A newly released 2008 poll shows the Indianapolis Colts thumping the Indiana Pacers in fan support, which isn’t a
surprise given the recent fortunes of the teams. But some observers say the numbers are more a reflection of the popularity
of the National Football League and the Colts’ Peyton Manning than an indictment of the Pacers.
The poll by TNS Sport, a London-based firm whose data is highly regarded by sports leagues and sponsors, showed that 57.5 percent of local fans call the Indianapolis Colts their favorite professional sports team, while 6.6 percent put the Indiana Pacers at the top of their list.
While the spread may be surprising to casual observers and fans, local sports marketers said the data has been trending in the Colts’ favor for more than five years.
“Because Indiana has deep, deep roots as a basketball state, the numbers might take you back. But they’re consistent with my own surveys and data,” said Mark Rosentraub, sports business author and former dean at IUPUI. “This is certainly a reversal from the Reggie Miller era.”
The Colts benefit from playing in the vastly more popular National Football League and featuring one of the most prominent players in all of sports, quarterback Peyton Manning, said Robert Fox, senior vice president for TNS Sport.
“I can see why the Pacers would look at these numbers defensively, but this is really not a reflection on them,” Fox said. “What you have in the Indianapolis market is the No. 1 athlete in the No. 1 sport.”
The Colts outshined most of their NFL brethren in terms of local market popularity. The 2008 TNS data—which was just recently released—showed the average NFL team was voted the favorite by 28 percent of the people in its home market.
Few in the industry doubt the validity of TNS’ survey. TNS Sport, a global polling firm that works with every major sports league in North America, used census data to poll 27,600 people nationwide, including about 300 in the Indianapolis area, for its 2008 report.
According to polling experts, if TNS used the methods it claims to have used, the poll should have an error rate of plus or minus 6 percent.
Corporate sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Sprint, Procter & Gamble and Anheuser-Busch Cos. also rely on TNS data, which is used for ESPN Sports polls.
“TNS is one of five major polling firms sponsors pay attention to,” said Zak Brown, president of locally based Just Marketing International, which counts numerous major NASCAR and Formula One corporate sponsors as clients. “This is a very reputable company.”
Colts officials think the team’s local popularity goes beyond the NFL’s rise and even the success of its most prized player.
“What all this data really shows is we have a very avid fan base, and they’re very passionate about the team,” said Tom Zupancic, Colts vice president of sales and marketing. “Our brand is winning on the field, and that’s part of it.”
But winning isn’t the only reason Zupancic thinks the Colts are so popular. He credits the Colts’ youth football development initiatives and the team’s statewide outreach programs, which date back more than a decade. Zupancic also credited the Colts’ six-year-old Make It Personal marketing campaign.
“Last year, team officials, players and cheerleaders made 672 personal appearances statewide,” Zupancic said. “We’d rather be in your back yard than be on the radio in your hometown.”
Colts owner Jim Irsay’s commitment to winning also has been a big factor in the team’s growing popularity, Zupancic said.
Whatever the reason for it, the data has become too overwhelming to ignore, sports marketers said.
“This has become a football town,” said Milt Thompson, president of Grand Slam Cos., a locally based sports marketing consultancy. “[Pacers President] Jim Morris might get mad about that, but those are the facts. Winning matters. Superstar-caliber players matter.”
But Morris isn’t mad. He remains pragmatic in his views and unyielding in his belief that local support for the Pacers is building. He points out that Pacers owners Herb and Mel Simon have also made a major commitment to their franchise and this city, most recently making several trades and draft selections to re-make the team’s image and bolster its on-court performance.
“Obviously the Colts are very popular, as they should be,” Morris said. “But our view—and it is affirmed by our own polling data—is that our fans are just as excited about our franchise as they ever have been.”
Morris points to a new five-year sponsorship deal with Kroger and season-ticket sales, which are up more than 10 percent over last year, as proof the Pacers are headed in the right direction.
“I think people were unhappy with us for a while, but we’re getting that straightened out,” Morris added. “I think people realize the Pacers are as important a franchise as there is in the state. That’s why it’s so important to make this franchise work.”
In terms of professional sports, TNS’ data seems to support Thompson’s contention that, at least for now, Indianapolis is a football town. TNS has been gathering fan profile data for more than 15 years, and its 1998 survey showed 21 percent of the Indianapolis market considered the National Basketball Association its favorite spectator sport, while the NFL in that same year registered 19 percent. The NBA held a similar margin in 1999, when the Pacers and Miller made their charge to the NBA finals.
But in 2001, the NFL overcame the NBA in the Indianapolis fan rating. The margin remained close until 2005, when the NFL started pulling away.
Two key events, sports marketers said, accelerated the NBA and Pacers’ popularity slide: the brawl involving the Pacers at a Detroit Pistons game in 2004, and the retirement of Pacers all-star guard Reggie Miller in 2005.
Last year, almost 36 percent of Indianapolis-area residents said the NFL was their favorite spectator sport, while less than 5 percent said the NBA was their favorite sport.
To compound matters, Manning, the Colts’ all-pro signal caller, is ranked by 33 percent of Indianapolis-area residents as their favorite athlete on the national stage. That’s the highest in the market. No Pacer made the top five.
“The Pacers don’t have a face of that franchise, and they desperately need one,” Thompson said. “Danny Granger has potential, but he’s not there yet.”
Golfer Tiger Woods was second in this market with 4.8 percent of the vote. Manning ranked as the fifth-most-popular athlete in the national survey data behind Woods, Michael Jordan, Brett Favre and Kobe Bryant.
Morris isn’t ready to concede that Indianapolis isn’t a basketball town. And the TNS data seems to support the theory that basketball—and the Pacers—could come roaring back.
“Basketball is still the most important sport in the state of Indiana,” Morris said. “Just look at the incredible growth of youth basketball here and the quality of college and pro players that still come out of Indiana.”
The TNS data shows that 51.7 percent of people in the United States consider themselves NBA fans, but 63.3 percent of local fans consider themselves NBA fans. Indianapolis also has more college basketball fans than the national average, 64.5 percent compared with 51.2 percent.
But national and local data show just how high the NFL is flying right now, with 71 percent of the people surveyed nationwide calling themselves NFL fans and 76.2 percent of the people in this market doing so.•