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As March Madness provides a boost in visibility, Pacers still in search of a new naming rights partner
They have a year-to-year pact with CNO Financial until they land a new marquee partner. But are they leaving money on the table?
Bankers Life Fieldhouse will soon wrap up a remarkable stretch hosting 43 games in 40 days. That includes basketball games at every level: high school, college and professional.
Especially college, though.
The home of the Pacers and Fever served as the host for the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament as well as one of six tournament sites for the NCAA Div. I men’s basketball tournament.
Fifty-five of 67 March Madness games are being played in Indianapolis, including 16 at The Fieldhouse. Which raises the question: What’s the status of finding a new naming rights partner and how much are the Pacers missing out on by not having one in place?
The Fieldhouse opened on Nov. 8, 1999 and cost $183 million to build. CNO Financial (previously Conseco Inc.) paid PS&E $2 million annually for the naming rights over the life of the 20-year deal, which was agreed to in 1999.
On March 13, 2018, Pacers Sports & Entertainment announced that CNO Financial, the parent company to Bankers Life, would allow for the naming rights to expire at the end of their 20-year contract and a search for a new partner had begun.
It expired on June 30, 2019 — yet the name and partnership remains in place 21 months later.
PS&E hired Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment to help this marquee marketing piece — and "is seeking a partner to pay potentially more than double the deal in place." Multiple interview requests to Van Wagner were not answered.
The name has changed just once in 21 years — from Conseco to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Dec. 22, 2011. And that’s by design.
“It’s great to have that continuity, especially when we’re talking about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help the NCAA out as part of March Madness,” said Andy Mallon, the Executive Director of the Capital Improvement Board (CIB). “Everybody knows what you’re talking about when you say Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“It’s part of our landscape, it’s part of our brand as a city. To have that continuity has been valuable.”
A PS&E spokesman told Fieldhouse Files that “while the original deal (with CNO Financial) ended, there’s a year-to-year partnership in place that is mutually agreed upon.”
Financial terms were not shared.
Once again, it was stressed how they are looking for the right partner, one that isn’t just slapping their name on the building but is in it with them. They want a partner that is out in the community and just as visible as they are.
PS&E’s core purpose is “winning championships and serving community.” Team employees are often reminded of that.
One significant change that occurred was in leadership at CNO Financial. Longtime CEO Ed Bonach, who was synonymous with the company and frequently at Pacers events, retired after almost 11 years and Gary Bhojwani took over Jan. 1, 2018.
Two months later, it was announced that a search was underway for a replacement.
“We are actively working with Pacers Sports & Entertainment to identify the next phase of our collaboration together,” Bhojwani said in a statement.
In normal times, The Fieldhouse hosts more than 600 events each year. It’s home to the Pacers, Fever and some of the biggest concerts of the year.
This March has been extra special — for the city, the building and employees. It has been much needed, too, considering the COVID-19 pandemic.
PS&E laid off approximately 16 percent of its staff (about 50 employees) last July. Many of the cuts were in sales — from group events to fan engagement and other areas that suffered without fans in the building for nine months.
Originally scheduled to host the 2021 All-Star game in February, the organization’s next partner will have it’s name featured prominently at All-Star Weekend in 2024, one of the NBA’s special events.
Throughout March, there were several thousand fans at every NCAA Tournament game and millions more watching at home. More than 2,000 members of the media are in town, but only a couple dozen are credentialed for each game. So the rest are covering the teams and ancillary events across the city, including the media headquarters at the Arts Garden.
“We’ve seen Sports Illustrated come through, we’ve seen NBC Nightly News, we’ve seen nearly every major news outlet on the ground here reporting not only on the X’s and O’s and who’s winning and losing, but also on the host city,” said Chris Gahl, the Senior Vice President of Marketing & Communications for Visit Indy.
Like this feature below that aired in Tallahassee, Fla. — and can be viewed anywhere on YouTube.
Gahl continued: “That’s brand-building media exposure that helps boost Indianapolis during this very critical time and brands us as a city that’s capable of hosting major sporting events, and entrusted with major sporting events."
Because the tournament is showcasing the building, one of the best basketball facilities in the world, the Pacers believe it will help in landing their next partnership.
For 16 March Madness games, Bankers Life Fieldhouse received $15.291 million in projected equivalent brand value, Apex Marketing Group President Eric Smallwood told Fieldhouse Files. That includes TV, radio, print and online.
For three weeks out of the year, that alone is almost eight times the previous annual fee.
And because four tournament sites are in Indianapolis, announcers on national TV couldn’t simply welcome viewers back to Indianapolis — but rather “inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse.”
Just down the street, Lucas Oil Stadium — home of the Final Four — is receiving $41 million in equivalent brand value for three weeks of games, Smallwood said.
Visit Indy estimates Indianapolis will generate more than $100 million in economic impact in March from hosting the Big Ten men’s and women’s basketball tournament, along with 67 games for March Madness.
“It’s great to be able to do this kind of marquee event with so much exposure and goodwill and morale after such a terrible year for our industry,” Mallon added.
Over on 125 S. Pennsylvania Street, the search for a new partner continues. Although the CIB owns the building, its lease agreement allows for PS&E to keep all naming rights revenue.
“That is on the Pacers’ plate,” Mallon said. “They get the revenue from that. We are obviously very interested in the name that goes on the building that we own and maintain. But it really is the Pacers’ opportunity to take advantage of.
“I don’t think it’s a missed opportunity from the public’s perspective. We have a long, long time where Bankers Life’s name has been attached to the building.”
Meanwhile, construction for renovations are ongoing. The CIB and city agreed to spend $295 million on significant upgrades to The Fieldhouse and the Pacers have contributed $65 million. In all, that’s $360 million in upgrades for a top-of-the-line building that doesn’t look its age.
“We build and maintain the public asset, and that’s really it,” Mallon continued. “We’re really proud of the construction that’s gone on and the progress that we made last year even in the middle of a pandemic.”
Phase one of three in renovations is complete. They started from the bottom of the building and have worked their way up. There’s all new seating in the lower level, two new bars, new loges and renovated suites, an upgraded star room area for performers, a much larger kitchen, a new Fever locker room and practice court, enhanced Wi-Fi and much more.
Last month, demolition began on the parking garage just north of The Fieldhouse, which is necessary to start construction on the fan plaza.
“It’s gonna be a beautiful public space for events and add another public amenity to the city,” Mallon said. “This summer, we hope to get most of the visible work done on the rest of the Fieldhouse.”
The target competition date for all renovations is early 2023 — more than a year before Indy’s All-Star weekend.
Beginning in 2008, the Indianapolis Colts earn $6.1 million per year over 20 years from Lucas Oil — or $122 million total.
In 2016, Little Caesars agreed to a 20-year deal worth $120 million — $6 million annually — for the naming rights to the new Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit, home of the Pistons and Red Wings.
The hope is that a new agreement is in place within the next year. Until then, the search is on for a new significant partner … and it will continue to be known at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.