Colts waiting list grows fast: Despite hot ticket sales, team makes big marketing push to ensure new stadium will be sold out

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The Indianapolis Colts in early July will unleash its most aggressive marketing campaign ever-even though demand for tickets, club seats and corporate suites at its RCA Dome home exceeds supply.

The push is all about the future. Billboards around the state will proclaim that those who want to see games in Lucas Oil Stadium when it opens in 2008 “better not wait until the dust settles,” said Tom Zupancic, Colts senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Some radio, television and print ads will follow, but the team is relying more heavily on grassroots programs, including an expanded mobile fan outreach tour featuring players, coaches and cheerleaders.

Through season ticket sales, the Colts already have sold all but a handful of the 55,506 tickets available for games next season, including the 4,532 pricey club seats. But this is no time for complacency.

“People thought once we got the new stadium deal done, we’d just be sitting around on our hands,” Zupancic said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. The sales and marketing staff has never been busier.”

Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based Sportscorp Ltd., a consulting firm that works closely with the league, its teams and owners, said the Colts are now among the NFL league leaders in percentage of tickets sold through season tickets.

Renewal for season tickets from last year was a whopping 94 percent, Zupancic said, also among the highest percentages in the league.

Zupancic said the Colts would have sold more season tickets if not for league requirements that they hold some for visiting teams and its players. The Colts also held a few hundred back to give new fans a chance to sample the product.

This is in stark contrast to three years ago, when the Colts had to scramble to sell tickets game by game. Some games didn’t sell out, forcing a local TV blackout.

Last year, the team’s season-ticket-sales tide started to turn, as sales rose 5,000 to a 15-year high of 48,500. This year, season ticket sales grew to 54,500. In 2003, only 39,000 season tickets were sold.

Season ticket sales are critical for a team, sports marketers said, because marketing and selling single-game tickets can be pricey.

“I’m not really surprised by the progress,” Zupancic said. “We’ve been laying the groundwork and working very aggressively by reaching out to the entire state the last few years.”

The outreach program has boosted ticket sales to people outside the eight-county metropolitan area to 30 percent, said Greg Hylton, Colts director of marketing and ticket sales.

“People outside this market had their doubts that long-term this team could survive here,” said Milt Thompson, president of local sports marketing consultancy Grand Slam Cos. “The Colts have shown they can be very resourceful in marketing this team regionally, but I think they have to continue those efforts-and winning remains the best marketing tool.”

To ramp up for the effort to fill the larger Lucas Oil Stadium, the Colts added nine sales, marketing and customer service staffers last year and three more this year, doubling previous staffing levels. The team also has beefed up its information technology and other support staff. And it has bought a new, larger vehicle for its statewide Make It Personal Tour, and grown that tour from 20 stops last year to 31 this year.

The effort is paying off in big gains. The waiting list for season tickets is 3,900 deep, with an additional 1,000 lined up for club seats, which cost $199 per game. And 60 area companies are waiting for suites. The waiting lists are good news for the Colts since Lucas Oil Stadium has about 8,000 more seats, 2,568 more club seats and 38 more corporate suites than the RCA Dome.

This is the first time in the team’s 23-year Indianapolis history that it has had waiting lists for tickets, club seats and suites simultaneously.

The Colts will need all the marketing smarts they can muster to fill not only the Lucas Oil Stadium seats and suites, but also the added in-stadium sponsorship inventory. Sports marketers said there is $4 million to $8 million more in annual advertising inventory available in the new stadium than in the RCA Dome, including spots on the Jumbotron scoreboard, and wraparound suitelevel videoboard and sponsorships of gates, entries and pavilions.

“You can be marketing-savvy in the RCA Dome, but you have to be significantly more savvy in this new stadium,” Ganis said. “This new stadium is a quantum leap forward.”

The Colts have been able to create strong demand for seats even though they haven’t announced what they’ll cost in the new stadium. Sports marketers say that shows how well the marketing efforts have connected with fans. Often, teams bump up ticket prices 25 percent to 35 percent when they move to a new stadium.

Colts officials said 2008 ticket prices should be set within a month, and season ticket holders will be notified later this summer or early fall about price changes.

Given the strong economy and the state’s affinity for its winning team, Sportscorp’s Ganis doesn’t expect the Colts to have difficulty getting fans to swallow a price increase.

“[Colts owner] Jim Irsay has shown a real commitment to producing a championship team,” Ganis said. “Now that they’re a Super Bowl contender, I think a lot of people will want to be a part of that. Throw in this new state-of-the-art stadium, and I think only a few ticket holders won’t move over to the new venue.”

Colts officials are striving to create an atmosphere in Indianapolis akin to that of Cleveland and Green Bay, where tickets are passed on from generation to generation.

“We want parents to put the tickets in their will to their children,” Zupancic said. “To build that kind of passion, you have to start building that relationship when people are young.”

Team officials are in the midst of negotiating with current suite holders, trying to sign them to new deals ranging in length from six to nine years. The Lucas Oil Stadium suites will cost $40,000 to $275,000 annually. That’s 17 percent more than RCA Dome suites, which range from $34,200 to $235,000 annually. Colts officials expect more than 90 percent of current suite holders to move with them to the $625 million retractable-roof stadium.

Next month, the Colts marketing staff will start working to sell current club seat ticket holders on moving to the new stadium, and later this summer and early in the fall, regular season-ticket holders will be approached.

“Right now, all of our contact with ticket holders and suite owners has been real positive,” Zupancic said. “They’re reaching out to us with their interest almost as much as we’re reaching out to them.”

Zupancic thinks that in six months, there could be a new waiting list-this one for fan and sponsor involvement with Lucas Oil Stadium.

“By the end of this season, we really believe we should have all the suites in Lucas Oil Stadium sold,” Zupancic said. “For the rest, we’ll just have to wait and see. But I’m real optimistic.”

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