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Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Seems It's Worth Explaining that Indiana Post A Little More


The very last post on this here blog had some thoughts about race and Indiana.

I have gotten some angry emails, cranky blog posts, pointed IMs, and saucy comments in response.

For instance, the excellent blogger Cornrows, of Indy Cornrows -- who first made me aware of the Indiana Business Journal article that started the discussion -- writes in response:

The whole racial angle pushed in the IBJ article is a joke. Al Harrington was, check that, IS beloved around Indy. Ron Artest had his detractors but also had plenty of support. So much so, he's moved several family members to a local suburb and lived here in the offseason.

Yes, Stephen Jackson had his issues with the law, but he also had his issues with Rick Carlisle and didn't give the Pacers a consistent effort. This had nothing to do with his offcourt issues or that he was black. [Stephen Jackson]'s presence on the Pacers just wasn't working. Sarunas Jasikevicius was taking as much heat as Jack for his unproductive ways and, oh, yeah, he was part of the Golden State deal, too.

Simple minds may come up with simple solutions for why Jack was traded and Dunleavy and Murphy were part of the deal. Did you ever think that Dunleavy and Murphy weren't the Pacers' first option in the deal? Their contracts are brutal, but like I said before, Jack had to go, so the Pacers had to take on those contracts.

One final defense of the community in Indiana that many on both coasts assume remains backward and racist, please look at the support for the Indianapolis Colts. There are plenty of Super Bowl rings worn by Colts who would be considered part of the "hip hop" culture and they are adored. While he didn't win a ring here, no player typified "hip hop" culture more than Edgerrin James, so much so he refused to alter his image to attract endorsement opportunities. Edge also worked like crazy, produced plenty of wins, and did his thing in the community. He was a rock star here and will always be welcomed for giving everything he had to give.

To be honest, the majority of the Indy area has given up on the Pacers which is easy since the Colts are there to ease the pain. Still, I'm not a fan of the ad campaign. As I've said before, I wish the Pacers would develop some creative ads, using the players and some humor which would make the players more appealing to the public. If all the Pacers are getting out of their new public relations help are the ads that make O'B sound like he's ready to lead a death march, then they should ask for a refund. But, again, why lay this issue soley on racial implications.

To answer Henry's question, yes I want to root for black players, just as I have for as many years as I can remember. Just don't call yourself an NBA insider and insult me by making an assumption from on far that I don't appraise a player's performance by anything other that what they leave on the court. The whole argument is shallow and an embarrassment for those who advance it.

I feel that most, if not all, of these responses misunderstood in some fashion what I was trying to say. So I guess that's a sign I didn't say it very well, and ought to try again (only this time with more Elvis references).

Here goes:

Business and Basketball
There are two groups of important people who work in NBA front offices: People who make basketball decisions (typically a small group, often one or two guy with a few advisers) and people who try to figure out how to make more money (just about everyone else). They want to sell more tickets, get more profitable TV deals, sell more jerseys, get more corporate sponsorships, and the like.

That latter group? They don't obsess about PER or turnovers. They don't even worry all that much about hardcore basketball fans -- those people will watch and buy tickets when they can pretty much no matter what. No, those sales people obsess about the mood of the deepest pockets in town. Especially corporate money.

Because if a Pacer game is, in the minds of those people, the place to entertain clients, the team is making money practically no matter how well they play. But if those bigwigs (those bank presidents, VPs of multinationals, ad agency honchos, CEOs, lawyers, stockbrokers, venture capitalists and the like) think the team is not a good bet, then they'll take their entertainment budget across the street to the Colts, or to the arts, or somewhere else entirely.

Disconnect Between the Pacers and their Fans
Those two groups -- the basketball people and the business people -- can be natural allies. They both want to win more games, right? Winning is the balm that soothes every kind of NBA front office owie.

If you're the Pacers, you no doubt remember fondly the days of 2003-2004. In 2003-2004, the Pacers -- led by Reggie Miller, Jermaine O'Neal, and Ron Artest -- were 61-21. There had not yet been any kind of brawl at Auburn Hills. In the regular season, the Pacers were the best team in the entire league.

Yet attendance was way back in the middle of the pack. At home, an average of 10% of the stadium was empty all season long.

Huh?

It's tough for small-market NBA teams to make it. They are at a natural disadvantage in terms of the kinds of corporate sponsorships they can get, the TV revenue they can drive and the like. But one advantage they sometimes have is really deep penetration into the market. They can sometimes get the whole darned city behind them. Look at that list of attendance figures I linked to above. A lot of the best-attended teams are in small markets.

So the Pacers might have felt a tad insecure about how they related to their public. Not worried, perhaps, but wondering.

