The fact that Pacers Sports and Entertainment has tapped Jim Morris as special adviser shows how daunting the franchise's
challenges have become, marketing experts say.
They say the team's problems on and off the court have shrunk its fan base and substantially weakened support among business and government leaders.
"I interpret this solely as an attempt to reconnect with the corporate and cultural elite in the city of Indianapolis," said Ernie Reno, president of Avatar Communications, a locally based marketing and public relations firm. "I think this is also an attempt to rebuild their relationships with key political contacts."
Morris, 64, comes to the job with a long list of credentials in sports, business and philanthropy. Most recently, he spent four years as head of the United Nations World Food Programme.
In his new role, he'll do more than whisper advice into the ears of CEO Donnie Walsh and President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird.
"Part of my job will be to find more ways for the Pacers to be engaged in the community," Morris said.
Morris has the right background to help the team halt its sliding reputation, said Milton Thompson, president of local sports marketing firm Grand Slam Cos.
"Because of his connections in this community, there's no one who brings people together better than Jim Morris," said Thompson, who has worked on local sports initiatives with Morris dating back more than a quarter-century.
"I know a lot of fans have become skeptics and a lot of people--corporate partners and fans--are taking a wait-and-see approach on how this plays out. It's incumbent on the Pacers to show they're serious about changing. This is a good step."
Walsh said Morris will work full time out of a Conseco Fieldhouse office, advising on every aspect of Pacers operations, including corporate and government relations, sales and marketing, and venue management. He also will work on issues involving the Indiana Fever, the organization's WNBA franchise.
"I wouldn't limit Jim in any way," Walsh said. "He'll be tremendous out in the community and a tremendous resource here."
Morris intends to take an active role in the Pacers' community outreach with not-for-profits, and work directly with players to get them more involved in the community--something local sports marketers say is badly needed.
"I care deeply about organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Gleaners Food Bank, Riley Hospital, IUPUI and the Eiteljorg Museum, and so do the Pacers," Morris said. "This gives me the opportunity to strengthen those ties even further."
This is the first time in the franchise's 40-year history the Pacers have hired an adviser with such a broad initiative, Walsh said.
Morris' fresh perspective should help right the ship, said Mark Rosentraub, a sports economist and former IUPUI dean who wrote a book, "Major League Losers," about professional sports operations.
"With Morris teamed with two of the best managers in the NBA in Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird, I have little concern over the long-term future of this franchise."
Walsh and Bird are calling in help at a critical time. The team has seen its attendance tumble from 18,345 during the 1999-2000 season to 15,359 last season, a 13-year low.
Sports business experts believe the Pacers dipped into the red during the 2005-2006 season for the first time since moving to Conseco Fieldhouse in 1999, and went further into it last season.
Off-court incidents have worsened the woes. In November 2004, Pacers brawled with Detroit Pistons players and fans during a game at The Palace in Auburn Hills. The spiral continued last year with several more incidents, including a shooting at a strip club and a brawl at another nightclub.
"Until you heal the body, all the Band-Aids in the world won't help," Reno said. "When it's all said and done, Jim Morris means little to the everyday fan. It comes down to conduct. For the Pacers, it's put-up-or-shut-up time."
Some sports business experts believe the team's financial concerns have become so serious that the franchise will attempt to renegotiate its lease with the city for Conseco Fieldhouse.
Indianapolis Deputy Mayor Steve Campbell said the mayor's staff has talked with Pacers officials about their situation "from time to time," but said there have been no formal negotiations to restructure the lease.
"Who knows what the future holds?" Campbell said. "It's not something on the immediate radar."
The team just completed the eighth year of a 20-year lease at Conseco Fieldhouse. The lease states that if the Pacers experience "significant net cash flow loss for any NBA season in or after the eighth year of the initial [20-year] term," they could begin the process of seeking early termination of its lease.
The Pacers could notify city officials as early as this fall that they want a new deal.
The Pacers' difficulties are being exacerbated by the Indianapolis Colts' success. After winning the Super Bowl this winter, the football team is preparing to move into its new home, Lucas Oil Stadium, in 2008.
"The duality of the Colts and Pacers was apparent for everyone to see," Reno said.
Morris recognizes the challenges, but said he wants to emphasize that the team remains "an extraordinary asset" for the city and state.
Stints traveling the world as International Olympic Committee treasurer, USA Basketball board member and, most recently, with the United Nations, have taught Morris the value of having a National Basketball Association franchise.
"Everywhere I went--Europe, China, wherever--people asked me about the Indiana Pacers," Morris said. "Basketball is truly an international sport, and this team has the ability to put the spotlight on this community every day of the year."
Morris said he will spend two weeks evaluating the Pacers' standing in the community, then will sit down with Walsh and other key executives to make strategy suggestions.
He's no stranger to Pacers owners Herb and Mel Simon. As a chief lieutenant to then-Mayor Richard Lugar, Morris met the Simons more than 30 years ago. Later, while an executive at Lilly Endowment Inc., he helped broker the 1983 deal that allowed the Simons to buy the Pacers from Sam Nassi.
Grand Slam's Thompson said Morris will be far from a Pacers figurehead.
"This is not a [public relations] position," Thompson said. "He is being brought in to repair relationships."