Indians’ all-star sales staff makes million-dollar gain

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Early last month, Indianapolis Indians General Manager Cal Burleson told me sponsorship sales for this season were running 10 percent above last season, and could spike even higher with two major sponsorship deals expected to be announced this month.

As a journalist, I’m paid to be skeptical. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told about pending, even imminent, sponsorship deals that never come to fruition.

And in this economy, it’s always best to take a wait-and-see approach with such proclamations. But the Indians have made a living out of beating the odds, and since it’s a publicly traded company, I don’t have to take their word for it. I get to see the financial results each November.

So when Burleson called me early this week to tell me he wanted to talk about the two new deals and specific sponsorship revenue numbers for 2011, I knew he wasn’t just blowing smoke.

Burleson sat me down in his office inside Victory Field and explained that sponsorship revenue for 2010 was $1.6 million, and that the “stretch goal” for this season was $1.8 million. So when he plunked down a piece of paper showing me sponsorship revenue has hit $2 million, I could see this season is going to be a winner even before the first batter comes to the plate in tonight’s home opener.

And true to his word, Burleson unveiled two new sponsors; PNC Bank and Indiana Farm Bureau. Burleson called both deals among the biggest the AAA minor league baseball team has on the books. And they’re multi-year deals.

The five-year deal with PNC includes sponsorship of PNC Plaza inside the main entrance to Victory Field at the corner of West and Maryland Streets. It also includes sponsorship of four interactive games within the plaza, signage throughout the centerfield concourse, on picnic tables and on directional signage inside the venue.

Indiana Farm Bureau signed a multi-year deal that makes the insurance company the “Official Insurance Provider of the Indianapolis Indians.” The partnership is part of the rollout of Indiana Farm Bureau’s new advertising campaign, and will aim to teach people more about the types of insurance coverage the company offers, said Farm Bureau Senior Vice President Thomas J. Faulconer.

The Indians organization has doubled its sponsorship revenue since 2007, Burleson said. A $1 million revenue gain is not insignificant for a franchise with operating revenue between $8 million and $9.5 million in recent years.

During the same four-year period, which included the worst economy this nation had seen in decades, many professional sports teams struggled to maintain sponsorships.

“We’ve succeeded by listening to the client, determining their needs and constructing a sponsorship package that meets those needs,” Burleson said. “With each success, it seems the door opens wider with other potential clients.”

It takes players to make big plays. And Burleson and Indians Chairman Max Schumacher have put together an all-star sales cast.

During our conversation, Burleson mentioned a few staffers who have helped fuel the revenue run-up.

Joel Zawacki, Indians director of corporate partnerships, not so coincidentally joined the Indians’ staff in 2007, just as the run began. Zawacki, a 2006 University of Indianapolis graduate, cut his teeth working internships for the Indiana Pacers and Brevard County Manatees, a single A farm club in Melbourne, Fla.

Zawacki downplays his role. “This has been a total team effort,” he said.

The numbers seem to bear that out. Long-time Indians staffer Howard Kellman, Burleson said, has achieved his best year ever in sponsorship sales. Indians fans probably know Kellman better as the team’s play-by-play broadcaster, but he devotes a fair amount of his workday to sales. Burleson said Kellman has been selling sponsorships for the Indians for more than 30 years.

In recent months, Randy Lewandowski has taken over the Indians’ corporate partnership department, and Burleson said he’s “provided excellent direction and focus.”

Burleson also credits Keri Oberting, the corporate sponsorship service coordinator, and said the department has been energized by newcomers Amanda Murray and Christina Toler.

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