A quarterback change can derail an NFL team’s season. In Indianapolis, Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement from the Colts could have been the catalyst for a steep decline for the franchise.
Since his departure, it has instead been business as usual for the Colts. Not only has the team weathered the storm on the field, but they’ve also been able to withstand the noise and media buzz centered around Luck’s unexpected news off it as well.
“We stepped our way through that in a week or so and made all those tactical changes,” Colts Chief Sales and Marketing Officer Roger VanDerSnick said. “I think strategically, not much has really changed – and that’s a credit to the organization.”
Before Luck retired, the Colts had been seeing major improvements in two departments heading into the 2019 season, said VanDerSnick. With a focus on taking care of Indianapolis’s season ticket holders, the organization doubled its sales staff. This meant that each season ticket holder had their own account manager who could inform them about the new benefits at their disposal.
VanDerSnick estimates that the extra perks in this season’s season ticket plans were 40% to 50% higher year-over-year. They included everything from having the opportunity to win experiences like attending team trips, going to the Super Bowl, touring Lucas Oil Stadium and access to other venue events. Improving its membership has VanDerSnick confident that he can match last year’s renewals success, which was the highest in the last 10 years.
The second focus was on ramping up the Colts’ marketing and ticket sales operations, said VanDerSnick. He estimates that the organization tripled its resources for new season ticket members in group sales and also saw incremental increases on its premium sales side.
With ticketing operations tripling this season, VanDerSnick and his team added software like Salesforce that helped them collect and score high opportunity leads for season ticket sales. Already, the Colts have benefited from the help of this technology. VanDerSnick said that the team is 5% ahead of last year’s ticket sales and is in the process of selling season tickets for 2020.
“It has been a concentrated strategy for us to invest more in our resources and our tools so that our fans have an even higher level of appreciation for Lucas Oil Stadium,” VanDerSnick said.
When important players leave their team, it’s the latter’s responsibility to find a successor and an updated marketing strategy. When Peyton Manning was released by the Colts in 2011, the team-centered its attention on Luck, who was its No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Now that Luck is no longer QB1, Indianapolis has rallied around quarterback Jacoby Brissett, said VanDerSnick. No matter who’s taking the snap, the Colts have maintained their fan-friendly reputation.
Entering the 2019 season, a Seatgeek survey showed that the Colts were in the top quartile of NFL teams when it came to multiple fan-experience initiatives. Ranking fourth and second in stadium food and bathroom quality, respectively, VanDerSnick says that better customer service has driven improved ingress and egress experiences for visitors.
Another category that has changed is Lucas Oil Stadium’s food and beverage options. This season, the Colts added hard seltzer as a drink option along with more craft cocktails for their diverse fanbase.
“We’re blessed – we have a retractable roof stadium,” VanDerSnick said. “When it’s really hot outside, it’s nice and cool and comfortable inside. Those nice fall days where the weather is great – we’ll have the roof open and it’ll be amazing. When it’s zero or 10 degrees, we’ll have the roof closed and we’ll still be comfortable at 72 degrees. So the game-day experience itself is terrific – a lot of that because of the roofed stadium.”
Even the Colts’ social media following has been able to thrive post-Andrew Luck. On September 25 – barely a month following Luck’s retirement – the team launched a TikTok account for their mascot Blue.
The team had discovered the Chinese-based mobile app after its relationship with the Chicago Bulls, said Trey Mock, who wears the Blue costume. The Bulls have two distinct TikTok profiles: a general team account and one for their mascot, Benny the Bull. While Chicago’s team presence has garnered over 55,000 followers as of November 17, its mascot profile has nearly 875,000 – second in professional sports only to the Golden State Warriors’ 1.2 million.
Including Luck into Blue’s TikTok feed was obviously something drawn up by the Colts, said Vice President of Marketing Stephanie Pemberton. Even though that opportunity never happened, it hasn’t hurt Blue’s social media presence.
As of November 17, Blue has nearly 220,000 followers and over 2.5 million likes on its posts. On TikTok, the account has focused on finding fun, innovative ways to make people laugh – and so far, he hasn’t needed to rely on the football team to do that.
“The reality is – Blue is doing such a great job building his brand as an extension of the Colts,” Pemberton said. “I don’t think any of his content to date has any player involvement. Not that we’ve made a strategic decision to say, ‘we’re not getting Colts players,’ but I think what we’ve seen is that the mascot can really stand on its own as its own brand.”
Throughout an NFL season, a multitude of events can alter its trajectory. Key players go down with injuries, roster holes can emerge at pivotal positions, or the on-field performance could just be lacking.
In the Colts’ case, Luck’s retirement could’ve ended their season before their Week 1 loss against the Los Angeles Chargers, said Amy Trask, former CEO of the Oakland Raiders turned football analyst for CBS Sports and columnist for The Athletic.
To prepare for those season-altering scenarios, Trask said that teams work to sell as much inventory – like season tickets, club seats, sponsorships, etc. – before the Week 1 kickoff. Since transitioning from Luck to Brissett, the Colts’ competitive nature – on and off the gridiron – hasn’t slipped.
Heading into Week 11, Indianapolis has an average home attendance of 61,113 through six home games – a 3.2% increase year-over-year. At 6-4 overall, it is also tied for first place in the AFC South with the Houston Texans. Different teams have to react to different issues – but with the Colts, Brissett has made the adjustment far less challenging than it could’ve been, said Trask.
“I’ve been most impressed with the seemingly calm and collected manner in which they have approached this,” Trask said. “We certainly don’t know from the outside looking in if it has been calm and collected in all regards or if there has been some scrambling, but the team has projected a calm and collected demeanor and that is both impressive and tremendously valuable.”