At first glance, The Kroger Co.’s recently announced deal to partner with the Indiana Pacers and Indiana Fever looks
like just another sponsorship agreement.
But marketing and grocery store industry insiders said the deal is indicative
of a major shift in how the city’s dominant grocers, Kroger and Marsh Supermarkets, are selling themselves to consumers.
Neither is locally owned, but since the local Marsh family sold to Florida-based Sun Capital Partners Inc. in 2006,
Marsh Supermarkets is falling away from community initiatives. With the Pacers/Fever deal, Cincinnati-based Kroger is poised
to fill the void.
“I think this is a genius move by Kroger,” said Danny O’Malia, former president
of O’Malia Food Markets Inc., which Marsh bought in 2001. “They feel more local than they ever have, and Marsh
feels less local.”
On July 1—one day after Marsh’s 10-year sponsorship deal expired—Kroger
was announced in a news conference as the exclusive supermarket sponsor of the Indiana Pacers and official sponsor of the
Indiana Fever. Marsh’s involvement with the Pacers was more than a decade old, extending back to the days of Market
Square Arena. Pacers officials weren’t sure how far back the relationship went.
The fact that the Pacers
partnership was such a prized possession of Marsh—and such a key component of its marketing efforts—during the
era Don Marsh led the company makes the change striking to longtime industry observers.
just another Pacers sponsorship,” said David Morton, principal of Sunrise Sports Group, a locally based sports marketing
consultancy. “Marsh had a huge presence in the Fieldhouse, and the team was a pillar in Marsh’s high-profile ad
campaign for years and years.”
Once the Marsh deal expired June 30, Pacers officials quickly moved to strip
Marsh signs and logos from Conseco Fieldhouse, replacing them with Kroger, including high-profile signage in the main entry
area and on the center court scoreboard.
Kroger officials said they plan to incorporate the Pacers into a statewide
advertising and “community engagement” initiative starting this summer.
“Kroger is a perfect
partner to help tell the story of the Pacers and Fever,” said Pacers Sports & Entertainment President Jim Morris.
“They’re very aggressive in their marketing efforts. They’re in almost every market in the state and they’re
very creative and innovative.”
O’Malia, who remained with Marsh until shortly after it was acquired
by Sun Capital for $88 million in cash and the assumption of $237 million in debt, thinks the Pacers/Fever deal is a good
fit for Kroger.
“The Pacers have had some bad publicity the last five years, but they appear to be turning
the corner,” O’Malia said. “The Pacers are still a tremendous community asset, and as a grocery store operator,
I’d step up and partner with them in a minute.”
Kroger officials said they don’t think the Pacers’
past—including the brawl in Detroit and several public fights involving players—will tarnish the grocery store’s
“It does matter who we stand side-by-side with,” said John Elliott, Kroger Central Division
public affairs manager. “There was discussion about, did we want our Kroger name alongside the Pacers organization?
And the answer was a resounding ‘yes.’ They’ve turned that organization around, and showed they are completely
committed to the community.”
Morris called the Kroger deal “an important affirmation to us that we’re
doing things the right way.”
Kroger scores bargain
Signing a five-year deal with
the Pacers and Fever during a down economy and as the team rebuilds its image likely allowed Kroger to get in at a much lower
cost than Marsh did, said Bruce Bryant, president of locally based Promotus Advertising, which formerly worked on the Pacers
As one of seven Conseco Fieldhouse founding sponsors, advertising industry experts estimate Marsh paid
$800,000 to $1 million annually for its deal. Kroger, meanwhile, could be paying about half that, Bryant said.
“We’ve gotten some calls recently from the Pacers, and they’re in a much friendlier position
to deal,” Bryant said. “Depending on the elements of the deal and how those are leveraged over the term of the
deal, Kroger could get a really solid value.”
