selection, mini-camps, summer camps, training camp, fantasy football, regular season, all the national TV games (almost every Sunday night NFL game has ratings HIGHER than the NBA Finals), regular season, playoffs, Super Bowl, combine, and it continues into the next cycle. I think there are better measures than yours defined in your blog (such as the things I listed above) but I will stick with yours briefly. Lining up "really cool shirts" (throughout the year) or just while IU is in the tournament and Colts are out of season? Do you REALLY think if you offered good free seats to IU vs team X or Colts vs NFL team Y people would not OVERWHELMINGLY choose Colts? There is a reason the Colts can get the prices for good seats they get--value. Remember Colts fans are IU fans, Purdue fans, ND fans,etc. College sports are awesome for reasons that go back to the school more than the sport but as a sports brand to suggest they somehow come close to the popularity of the Colts/NFL is a huge stretch--REALLY!
    • Colts fans go in hiding
      Wait another year when the Colts go 2-14 and watch the colts fans disappear. Indy fans disappear like no other fan base when there teams are losing.
      • Colts
        Actually Charile, if the Colts go 2-14 again that probably means they will have the rights to the 1st round pick....They can get a kings randsom from some desperate team like the Rams did this year for the first round pick. If they drafted the right players, that could set this team up for years to come........
      • Colts
        This may sound twisted, but I think change is healthy and I am actually glad the Colts are making so many changes. And 2-14 may have been a healthy thing. It was time. The team was not a serious Super Bowl contender and it wasn't getting younger. Looking forward to the re-build around Luck or RG3.

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