The Score - Anthony Schoettle

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Sports Business

Indians sales staff faced down big-time pressure

March 4, 2010
KEYWORDS Sports Business

Late last September, the Indianapolis Indians stared down the barrel of financial disaster.

Following the 2009 season, three-fourths of the team’s sponsorship deals expired, and in this economic climate that’s enough to make just about any sports business administrator hit the panic button.

But Indians officials stood in the batter’s box, dug in their cleats and didn’t blink. Instead, the team’s front office rolled up their sleeves and went to work.

They re-signed the vast majority of those sponsors and enough new ones to see a 5 percent sponsorship sales increase this year. Ticket sales also look positive a little more than a month before the season opens.

Among the Indians, there was never any doubt. In fact, the team kept with its philosophy of investing in Victory Field.

Since it opened in 1996, the Indians have poured $4 million in improvements to the ball park sitting on the west edge of downtown. Anyone in baseball will tell you no minor league team spends more on keeping its ballpark pristine than the Indians.

Despite the rocky economy and an uncertain future, the Indians stuck with that strategy. Instead of being detrimentally tight-fisted, the minor league affiliate of MLB's Pittsburgh Pirates dropped $600,000 into a new video board on the left field wall and $125,000 into much-needed front office renovations, including a re-vamped conference room and trophy display area. Indians officials also initiated a host of game promotions and specials to enhance the experience for fans during Indians home games.

Remember, the Indians are no major league franchise. The team’s financial performance has been steady, but their margins are thin. It takes solid management to churn out a profit near or slightly above $1 million year-after-year. Indians' total operating revenue for 2009 was only $8.5 million, less than one-fourth the operating budget for the Indianapolis Colts or Indiana Pacers.

It would be oh so easy to miscalculate by $10,000 here and $100,000 there and miss the mark and end up in the red. But for decades, the Indians never have. That’s probably why Indians stock trades as high as $25,000 per share.

So, even when times looked tough, like during this off-season, Indians management led by Chairman Max Schumacher and General Manger Cal Burleson never waivered.

And come the end of the team’s fiscal year Sept. 30, I’m sure they’ll register a solid score.

To read more on the Indians’ off-season initiatives and ramp-up for the 2010 season, see the March 8 IBJ print edition.

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