Colts spurn conventional wisdom to win over fans

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The Indianapolis Colts continue to move the yard markers on their march to making themselves a model NFL franchise.

And I’m not talking about on the field. As a business, more than a few NFL executives will tell you that few teams—small market or large—do it like the Colts.

Of course, having a championship caliber team to sell doesn’t hurt. Nevertheless, 240 team sponsors and a 17,000-long season-ticket waiting list are nothing to sneeze at.

The Colts have added 20 new sponsors this year and grown their season-ticket waiting list by 6,000 in the last year. Merchandise sales were up “a strong double-digit” percentage last year, and are up a more modest double-digit percentage this season, according to officials for MainGate, the company that handles Colts merchandising.

Those things didn’t happen all by themselves. The 240 sponsors is well above the league average of 190. Granted, because the Colts are in a smaller market than many of their NFL brethren, some of those sponsorships are smaller than your typical NFL team sponsor.

Still, a solid feat, and that’s not the only category the Colts exceed the league’s average.

Colts officials said the 844 state-wide appearances made by the team owner, mascot, cheerleaders and players is nearly double what most of the other 31 NFL teams made in the last 12 months.

That’s an average of 2.3 appearance by team personnel every day, 365 days a year. Those visits range from youth football and cheerleader camps to “just say no to drugs” speeches, fitness clinics and hospital visits.

With Lucas Oil Stadium already sold out, it would be easy to let fan outreach slide. But the Colts haven’t let the “build and they will come” mentality slip in.

“Marketing and branding the team never stops,” said Tom Zupancic, Colts senior vice president of sales and marketing.

It’d be easy to be a cynic here, and say the Colts sell because they win, simple as that. And I think that’s partly true.

But the Colts, first under Ray Compton, then later under Zupancic, smartly wandered to the path less traveled.

In 2000, the team abandoned its traditional television, print and radio marketing campaign to invest more in personal community visits from team representatives.

The Colts didn’t do it because it’s cheaper. The team still has a healthy multi-million dollar marketing budget, Zupancic said. They changed direction because they thought the new path would be more effective. So far, Colts officials have been proven right. Naturally, the real test will be when the team isn’t as competitive.

“I know we’re atypical,” Zupancic said. “It requires a lot of manpower. A lot of my marketing people are on the road all summer.”

Atypical, yes. For example, Colts owner Jim Irsay hired Greenfield native Josh Bleill, an Iraq war vet who had both legs blown off by a roadside bomb, as a team ambassador.

Was that a nice gesture by Irsay to give a disabled war vet a job? Perhaps. It also turned out to be a smart marketing and public relations move.

Bleill has become a fan favorite at games, even leading the performance of the national anthem. He also made more than 110 community visits on behalf the team in the last year. Bleill just completed a book about his journey that will be released in conjunction with the Colts opener this year.

Is Indianapolis a football town? I’m still not sure about that.

Does Indianapolis love a winner? Doesn’t everyone?

Will Lucas Oil Stadium be full when Peyton Manning is sitting on a beach and the Colts are fighting just to get into the playoffs—or worse?

There are no guarantees. And true fan loyalty isn’t easy to score.

But that answer might be found somewhere on the path less traveled. Zupancic and Irsay certainly hope so.

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