Benner/Sports and Pacers and Opinion and Pro Sports and Sports Business

BENNER: Will Pacers be reborn or say a long goodbye?

July 17, 2010

Finally, we have The Decision.

LeBron James’? Yep, his, too.

Actually, I was think-ing more along the lines of the Indiana Pacers, although the two aren’t unrelated.

Anyone who has followed my ramblings in this space knows I have advocated keeping the Pacers in Indianapolis and in Conseco Fieldhouse. The issue received a short-term resolution July 12 when the franchise and Capital Improvement Board slapped a three-year, $30 million Band-aid on a gusher of red ink.

It’s been a sticky wicket for all involved, and the fact that both sides had to give is a sign of a decent compromise. The Pacers did not get the long-term deal they hoped for, or the entirety of the money they said they needed to offset operating costs. But they keep control of the fieldhouse and the revenue it generates.

In the meantime, the deal literally and figuratively buys the Pacers time to (a) resume winning, (b) hopefully benefit from a potential new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union, and (c) did I mention resume winning?

Yet even that is not enough to ensure the future of the franchise. Winning will not, as some have suggested, cure all, because the NBA business model is so horribly awry for many of the league’s small to midsize markets. Indeed, the Pacers say they lost money the season (1999-2000) in which they sold out every game at the fieldhouse and advanced to the NBA Finals.

That was then. It is so much worse now.

And at a time the NBA is claiming franchises suffered losses approaching $400 million this past season, at a time the country is limping to recovery from the recession, at a time unemployment is in double digits, and at a time municipalities are more challenged than ever to provide basic services, NBA owners embarked on an orgiastic spending binge in pursuit of free agents

A new collective bargaining agreement is needed not just to save small markets like the Pacers. It’s needed to save the owners from themselves.

James actually accepted less than the king’s ransom he could have earned from Cleveland. I fault him not for going to “South Beach” (the destination he announced instead of Miami) but for the classless, shove-it-Cleveland! way in which he made his announcement.

And I fault us for the absurd level at which we allowed ourselves to be sucked in by the spectacle. While so many were taking shots at ESPN and Jim Gray’s fawning interview, ESPN needed only respond, “Hey, look at the ratings.” The show beat all other broadcast and cable programming that night and was ESPN’s highest non-NFL rating of the year.

So what does that say about us as a culture? (And for the record, I did not watch.)

Nonetheless, this is an environment I want the Pacers to take part in and succeed. I know, I can’t make sense of it, either, other than I believe the Pacers are so tied to this city’s evolution that the thought of them absent from our community fabric is unbearable.

And at the risk of repeating myself, I continue to make the emphatic point that losing the Pacers—and the Fever—will not free up resources that will pave the streets, repair the sidewalks, keep the libraries open, fix the sewers, or turn IPS into a model of urban education.

I also frankly get ticked off when Pacers owner Herb Simon is continually cast as a villain, or as someone who has taken more from this city than he has given back. It deserves to be recalled that Herb and his brother, Mel, did not take ownership of the Pacers because they were jock-sniffers looking to turn a buck, but because they believed—were convinced, actually—it was the right thing to do for Indianapolis.

No good deed goes unpunished.

So we have three years. In three years, will ownership still be with Herb or in the Simon family? Will Larry Bird still be calling the personnel shots? Will the NBA fix the business model so all franchises, regardless of market size, have a chance to compete for a title? Will one or part of one of those seasons be lost to a lockout? Most important, will the Pacers have reconnected to the community and relit the fires of passion that burned so brightly a decade ago?

Or is this merely the beginning of a long goodbye?•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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