Thursday, April 15, 2010
Pacers Play Hardball...Without a Ball
The Indiana Pacers have been a part of this community for over 40 years now, and I have been a huge fan since I was a pre-teen. When I was 11 years old, I went to a Pacers game at Market Square Arena with my brother. It seemed like we were the only two people in the entire place.
The Pacers that year were battling injuries, but they somehow found a way to beat the "Run TMC" Golden State Warriors in a game that had little or no defense. The Pacers won like 20 games that year. I cheered, and I loved my time there. The Pacers sucked, but within three or four years, new GM Donnie Walsh would make some shrewd moves under the hands off leadership of Mel and Herb Simon. The Pacers would begin to soar.
For a time in the 1990’s and into the early 2000’s, the team was pretty much the envy of small market professional sports. The Madhouse on Market Street rocked to the tune of over 16,500 fans per night, and the Pacers, led by Mr. Clutch, Reggie Miller, and barnstormed their way across the NBA with flash, flourish, and class.
Market Square wasn't big enough, so the Pacers said they needed something bigger and better because they just weren't profitable without corporate suites. They signed a 20-year lease that basically left them as the operators of a brand-spanking new basketball and entertainment venue, Conseco Fieldhouse. The Fieldhouse is consistently rated as one of the top arenas in the league...even today some 11 years after its construction.
The Pacers, however, have more in common now with that 1986 team that I watched with my brother than the 2000 team that played the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Predictably, attendance has fallen from over 18,700 fans per game to just about 14,500 fans per game. The Pacers are 27th in NBA attendance. The bills are mounting, and the Pacers are using a renegotiation clause to ask for the city's cash-strapped CIB to pick up the $15 million operating tag on Conseco Fieldhouse.
Yesterday, Jim Morris, President of Pacers Sports and Entertainment, did something that no other sports team in Indianapolis has done. He fired a loud shot across the bow of Mayor Greg Ballard’s ocean liner. In an Indianapolis Star article, he hinted that the Pacers might move if the city and the CIB do not pick up the team's price tag for operating Conseco Fieldhouse. Well, guess what? I say goodbye, good riddance, and don’t forget to take Boomer with you.
As much as I have enjoyed watching the Pacers these many years, this is not the same team or the same franchise that once represented this city with class. Team turmoil including the well-documented brawl in Detroit chased away fans. A somewhat nasty front office shuffle resulted in Donnie Walsh leaving and Larry Bird taking over. Bird seems to have dedicated the Pacers to mediocrity or worse.
With all of this, the Pacers have lost tremendous bargaining power. In this economy, what city is going to make them competitive in the NBA market? For that matter, where will you find a market that supports winning basketball as much as Indianapolis does? Didn't the Pacers learn anything from Butler's run. If you win, the fans will come back.
Yes, I realize that the Pacers would probably like a little more money on the bottom line to try to win, but this organization reports that it has never turned a profit. The Simon Family has lost money for years with this organization. While the Pacers were winning, the Simons were losing money...is $15 million of the city's cash going to help that?
I treat this situation completely differently than when the deal for Lucas Oil Stadium was struck. With Lucas Oil Stadium, the deal was about more than just the Indianapolis Colts. Since that deal, the Final Four has been awarded to this city every five years, and the Super Bowl is coming here. The expanded Convention Center allows for bigger and more numerous convention business. With the new JW Marriott, Indianapolis can now compete with other cities for the biggest events including political conventions.
The Pacers used to be the only show in town, and, now, they are looking pretty pitiful. So, if the Pacers want to try to play hardball (which the Colts never really did in public, by the way), I say let them. They are throwing tomatoes. If I were Mayor Greg Ballard, I wouldn't just let the Pacers walk out of town, but I wouldn't give them the store either. It's my hope that NBA basketball continues to be played in Conseco or whatever it will be called when Conseco changes its name for years. It's important, but the Pacers just aren't as important to the city's bottom line as the team that plays in the bigger stadium across town.
I hope the deal gets done and that 11 year olds can continue to have positive experiences at Pacers games...just like I did way back when. The Pacers certainly seem to be in no position right now to play hardball, however. Somebody downtown has to realize this on one side or the other. The Simons should be reminded also how much this city has given their company over the years. From half a park to build their corporate headquarters to all sorts of tax breaks to develop Circle Centre Mall, Indianapolis has helped the Simons as much as the Simons have helped Indianapolis.
Go ahead Pacers...sling in your fastball. It's coming in like a poorly thrown knuckleball though.