Then the next season there is the brawl at Auburn Hills. Catastrophe on all fronts. It's so terrible, people from the Pacers, and the NBA, can hardly even bring themselves to talk about it, even to this day.

Watch the video again if you have forgotten the scene.

After that the team had some real bridge building to do with the public. We're supposed to like these guys who wade into the stands swinging fists? Impossible!

Ron Artest had to go, and the team got a rental of a hobbled Peja Stojakovic (and eventually the trade exception that became Al Harrington) in return. That wasn't a trade for talent. That was a trade for image.

The team also went to great lengths, in terms of marketing and public relations, to start building trust with skittish Indiana fans. By this time two years ago, the team's attendance had slipped even lower.

This time a year ago, the team had a a campaign called "It's Up to Us." It was all about accountability and building a better way.

Then Stephen Jackson, one of the players featured in the campaign, got in trouble shooting off a gun in a club parking lot.

It made a mockery of the campaign.

Last year, the team had something fascinating happen. According to these numbers, (and, admittedly, there is some weirdness in this chart) nearly 98% of tickets to their road games were sold, while at home it was a brutally low 83%. First-hand accounts confirm Conseco Fieldhouse was pretty darned empty.

Repulsed by Stephen Jackson
Now picture yourself back in those front-office meetings over the last year. It does
not matter how much the basketball people might love Stephen Jackson. Something has to be done, right? Again, there are reports that this team is losing money and has been for a few years.

The people of Indiana are saying, with their dollars, that they do not like this team one bit. Stephen Jackson is the obvious problem child -- he was a star of the Auburn Hills incident, and then this shooting. The business people have to be telling the basketball people (who probably already know) that Jackson simply has to go.

So they made a trade that was not for equal talent. It was not about basketball. It was about trying to woo, or at least not further anger, those local business people the team needs. Mike Dunleavy, Jr. does not scare Indiana fans. And as a bonus, Troy Murphy even went to Notre Dame.

The downside is that the big, medicore value contracts stick with the team into 2011, and it's hard to be a top team when you are carrying big contracts that aren't super productive. Not to mention, in the big picture, this is about trying not to lose money, and big contracts would seem to be the worst possible thing.

No one wondered why the Pacers made that trade, but hardly any basketball experts think it was about talent. (Maybe Ike Diogu blossoms?) And nowhere did people think it made the team better. It made the team more palatable.

And fair enough! You do what you have to do to keep your business going, you know?

Market Research
Now, we have news that the team brought in a new ad agency, Publicis Indianapolis. The new agency, wisely, did some market research. What is it that fans want to see from this team? In what way can the team but its best foot forward?

We are lucky enough to have some insight into what that market research showed, because (as I quoted yesterday) the people who did it talked to the Indiana Business Journal's Anthony Schoettle, who writes:

O'Brien was chosen as the primary spokesman for the early part of the campaign, Hirschauer said, because research showed the older, corporate audience that buys season tickets finds him credible.

Part of the shift, Hirschauer said, is because many Pacers fans in this "conservative market" don't identify with the "hip-hop" culture some in the NBA have cultivated in recent years.

Pacers fans are more interested in things like hustle, teamwork and fundamentally sound basketball than individual stars, he said.

This is actual insight from someone who was actually heavily involved in the decision to choose O'Brien as the star of the campaign. The local president of Publicis, Tom Hirschauer, has real data, and supports the decision with news that local people in Indiana are "conservative" and don't identify with hip-hop culture.

Plenty of people said in the comments yesterday, in my email, and elsewhere, that I'm full of it, and that the reason the team used O'Brien is because the team doesn't have a marketable star. I'm prepared to believe that could be true, in theory (and yesterday I speculated that the reason might also have something to do with not wanting to market around O'Neal who is widely believed to be on the trading block). But we don't have to noodle around with theory, because we have real research from one of the key people who was actually in on the decision to use O'Brien.

And the research says nothing about a lack of a marketable star. It says the problem is hip-hop culture. So, that's not on me. That's on whoever was surveyed.

What is "Hip-Hop Culture?"
It's clear by now, right? Through a fractured market -- everyone listens to whatever they want -- hip hop is the new, thrillingly dangerous music of this generation. Hip hop is to 2007 roughly as rock and roll was to 1957. Kids gravitate to whatever's most exciting, and nothing has ever been as exciting as making your parents squirm.

As was pointed out in the comments of yesterday's post, the wiggly hips of Elvis Presley used to be enough to do it. Now it's -- gasp -- hip hop, which is (like rhythm and blues -- the forerunner of rock) dominated by black people.

