Part of the Indiana Pacers’ home-court advantage is their Home Court advantage.
Some of the merchandise displayed by fans looking to raise the Bankers Life Fieldhouse roof is purchased either inside the Pacers’ Home Court Gift Shop or from one of nine strategically positioned souvenir stands in the building.
It’s all done under the seasoned gaze of Gary Nelson, now in his 14th year as Pacers Sports and Entertainment director of merchandise.
Nelson has witnessed all there is to see since coming to the Pacers in 2000 following an 18-year career with L.S. Ayres and Co. department stores in the Indianapolis area.
He arrived on a wave of unprecedented momentum — the heels of the franchise’s first and only trip to the NBA Finals.
The Indianapolis native has since been front and center in the push to push merchandise through bleak times (The Brawl) on into Indiana’s gradual rise back to championship contender.
Smiling, Nelson said about the brawl, “We really don’t talk about that.”
With the help of his staff, Nelson makes Pacers-themed products available in the NBA’s seventh-smallest market based on trends, instinct and experience.
He claims that, even with the ebbs and flows the 2013-14 season has provided, Indiana faithful have remained just that.
“They’ve been fabulous,” he said. “The fans have been consistently good through the season. They’ve been very optimistic in thinking everything is going to be OK.”
Asked if having one of Indiana’s own, Larry Bird, as team president factors into such thinking, Nelson said, “I think it does. People have an awful lot of confidence in him.”
The Home Court Gift Shop, positioned on the fieldhouse’s west side, subscribes to the something-for-everyone theory regarding Pacers fans of all ages and sizes.
And because basketball fans are usually in a hurry to get back to their seats, the cost of every item here and at the souvenir stands is priced so that an even dollar amount is required after sales tax.
For example, a mesh baby’s bib is priced at $7.48 ($8). Asking price for a sleeve of three Pacers golf balls goes for $9.34 ($10), as does the conventional-sized Pacers coffee mug.
Those in need of greater caffeine intake can opt for the big Pacers coffee mug ($11.21/$12) or the even larger travel coffee mug ($23.36/$25).
Men’s, women’s and children’s clothing and souvenir items are available. Likewise, so are shot glasses going for $6.54/$7 or $7.48/$8.
There are references to the franchise’s proud ABA beginning, whether it’s a jersey bearing the name of Roger Brown or Mel Daniels or clothing with the original team insignia (hand palming a basketball).
The driving force behind those teams, legendary coach Bobby “Slick” Leonard, is scheduled for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September. Naturally, T-shirts honoring Slick also are available for purchase.
Nelson calls it reacting to circumstances. It’s why team T-shirts devoted to the Pacers winning the Central Division and others promoting their current playoff push are neatly folded and ready for purchase.
Then there are the “Blue Collar, Gold Swagger” socks ($11.21/$12). These, according to Nelson, have taken on a life of their own with more than 800 pair sold since late January.
For Pacers fans unwilling or unable to visit the Home Court Gift Shop, its online option is PacersGear.com.
Daily Journal sportswriter Mike Beas recently sat down with Nelson for a quick Q & A centered around the Pacers, their fans what’s needed in the merchandising field:
MB: What are the items most sold to Pacers fans?
GN: The biggest category we have is both our jerseys and the name-and-number T-shirts, where the fans can identify with a specific player.
Paul George is No. 1, by far. Lance Stephenson is very popular. Roy (Hibbert) is very popular. George Hill and David West. Usually it goes with the starting five.
MB: I notice Chris Copeland, for a guy who doesn’t play a lot, is very well-received here. Do you sell many Copeland items?
GN: We sell a little bit of stuff. He is very well-liked here. I think (Copeland) kind of went through the school of hard knocks to get here, and the people in this part of the country appreciate a person who is persistent.
MB: Like everyone else in this building, you have to wait and see how the product performs on the basketball court. What’s the biggest challenge of your job?
GN: You have to be able to react to the team’s success. And you have to be able to manage your business and your inventory levels based on the team’s success and how you think they’re going to do.
MB: Do items drop in price if the team is struggling or rise if the Pacers are playing well?
GN: No. It doesn’t have any effect. Prices are based on similar-type product throughout the country. Our prices are a bit lower than some of the big markets.
MB: What kind of national presence do the Pacers have when it comes to merchandising? Is it picking up in other markets now that the franchise is widely viewed as a championship contender?
GN: It’s pretty concentrated here. There’s always a presence with a few items at the NBA store and NBA.com, but not anywhere near the selection of product we have.
MB: Is it more of a headache when the Pacers are doing well, say the 33-7 start to this season?
GN: It’s certainly not a headache. It’s a challenge, but we did a pretty good job of keeping key items in. We always have to have jerseys, and then you have to have a pretty broad selection of everything else. You don’t necessarily have to buy as much of it depending upon the team’s performance.
MB: How do you gauge success with what you do? Does it all come down to dollars and cents?
GN: Not necessarily. I gauge our success on how we’re compared to other teams in the league. We consistently rank in the top 10 in sales even though we’re in one of the smaller markets, and we’re well above that this year. We’ve had a tremendous year.
MB: On a game night, what is your normal routine? Do you just go back and forth between the gift shop and various souvenir areas?
GN: Yes, and I have some other responsibilities during the game that I do as far as game operations, so I kind of split my time.
MB: What do you look for when you visit these stations?
GN: I make sure the presentation of the key items is appropriate and our staffing is appropriate.
MB: Is there a fan preference of home and away and gold jerseys?
GN: That’s a challenge, yes. Our theme has kind of changed over the course of the years. We’ve placed a lot more emphasis on gold. That jersey was our third jersey years ago, and now the team wears it more. I work with the basketball department on when we’re going to wear it, which causes me to buy more. I work a lot with Peter Dinwiddie, who is the VP of basketball operations. He’s my main guy.
MB: How often do you place orders?
GN: It depends on the product. With T-shirts you can get those fairly quickly, so you react to the situation on those. With jerseys you have to plan those out through the year. Those jerseys take four to five months to be made, so you have to plan them out and be fairly accurate with that.