The Indiana Fever could spike this year. Ticket sales, sponsorship and the local buzz about the team are on the rise.
But perhaps most important, the Fever have key advocates in the Pacers Sports & Entertainment front office that the team simply hasn't had before. Former PS&E President Donnie Walsh, sources said, was consumed in recent years with problems plaguing the flagship Indiana Pacers franchise before departing to become New York Knicks president.
New President Jim Morris and co-owner Herb Simon, who has recently taken a hands-on role with PS&E, are far more eager to wave the Fever banner in front of fans and corporate sponsors.
Both have trumpeted the virtues of the women's basketball team in every press conference they've held since Walsh's departure. They've campaigned this month in front of local corporate honchos as much for the Fever as for the Pacers, and they've become active in the team's marketing and sales campaigns.
"People take notice when guys like Jim Morris and Herb Simon take action," said Milt Thompson, president of local sports marketing firm Grand Slam Cos. "Their involvement will certainly have a positive impact."
And it has a clear goal. Simon said at a recent meeting at IBJ that the women's franchise must find a way to stand on its own. Simon said the team has been a money loser from the outset, but he has a goal of making it at least a break-even operation.
While PS&E officials have approached some Pacers ticket buyers and sponsors, they said the focus is on growing the Fever on its own merits and not pressuring Pacers partners to buy combination packages.
"We have to find a way to make this team self-sustaining," Simon said.
Many WNBA teams are in the same boat. The league started with heavy subsidization from the NBA and NBA parent clubs. Now, half of the 14 WNBA teams are owned independently from an NBA franchise, and appear--so far--to be staying afloat on their own.
Fever President Kelly Krauskopf thinks the Fever have taken strong steps heading into this season to obtain that objective. A publicity campaign featuring players and coaches and fueled by a relationship the organization has forged with ad agency Publicis should increase the community's awareness of the team and improve single-game ticket sales, which Krauskopf sees as key to forging a path out of the red.
"We're getting close to break-even," she said. "I feel we're inching toward profitability."
Krauskopf doesn't expect Simon's support to waver.
"Herb Simon sees this as a growth prospect ... a tremendous business asset and opportunity," she said. "Herb is leading the charge and it's all hands on deck."
A strong lineup
Krauskopf herself is viewed as one of the team's assets. She was one of the founding executives of the WNBA and has been with the Fever since the team's inception in 2000.
"If you talk to her, she's highly intelligent and highly capable," Thompson said. "She is a strong presence when this team makes public and corporate presentations. She's also largely responsible for building a championship team with strong, likable personalities."
Krauskopf is credited for drafting the player many consider the WNBA's best, Tamika Catchings, and bringing Indianapolis native and Purdue University graduate Katie Douglas here from Connecticut this off-season. Putting together such a roster, which also includes fan favorite Australian Tully Bevilaqua, is not easy with a $722,000 hard salary cap, said sports economist, author and former IUPUI dean Mark Rosentraub.
Krauskopf is also credited with securing former Purdue coach Lin Dunn, who took over for Brian Winters after last season.
Catchings, who makes her full-time home in Hendricks County, and Douglas have been prominent in this year's marketing campaign, which features the tag line "Are you all in?" and proclaims the team's intent to win the WNBA title this year.
Fever officials aren't the only ones high on Catchings, who is expected to be named to the 2008 Olympic team. The league is featuring her in ads airing this month during NBA playoff games on ESPN and TNT.
"Our playoff run last year, and the buzz it created, really helped spur the interest level and some of our sales," Krauskopf said. "Now we want to take it to the next level."
Simon thinks the women's team has value beyond adding trophies to the PS&E display case.
Simon said he supports the Fever because they add diversity to the local sports landscape and the players are positive role models locally and nationally--for all people, but especially young women. Morris was quick to echo those sentiments.
"This team is another important element to Conseco Fieldhouse and having a vibrant downtown," Morris said. "We also think it's another element to having a first-class city and attracting bright, young women here."
Ticket sales up
Early signs indicate renewed emphasis on the Fever is paying off. Well over 1,000 fans showed up to watch an open practice May 13. Players graciously waded through the crowd afterward shaking hands and signing autographs.
Season-ticket renewals are running near 80 percent. A new ad campaign has pushed sales of full-season ticket packages up 28 percent from last year, to nearly 3,000, and team officials are hoping for a season-opening sellout at Conseco Fieldhouse May 17. The team hasn't sold out a game in five years.
Last year, the Fever averaged 7,227 for 17 home games, about 500 per game below the Women's National Basketball Association league-wide average. But team officials said ticket sales for the first three home games this year are exceptionally strong and they expect to surpass last year's average with a season-long marketing push and a team expected to compete for the WNBA championship.
Sponsorship sales are on pace with last year so far, but team officials are making 20-percent more sponsor presentations than a year ago, and think that will pay dividends with an increase this year.
The team has about 25 sponsors, Fever officials said, including Community Hospitals, Conseco Inc., Chase Bank and OneAmerica.
Krauskopf said selling people who come out for a single game on a season or mini-season ticket the next year is an important part of the plan to increase the team's revenue.
"We're trying to be bold in our campaign to let people know this is a team worthy of your attention," Krauskopf said. "We have to convert the people who come out for a test drive."
The team and league are also going after more male fans. Currently, the WNBA's fan base is 78-percent female, whereas the NBA's audience is 70-percent male, according to league studies.
"Our job is to put the game out there," Krauskopf said. "Our game is really good."
Many people are wondering how good Simon's and Morris' game is. There is some thought among sports marketers and even some PS&E sponsors that the duo's efforts with the Fever have taken the focus off the organization's core product--the Pacers.
Simon and Morris make no apologies for the attention they lavish on the women's team.
"We are very focused on the Fever," Morris said. "That won't change. The people that come downtown to watch the Fever play are just as important as the people who come downtown to see the Pacers play. We feel we have the resources in place to grow both franchises."