Pacers gain traction with fans, sponsors: But Ron Artest’s return presents a marketing challenge

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Pacers average attendance jumped from 16,558 last year to 16,995 this season. While it appears to be a small difference, it’s almost twice the percentage increase league-wide, and it pushed Pacers attendance higher than anytime since the 17,889 average in the second season in Conseco Fieldhouse. Capacity is 18,345.

The Pacers enjoyed a slight attendance spike after Reggie Miller announced his retirement in February. But interest was already bubbling as the team was in the midst of an unlikely playoff run.

Sources close to the team said Walsh had a heart-to-heart talk with Coach Rick Carlisle and the players about the importance of effort, win or lose.

“This team didn’t lay down, and the importance of that can’t be underscored,” said Randy Schwoerer, president of Schwoerer & Associates, a local sports and entertainment marketing firm. “Everybody fires up and rallies around a conflict, and who doesn’t love an underdog? Especially one with a fighting spirit.”

The Indiana Pacers have drawn bigger crowds this season than they have since 2000-2001, and sponsor relations appear to be strengthening.

Though the team is squarely focused on the playoffs, which were set to begin April 23, Pacers brass is already contemplating how to reintegrate all-star forward Ron Artest back into the team and its marketing mix next season.

Artest was suspended for the season following the Nov. 19 brawl with Detroit Pistons fans at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

It will be an especially delicate balancing act for the Pacers, capitalizing on Artest’s star power while not jeopardizing the gains they’ve made with fans and sponsors without him.

“Ron crossed the line,” said Mark Rosentraub, an economist and author of “Major League Losers,” a book about professional sports operations. “I think some sponsors will want to shy away from him personally. But the Pacers are bigger than any one player. The Pacers are the Simon brothers, Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird. The real issue with this franchise is its leadership, which has allowed them to emerge as an iconic brand.”

Sports marketers credit the role of Pacers owners Herb and M e l S i m o n a n d Walsh, the team’s president, in forming the post-brawl blueprint that turned a losing season into a winner on the court and financially.

“This season looked like it could have been a disaster,” said Milton Thompson, president of Grand Slam Cos., a locally based sports marketing consultancy.

Walsh said the fran-

Walsh admits that in the immediate aftermath of the Detroit brawl, there were some tense conversations with anxious sponsors.

“There were a few sponsors who thought it was a black spot on their relationship with us,” Walsh said.

In the end, the Pacers didn’t lose any sponsors. Sources credit the Pacers management’s handling of the situation for that.

Walsh said that, in the days and weeks immediately after the brawl, the team’s oncourt success was anything but secure. A promising team with championship aspirations was decimated by long-term suspensions to three star players. Several bench players got shorter suspensions, and the effort was compounded by a multitude of injuries. At one time, the Pacers were left with just six players.

“The way this all played out really surprises me in a way,” Walsh said. “When we went through the incident, I told the players we’d survive this, but those are just words. I’m heartened by what took place. There isn’t a single person in this league outside this franchise who thought we’d make the playoffs.”

The effort Walsh and President of Player Operations Bird demanded from the team, sports marketers said, is a big part of the loyalty it earned from local fans. While the Pacers disagreed with the length of suspensions handed down, Walsh said it was important to keep any jousting with the league below the radar to avoid being viewed as whiners.

The Pacers are now busy trying to sell playoff sponsorship packages, a trend that has taken off in the NBA the last couple of years. But with a dozen or so pricey suites coming up for renewal next season, plus several hundred club seats and some key sponsorships, the Pacers have even bigger issues facing them next season.

Walsh said the effort to strengthen fan and sponsor relationships starts a critical phase during this year’s playoffs. That doesn’t take into account the importance of the playoffs to team financials. Revenue from a playoff run could be crucial, Walsh said, in assuring the team is in the black this season.

“We certainly make money on the playoffs, and it’s not budgeted so it’s added income,” Walsh said. “The deeper we go, the more profitable they are. It’s also critical to build good will in the community and that helps for next year.”

But when Reggie Miller steps off the court for the final time, who will the Pacers turn to as a front man? Previously, Jermaine O’Neal and Ron Artest were featured with Miller in radio, television and print ads, and posters and billboards inside and outside Conseco Fieldhouse.

The Pacers are already marketing to sponsors the loyalty local fans have shown during this season of tumult, Walsh said. But much of that loyalty was demonstrated in the absence of Artest, sports marketers noted.

“I’m not sure Ron is their poster boy, or should be central in ad campaigns,” Thompson said. “You can be sure this franchise will have a carefully crafted plan to bring Ron back in next year.”

Schwoerer thinks the Pacers should take a low-key approach to Artest’s reintegration.

“Look at the types of people this community has rallied around: A.J. Foyt and Bobby Knight,” Schwoerer said. “It’s a wrestling mentality. I think there will be a natural groundswell of enthusiasm when Ron Artest comes back. The Pacers should step back and let that happen naturally.”

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