How drafting Victor Wembanyama could change everything for the Indiana Pacers

For years, the Pacers have failed to make noise on the national stage. Even here in Indiana, interest is minimal. Last season, they had the lowest attendance in the league. This season, through five games, they’re third from the bottom.

The Pacers are the 26th-most valuable NBA franchise in 2022, according to Forbes.

If they bottom out this season -- the Pacers are currently a surprising and entertaining 6-6 -- and they get a little bit of luck, one player could change everything. Victor Wembanyama is the golden goose who could transform the franchise’s external perception overnight.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said on NBA Countdown last month, “One team president said to me, ‘Drafting Wembanyama might add as much as $500 million to the value of your franchise.’”

What could that mean for the Pacers? No one knows, because this is uncharted territory.

“He'll have much wider influence and much quicker global impact than anybody we've ever seen before,” Sports Business Journal reporter Eric Prisbell told IndyStar. “The immediate financial impact for a team will be above and beyond anything that we have seen.”

Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92's Victor Wembanyama, left, guards NBA G League Ignite's Scoot Henderson during the second half of an exhibition basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, in Henderson, Nev.
Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92's Victor Wembanyama, left, guards NBA G League Ignite's Scoot Henderson during the second half of an exhibition basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, in Henderson, Nev.

'Tank for Wembanyama'

Wembanyama won’t play an NBA game for nearly 12 months, and his popularity in the United States is already sky-high. You can find a knock-off Spurs t-shirt with Wembanyama’s name on the back for $28 online. Elsewhere, you can get a “Tank for Wembanyama” t-shirt.

Wembanyama’s team, the Metropolitans 92 team played the G League Ignite in an exhibition Oct. 4. It aired on ESPN2. Scoot Henderson, the likely No. 2 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, plays for the Ignite. ESPN told IndyStar that 117,000 people watched the game, making it the second-most-watched G League game since the beginning of 2017.

The NBA announced in late October that it will stream every Metropolitans 92 game this season for free on its app.

The fervor is building, and it's advantageous for the NBA to market Wembanyama as much as possible. The league recently expanded its international sponsor limit to 10 — it was previously three. The changes were approved in April.

“The expansion has allowed (teams) to put forward a thoughtful approach in how they’re investing and what deals they’re looking at,” Stacy McWilliams, the NBA’s senior vice president of team marketing and business operation, told Yahoo.

The Pacers did not respond to multiple IndyStar inquiries regarding the team’s strategy on international sponsorship deals. Its jersey patch sponsor (Motorola), naming partner (Gainbridge), beer partner (Yuenling) and sports gaming partner (PointsBet) are all American companies.

Other NBA teams, like the Golden State Warriors, have worldwide followings, due in large part to international sponsorship deals. Rakuten, a Japanese e-commerce company, recently extended their partnership as the franchise’s jersey patch sponsor for $20 million per season, according to Sports Pro Media.

The Pacers’ initial jersey patch deal with Motorola, signed in 2018, was reported by the Indianapolis Business Journalto be worth $8 million-10 million over two years.

“Victor's going to be on TV a lot. His image will be all over the world — him at the free-throw line, running down the court, from his waist up,” Prisbell said. “The brand that has their logo on that jersey, it will be very, very powerful and enable them to really grow in terms of their recognition and relevance, not only in the United States, but around the world.”

Wembanyama’s profile in France has skyrocketed in recent weeks, especially after his United States debut on national TV. Metropolitans president Alain Weisz told NBC Sports that the team’s first game after Wembanyama’s exhibition against the G League Ignite sold out for the first time in team history.

“What the lad’s doing is unheard of,” Weisz told France Info radio. “It’s not just young people here or rappers who identify with Victor. Even (former Prime Minister of France) Lionel Jospin called me for a ticket. What happened in the United States created an interest level that was unimaginable.”

But the interest isn’t just contained to France. When Wembanyama comes to the NBA, interest will explode internationally. Why? Access to games and highlights.

“You can be a 10 year old on the street corner in the Philippines where they are basketball crazy, have your phone and watch highlights of Victor in real time, whether he's playing the G League Ignite team or another team back in France,” Prisbell said. “That immediately creates recognition. Viewership is just exploding with NBA League Pass, specifically in Brazil, the Philippines, Australia. When Victor comes to the NBA, it will be through the roof in France as well.”

League Pass is available in more than 200 countries. NBA Senior Vice President, Head of International Content Partnerships Matt Brabants told Forbes last year that, “NBA League Pass viewership increased 32% year-over-year in total game views across Europe and the Middle East, and compared to last season.”

International starpower is a big driver for audience growth. Brabants said League Pass subscriptions in Greece increased by 30% during the playoffs when the Milwaukee Bucks and the ‘Greek Freak,’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, won the NBA Finals.

Social media didn't exist for LeBron James' emergence

Everyone’s talking about Wembanyama, but no one knows how he will change the game. The closest thing we’ve seen to this level of fervor was the coming of LeBron James. But there are stark differences.

When James was a rookie, YouTube wouldn’t exist for two years. Twitter wouldn’t exist for three. By the time TikTok came around, LeBron had a son who was 12 years old.

When LeBron James was a rookie, the NBA All-Star Game was on cable for the first time. In 2004, during the week of the NBA conference championships, ABC aired 13 primetime promotions for the NBA Finals. It aired 17 promotions for the Indy 500, according to Sports Business Daily.

In 2003, James’ rookie season, Forbes reported that the Los Angeles Lakers were the league’s most valuable team — at $426 million. Today, the least valuable NBA team (the New Orleans Pelicans) is worth $1.6 billion.

The NBA landscape James entered might as well be on a different planet than the one Wembanyama will soon experience. Times have changed.

And there’s the uncertainty of Wembanyama’s long-term success. There have been plenty of players who were supposed to be the next big thing — current Butler assistant Greg Oden comes to mind — who never panned out.

More:Few know what Victor Wembanyama is facing as projected No. 1 NBA draft pick; Greg Oden does

Prisbell predicts that brands will go all-in early and see what happens.

“In Year 1 to Year 2, it's going to be off the charts,” he said of interest from sponsors. “After that, for anybody to say that they could see where this is headed, I think that would be foolish.”

Pacers tanking? 'I don't want to see it'

Only one team is going to get a shot at Wembanyama. That team is going to have to win the race to the bottom of the standings. And Pacers owner Herb Simon, who declined to be interviewed for this story, won’t tank. Not intentionally, anyway. He said as much last December.

“I don’t want to see it,” Simon said. “And if I don’t want to see it, the fans don’t want to see it. Why would we want to go through a rebuild when we can build on the go? That’s the talent. Donnie did it all the time. Larry did it. Kevin (Pritchard) will do it. We can do it.”

The Pacers came into the season predicted to be one of the worst teams in the NBA. They started 1-4, but have won four of five to get to .500. The Ringer did an analysis that found teams who win 25 games have an 11.6% chance of landing the No. 1 pick. Win any more than that, and the odds plummet. (It’s worth noting that even the teams with the three worst records have only a 14% chance at the top pick.)

Simon, the Pacers and the rest of the NBA are faced with this reality: The real winner this season might be the team that loses the most. And even then, it might not be enough.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: How much is Victor Wembanyama worth to an NBA team?