Of course, once you delve into rock and roll you realize that it's not all the same. Some of it is exactly what you want your kids to listen to. Some of it is shocking and terrible. (Analyze the most deviant of Rolling Stones lyrics, you know?)

Same goes for hip hop, of course. It has been around a while now, and it is certainly the predominant music of NBA players. And the cultures of hip hop and the NBA mix plenty.

It's natural that it takes time to learn about that, though. Parents in 1957 who hated the way Presley danced might have later really loved the Beatles, James Taylor, or Simon & Garfunkel. That was rock(ish) but more suited to their palette, and it came along at a time when they were more used to the idea.

Similarly, parents today might really hate 50 Cent or whatever their kids listen to -- but plenty of them will still leap from their seats when that catchy Outkast tune starts playing at some wedding.

The point is, whether or not we want to admit it, we're all on the road to welcoming some hip hop into our mainstream culture. In many respects, that has already happened. (They're not going to play classical music at NBA games, that's for sure.) But in Indiana, it appears, a fair chunk of the people answering surveys for Publicis are not ready to embrace that.

It's maddening, right? What's that about? It makes sense to me that the guy from Cornrows and a bunch of other people would be mad at that idea. Hell no we're not racist, they say! And I believe every one of them! It seems like just more Midwest bashing, I guess.

They're mad at me, it seems. Or they're mad at the guy from Publicis. But shouldn't they really be talking to the people who answered that survey? They're the ones who pointed the finger at hip-hop culture.

And for the record: I'm not sure the region has much to do with it. We just happen to have this insight into this one team. If we had all the market research for the whole league, I'm pretty sure we'd find similar concerns about hip-hop culture around the nation.

That's why the NBA has a history of getting players to remove jewelry before appearing in mass media, asking them to dress like bankers as they enter the arena, and in one famous instance, airbrushing Allen Iverson's tattoos out of photos in their official magazine.

Racism Exists
And is any of this surprising? Is any of this unique to Indiana? Race is an unsolved riddle in Indiana and across the entire globe.

If, as some of my critics have suggested, Indiana is a marvelous haven, free of racism, where wealthy mostly white fans will swarm equally at the feet of white and black celebrities, then hats off to Indiana. It's just about the only such place I'm aware of on the planet. If white people in Indiana don't demonstrate a slight preference (slightly more dollars, votes, cheers) for people who look like them then they are living differently than most of the planet, and should be commended.

And nowhere did I or anyone else suggest that Indiana was incapable of supporting a black player. People have been saying that the popularity of Reggie Miller or Edgerrin James disproves my whole point.

Those guys are superstars who lead great teams, in leagues that are predominantly black. If Indiana wouldn't support them, then they don't even like football and basketball. No one suggested that the people of Indiana would never support anyone who wasn't white.

Let's look at it another way though. If you wanted to draw a crowd to you
r charity event in downtown Indianapolis, who would be the bigger score, Peyton Manning alone or Reggie Miller, Edgerrin James, Jermaine O'Neal all together?

The point is, you don't have to squint too hard to get the idea that whiteness itself could be culturally valuable to the fans surveyed in Indiana and likely elsewhere -- at least according to my crude and distant parsing of a fragment of Publicis research.

And frankly, people who read TrueHoop or run basketball blogs, they're hardcore basketball fans. They're not the people we're talking about here. They're not going to stop liking the team because this or that player is this or that color. They're likely not the fringe fans the team would be trying to reach with a Jim O'Brien-led ad campaign. This is a battle for the bank presidents and the like that the Pacer business people are worried about. This is a battle for people who aren't sure they want to support this team. (Guys like that don't start blogs about the team.)

The point was that if you want to pick the best person to represent your Pacer team to those guys, at this juncture of history, research appears to suggest you want someone who is not hip hop.

I'm not precisely sure what that means, but I'm guessing a white guy is a smart choice.

By the way, the comments on that last post are great, so I pasted a few of them below (click on through) as food for thought:

cmorancie69 writes:

This is not a race issue from the standpoint of the organization. This is a choice based solely, on the environment surrounding the product. Sadly to say, the color of the current players have a great deal to do in this marketing approach. On the other hand, the people might have an easier time getting behind the team if they had a winning season or two and showed some sort of desire to get better. It is unfortunate, that people of other color seem to equate hip hop with the color of someones skin and consequently bad behavoir. The organization has no choice, to make money they need to give the people what they want and that seems to be a team full of players that look like larry bird.

