Players benched for new Pacers ads

October 8, 2007

The Indiana Pacers recently rolled out a marketing initiative that was in sharp contrast to last year's campaign, which prominently featured players and proclaimed, "It's up to us."

This year's new television, radio and print advertisements appear with not a whisper from or mention of anyone actually wearing the blue and gold.

The campaign marks a fundamental--some would say radical--marketing shift that underscores the challenges the NBA franchise faces in rebuilding fan support and improving its finances.

New coach Jim O'Brien takes center stage in this year's ad campaign telling fans how committed he is to hard-nosed defense and the will to win. He even extols the virtues of Conseco Fieldhouse.

In one ad, O'Brien stands alongside the team's chief of basketball operations, Hoosier hoops icon Larry Bird.

The campaign is an important first step in the Pacers' winning back fans who abandoned the team in recent years, said Larry DeGaris, director of academic sports marketing programs at the University of Indianapolis.

"It's a shift to things they can control, with a focus on the organization and less on the players," DeGaris said. "That's a very positive step in gaining the trust of the public."

What has brought the Pacers to this point?

A string of highly public player indiscretions over the last year, decreasing attendance since the brawl in Detroit three seasons ago, and a financial loss that industry sources estimated at more than $10 million each of the last two years.

Even as the curtain rose on this year's campaign, the Pacers were enduring another off-court incident by a player. The Pacers last month suspended forward Shawne Williams for three games after police found marijuana in his car, which he was driving without a license.

DeGaris said the Pacers learned an important lesson after last year's player dust-ups.

"The front office's actions were immediate and decisive with Williams," DeGaris said. "Last year, they let things drag out too long and the stories built momentum."

Last year, several players were implicated in two separate brawls at area nightclubs--one during training camp and the other later in the season.

After last year's troubled season, the Pacers brought in ad agency Publicis Indianapolis, and crafted a plan to increase season and single-game ticket sales.

Pacers and Publicis officials declined to specify what will be spent on this year's campaign. However, they said it will be similar in scope to years past, when Indianapolis-based Pearson Partners, formerly Pearson McMahon Fletcher England, headed Pacers marketing. The new campaign will likely have a high-six-figure or low-seven-figure price tag, industry experts said.

Publicis Indianapolis is not known for sports marketing, but has been the longtime agency for Simon Property Group Inc. Simon Property co-chairmen Mel and Herb Simon own the Pacers.

Central to the new plan, said Tom Hirschauer, president of Publicis' local operation, is "a shift from sales marketing to brand marketing."

"We're not simply selling tickets," Hirschauer said.

Instead, he said, his firm was hired to conduct far more in-depth research of current and potential season and single-game ticket buyers than had been done in the past. The research, he said, was used to align what Pacers' fans wanted with what the team and management represented.

O'Brien was chosen as the primary spokesman for the early part of the campaign, Hirschauer said, because research showed the older, corporate audience that buys season tickets finds him credible.

Part of the shift, Hirschauer said, is because many Pacers fans in this "conservative market" don't identify with the "hip-hop" culture some in the NBA have cultivated in recent years.

Pacers fans are more interested in things like hustle, teamwork and fundamentally sound basketball than individual stars, he said.

The early part of the campaign started with direct-mail before shifting to television, print and radio ads.

The second phase will kick into overdrive after the Oct. 31 season opener. Even though Hirschauer said the focus will shift to action inside Conseco Fieldhouse, he still doesn't anticipate players' being a central part.

"Our goal was to relate to customer experience rather than just the play on the court," Hirschauer said. "The experience is more than watching Jermaine O'Neal as an individual player. Much more."

The second part of the campaign will focus on special promotions, including family night, guys' night out, college night and other in-arena promotions.

"The play of basketball and winning is central, but the experience is much broader than that," Hirschauer said.

Sports marketers are skeptical the campaign will have much impact unless the Pacers can field a winning team this season. That might be a long shot. Most prognosticators have them in the bottom half of the Eastern Division coming off a losing season with no key player acquisitions during the off-season.

O'Brien, who replaced Rick Carlisle after last season, might be the team's best hope for turning things around. But if he's the franchise's most marketable asset, local sports marketer David Morton thinks the Pacers are in trouble.

"Fans don't generally come to the arena to watch coaches coach," said Morton, principal of Sunrise Sports Group, a locally based sports marketing consultancy. "They come to watch players play. There has to be a connection between the fans and players."

But Hirschauer said season-ticket sales already are up this year. He's confident that if the Pacers are competitive, they'll see a solid increase in attendance.

Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh did not return calls seeking comment.

Pacers spokesman Jeff McCoy said O'Brien was chosen to headline the campaign because "he fit the values of what we think Indiana basketball is all about: hard work, determination, the will to win, preparation and teamwork. What better person to put out front?"

An attendance boost is badly needed. Last year, per-game attendance dropped to 15,359, down from 16,180 during the 2005-2006 season.

Attendance has dropped five of the seven seasons since the 1999-2000 season, the team's first in Conseco Fieldhouse. That year, the Pacers averaged a capacity 18,345 per game.

Under optimal conditions, the Pacers aren't exactly a cash cow in this small NBA market. But the team has proven it can muster an annual profit ranging from $1 million to $10 million, according to Forbes magazine figures.

With the National Football League and NASCAR garnering the lion's share of professional sports fans' attention, and with the proliferation of other entertainment outlets, the NBA's business model for NBA teams has changed greatly over the last decade, University of Indianapolis' DeGaris said.

"Sports is an unpredictable and perishable commodity, and the NBA has hit a valley," DeGaris said. "Naming rights and premium seating aren't bringing in the kind of dollars they used to, so it's sending a lot of teams back to the drawing board. The key for the Pacers will be staying aggressive and being creative."

But those things will have to be done inside the confines of the team's current lease deal at Conseco Fieldhouse. City officials, including Mayor Bart Peterson and Fred Glass, head of the Capital Improvement Board, which owns the Fieldhouse, said they aren't likely to consider an overhaul of the Pacers' 20-year lease.

"[Pacers officials] have not suggested they need to renegotiate the lease, but they have said they are facing some challenges they weren't five or six years ago," Peterson said.

Glass is confident the Pacers can be viable under the terms of the Fieldhouse lease.

"This arena is a model, and we've crafted a deal where the Pacers can prosper," Glass said. "I think they will be here for generations to come."

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