Kroger and Pacers officials declined to discuss the deal’s
financial details. Morris called the Kroger deal a “very solid financial partnership.”
he didn’t have insight into why Marsh didn’t renew its sponsorship. Marsh officials declined to comment for this
The Pacers-Kroger deal is more than a marketing vehicle for Kroger; it’s a reflection of overlap in
the charitable and community interests of the two organizations.
“The Pacers came to us, and we learned
that we shared a lot of the same priorities as far as community outreach,” Kroger’s Elliott said.
Central Division President Bob Moeder and Morris work together on local charitable causes, including serving on the Gleaner’s
Food Bank board.
Morris, former head of the United Nations World Food Bank, and Moeder share a deep commitment
to fighting hunger locally and regionally, Elliott said. In addition, Kroger got assurance from the Pacers that the franchise
is behind Kroger’s pet causes, including primary and secondary education; health, nutrition and wellness initiatives;
environmental sustainability; and diversity.
Kroger officials also anticipate working with the Simon Youth Foundation,
Pacers Foundation and other outreach organizations tied to the teams and their players. The Pacers and Fever are owned by
Herb and Mel Simon, founders of Simon Property Group Inc., which gave birth to the Simon Youth Foundation.
day the deal was announced, a group of Indianapolis Public Schools students from School 46 were invited to attend an Indiana
Fever game and meet the players. Kroger has partnered with School 46 for more than 25 years.
“This deal was
not about contract; it was about collaboration,” Elliott said. “The Pacers were clearly listening to us when we
said what mattered in a relationship.”
Kroger has previously relied on more traditional forms of marketing,
including print, television, radio and billboards. The grocer has been a major sponsor at O’Reilly Raceway Park, but
beyond that hasn’t made much of a mark in local sports.
Marsh, which used to have a suite at Colts games
and sponsor the Indianapolis Indians, is now mostly removed from the local sports scene. The company ended its Indians sponsorship
shortly after Sun Capital took over, according to Indians officials.
Kroger, too, is being selective in the sponsorship
deals it signs. For instance, it walked away from its title sponsorship of Indy Jazz Fest in the first quarter of this year.
Marsh has since become the presenting sponsor of the event.
Difficult shoes to fill
was more than just a money-paying sponsor for the Pacers, Promotus’ Bryant said. The grocer’s ads also pumped
individual Pacers personalities from Reggie Miller to Larry Bird, who often appeared alongside former Chairman Don Marsh in
Marsh locations were also key drivers of ticket sales, and the grocery chain sponsored such things as family
nights at Conseco Fieldhouse. Marsh also was a promotional partner in other Fieldhouse events, from the circus to concerts.
“Marsh was a great marketing vehicle for the Pacers,” Bryant said. “Marsh’s value to the Pacers
went way beyond the money they paid for signage at the Fieldhouse. We’ll have to see if Kroger rises to that level.”
Marsh’s decline in market visibility extends beyond the now-expired Pacers deal, Bryant said.
across all advertising and marketing for Marsh appears to be down significantly,” he said. “It’s easy to
see their visibility is trending downward.”
Retail analysts have speculated that Sun Capital is cutting all
expenses at Marsh to prop up its bottom line to prepare to sell the operation.
Bryant thinks Marsh’s changed
“marketing mind-set” under Sun Capital gives Kroger an unprecedented opportunity to gain awareness as the hometown
Don Marsh, who declined to comment for this story due to pending litigation between him and Marsh Supermarkets,
recently criticized the grocery chain for diminishing its community involvement.
“Despite the assurances
from the new owners during the 2006 press conference announcing the sale, stores have been closed, longtime employees have
been laid off, and community involvement has been greatly reduced,” Don Marsh said in a statement in June.
Shortly after buying Marsh, Sun Capital did agree to renew its Symphony on the Prairie sponsorship.
seems to be an anomaly now,” Bryant said. “You have to wonder what Marsh’s short-term and long-term motives
really are, and what their next step will be.”•