Incredebell writes:

I've lived in Indiana all my life. I assure you, this has very little to do with racism. If there is any racism involved, it is a very small percentage. This state embraces teamwork, fundamentals, hustle, and smart basketball. And they'll embrace anyone who embodies this, regardless of the color of skin. Many Pacers fans have fond memories of the '90s and embraced players like Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson, Dale Davis, Antonio Davis, Chuck Person, and even Haywoode Workman -- all black. The Pacers fanbase is not racist, but they are picky about what type of basketball they like.

This ad campaign features O'Brien because, as others have mentioned, he's pretty much the only marketable guy right now. Last year, the ads featured players with the slogan "It's up to us." It was essentially an attempt to say "we're putting all the old crap (the brawl, everything Artest-related) behind us and we're going to be responsible adults from now on." The ads featured Stephen Jackson, Jamaal Tinsley, Marquis Daniels, among others. The ads were in newspapers and on billboards. Preseason hadn't even begun when the shooting at Club Rio happened.

Suddenly millions of dollars of marketing and good will went down the toilet. Very quietly, those billboards started coming down.

Simply put, the Pacers' marketing department is not going to take the chance of their campaign blowing up in their face again.

Wanderlust 1975 says:

This is about being a "Thug" and a "Gangsta" not about hip hop. I am an indiana native who has been living in Portland, OR for the last 7 years. I have always been a pacers fan but I have slowly lost interest over the last few seasons with how the team has developed, or not developed. It is funny that when I got here to Portland (a pretty white town) the same thing was happening here with sheed, bonzi, rider, woods....etc, etc. The thuggish jailblazers. We had the same reaction from the fans, no one cared about the team anymore because the team did not seem to care about the community they represented. Finally things are turning around here and we have a bunch of good kids who work hard, play hard and stay out of trouble. And you know what, 90% of the team is black and listens to hip hop! gasp!!

UPDATE: Here's an interesting email I got from a TrueHoop reader named Dan:

I've spent my life in basically three places so far: urban Indiana, suburban Denver, and fairly rural Wyoming (college will take you to the strangest places).

If there's one racially-related thing that I feel fairly confident in claiming, it's that people's general outlook regarding race has been essentially the same in these three very disparate places (and, by extension, likely is elsewhere as well). There have been pockets of racism in each but most of the folks in these very different places don't find race a major concern in any aspect of life.

Those sending you angry emails from Indiana need to try to distance themselves from their geography; they need to realize that this really has nothing to do with their locality because what was written about Indiana is probably widely applicable. It would likely be true in Denver and there's no doubt that Denver's reaction would be the same.

This isn't about where you live. Nor, in many ways, is this issue even discretely about race (though I wouldn't try to claim it plays no part at all). So, let's just take these issues off the table for a minute.

This is about money. Not black or white, but green.

Those well-off, potential, fringe fans discussed in your post are at the heart of this. They're potential donors/investors. They're a largely untapped market and a struggling organization would be silly not to try to take advantage. It's simply smart business.

But the thing is that people with money are likely to be very cautious with it, especially bankers, executives, and the like. It's their job, their nature and their mindset. Oftentimes, this fiscal caution is a big part of why they've achieved the financial success they have. Sure they splurge but they're also often the ones most inclined to drive across town to save 4 cents a gallon on gas. They probably tend to see even the most basic things (tickets or merchandise for a sports organization, for example) as investments.

All of us want to invest in safe opportunities. Combine this penchant for "investing" (rather than mere spending) with a little bit of extra natural caution and you end up with this: the Pacers, in order to woo this crowd, need to present themselves as a safe and worthwhile investment. An key thing here is that those things most like a person in easily identifiable ways always appear to be the safest thing out there! That's just human nature. That which is unlike me is not so well understood. And why invest in something I don't understand?

Hence, Jackson isn't ideal because bank presidents can't relate. He doesn't represent anything they understand! A key thing here is that neither would Jason Williams (come on, White Chocolate?). But Troy Murphy, the local hero? Sure! Makes sense. A Notre Dame grad who was very nearly worshipped during his time in the state (trust me, he was). That's just smart.

Hip-hop gets pulled into this because music has always been one of those ways that we can easily classify people; it's always been a cultural identifier. We all make assumptions about people based on the music they enjoy.

I'll be more naturally drawn to someone with a love for Common than I would for someone who has Death Cab for Cutie playing constantly (though I actually kind of like them too). That's a product of the culture in which I grew up. When I hear hip-hop, it represents safety and the known; to bank presidents, it represents the unknown and
different.

I have a feeling that a black athlete who happened to have a very clean cut appearance and an admitted love for, say, the Eagles (or pick whomever) would be a draw regardless of his skin color. Makes them feel right at home, you know?

Sure, hip-hop culture is about more than just music. But it starts there and, for many, ends there as well.