Sellout streak lifts Colts into NFL elite

January 5, 2009
A statewide marketing plan that's a decade old and an enduring on-field winning record engineered by all-pro quarterback Peyton Manning have put the Indianapolis Colts and their fans among the National Football League's elite in terms of consecutive home sellouts.

The Indianapolis Colts have sold out every home game since the final game of the 1998 season, giving the team the 14th-longest home sellout streak in the 32-team National Football League. The Colts' 81-game regular season streak is a long way behind the Washington Redskins' league leading streak of 327, but is no less amazing considering where the team was less than a decade ago.

"In the late '90s we were doing a fire drill almost every week just to avoid a TV blackout during Sunday's we had home games," said Ray Compton, who joined the team in 1997 as executive director of business development and departed to start his own marketing firm in 2005. "Putting so much time and energy into single-game and group sales was a tremendous drain."

The amazing transformation, Compton said, took off "draft day, 1998, when [team owner] Jim Irsay and [President] Bill Polian pulled the trigger on drafting Peyton."

Including playoff games, the streak has hit 88. That's a record since the team arrived in Indianapolis in 1984. Team officials said they don't have attendance figures for the years in Baltimore.

While Polian put together a championship-caliber team, Compton and the rest of the Colts marketing staff—including current senior vice president of sales and marketing Tom Zupancic—launched a regional marketing initiative.

"The Colts could see the market was simply too small to merely rely on Indianapolis, or even central Indiana, for its fan base," said Mark Rosentraub, former IUPUI dean of urban affairs and author of "Major League Losers," a book about professional sports business operations. "They put together one of the NFL's first regional marketing plans and in the process became the prototype small-market team. If you want to survive and be competitive in a small NFL market, you look at how Indianapolis has done it."

No easy feat

The streak hasn't come easy. Two home games in 2003 were blacked out on local television because the Colts didn't sell the game out 72 hours before kick-off as required by the NFL.

"One thing about these streaks, one bad season, one bad week, one bobble and all that is over," said Green Bay Packers spokesman Aaron Popke. "It takes a tremendous amount of planning and work, and most importantly a tremendous amount of fan loyalty to put together a significant sellout streak."

The Packers certainly have done that. Green Bay has sold out every game back to the 1960s. The team sold out 261 straight in Green Bay and more than 300 including games played up until 1994 in Milwaukee. The Packers waiting list is an incredible 81,000 deep with an annual turnover rate of just 50.

"People have been on that waiting list 35 years," Popke said. "The sun will extinguish before some of those fans ever get tickets. But it's a point of pride among a lot of people to be on that list. It's part of our culture."

Sports marketers and NFL insiders wonder how solid the Colts' streak is.

"They've proven they'll support a winner, beyond that, it's difficult to tell," Rosentraub said. "The big test will be when Peyton retires and the team takes that inevitable dip."

Fans in Green Bay, Kansas City, San Francisco, Washington and Chicago have all kept their teams' home sellout streak going during lean years. Others, even storied franchises like Miami and Minnesota, have faltered.

"I don't want people to say we're not Green Bay or Pittsburgh, that's baloney," Compton said. "We're building our own tradition, and there's no doubt this team has become a pillar of this community and the NFL."

The Colts became a ticket-selling force by creating the expectation first within the team's sales department and then the larger community that sellouts were going to be commonplace, Compton said. Then shortly after Manning was drafted, Colts marketers went gangbusters on regular regional road trips from Louisville to Fort Wayne.

"I don't want to make what happened, and is still happening, sound easy," Compton said. "It took a lot of work, and it took everybody on the team. I can tell you, at first, there were a lot of lonely trips to places like Evansville and Fort Wayne. But eventually the momentum began to build."

Still stoking the fire

Despite the emergence of Manning as a future Hall of Famer and the team's 2007 Super Bowl victory, Zupancic and his staff have continued to build the team's marketing efforts.

"What they've done is unprecedented," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based Sportscorp Ltd., a consulting firm that works closely with the NFL and its teams and owners. "Instead of resting on their laurels, their marketing staff has worked even harder to reach out to their fan base even more."

Colts executives, players, mascots and cheerleaders now make more than 400 annual appearances statewide, Zupancic said. The Colts have a traveling museum and Make it Personal Tour that visits more than 150 Indiana cities and towns annually. The team holds numerous cheerleading camps, youth football clinics ranging from grade school to high school, and clinics for women and minorities interested in learning more about football and the Colts. The team also started a Kids Club that has more than 3,500 members and a rapidly growing Crib Club for parents who want to adorn their newborns and toddlers in team paraphernalia and get them involved in team activities.

The Colts have doubled their sales staff from 25 to 50 since 1998. The team in 2002 reassessed how it spent its marketing dollars, spending less on TV, radio and print, and more on grassroots marketing, Zupancic said. The Colts started to see those efforts pay off in a big way, and in 2005 sold out the team's home venue through season tickets—not including a few hundred held back for group sales.

The outreach efforts have come at a cost.

Sports-business experts estimate the Colts' annual sales and marketing budget is in the $3 million to $5 million range, at least double what it was a decade ago. Adding 25 people to the payroll alone cost the Colts seven-figures annually.

The payoff in higher season ticket sales has offset that investment. But the biggest payoff is the increase in stadium sponsorships resulting from the packed house.

Colts officials said in-stadium sponsorship is up double-digit percentage from the late '90s. In-stadium revenue went up another 30 percent this season, to about $20 million annually, when the team moved into Lucas Oil Stadium.

Colts officials think the outreach will have a longer-term payoff. That's one reason the Colts took the Lombardi Trophy on a 40-city post-Super Bowl statewide tour.

"We saw people who got to touch that trophy or get their picture taken with that trophy get so emotional, they cried," Zupancic said. "We think those bonds will endure."

Weathering the storm

The first litmus test will come this off-season. "We haven't seen a recession like this since the Depression," Rosentraub said. "Discretionary spending is going to take a serious hit in every market. We're about to find out where football is on the food chain in Indianapolis."

Zupancic is comforted by the Colts 24,000-deep season-ticket waiting list. All those fans paid a $150 non-refundable fee to be on the list. If they do get season tickets, that money goes toward the first season. The Colts had season-ticket renewal above 98 percent last year, and will start the renewal process for next season in February.

"We should know what the situation is by the end of March," Zupancic said. "I don't expect the economy to have too big an impact. We have a great product and are holding our fans' attention on and off the field."

Skeptics aren't convinced the Colts' streak can survive the post-Manning era, or even the immediate economic downturn. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has asked all NFL teams to consider freezing ticket prices until the economic storm subsides. Colts season ticket prices this year range from $24 to $260 per game.

"Waiting lists are like a [real estate] bubble," Rosentraub said. "When the economy bursts, the waiting list will mean nothing."

And while the jump from the 56,000-seat RCA Dome to the 63,000-seat Lucas Oil Stadium this year provides the team with more money-making features, it also makes the continuation of the sellout streak more challenging.

But Compton, the team's former marketing guru, thinks people underestimate the strength of the team's fan base.

"Look at the crowd now compared to the mid to late 1990s," Compton said. "There's blue everywhere now in the stadium. It didn't used to be that way. I don't think this is a mirage. The Colts over the years have built a brand that goes beyond any one player. When the team is 8-8 or 6-10, that's what fans will have to hang onto, that brand that says this team is truly a part of the community. That's why I think this streak will last a very, very long time."
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