Colts and Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Pacers and Opinion and NBA and Sports/Recreation and Sports Business

BENNER: This winter might be best and worst of times

September 24, 2011

On one hand, this is going to be an extraordinary winter in Indianapolis, sports-wise.

There’s the inaugural Big Ten championship football game Dec. 3 at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Two weeks later, in Conseco Fieldhouse, there’s the Crossroads Classic: Purdue versus Butler and Notre Dame against Indiana in basketball. I’ve been looking forward to that since it was announced.

On Feb. 5, of course, there’s the Super Bowl, which will follow a week of run-up unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.

And a month later, the Big Ten basketball tournaments will return to town.

But on the other hand, this could be one of our longest, darkest winters.

The long part seems to be in the offing courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts, whom many have written off before the calendar has even flipped to October.

And the dark part could come courtesy of the lights being off in Conseco Fieldhouse, where as many as 50 Indiana Pacers games are in jeopardy due to the National Basketball Association’s labor impasse.

To no surprise, the Colts’ bad start has ignited an uproar. At worst, the accusations of mismanagement and malfeasance are kind of silly. After all, it’s just a game and stuff (like Peyton Manning’s injury) happens. But at best, it shows how much the Colts’ fortunes, good and bad, resonate with the populace.

As for the Pacers, whose players reconvened on their own to begin informal workouts last week, concerns about a lost season don’t seem to have moved the needle on the emotional register one bit.

Indeed, the NBA situation seems almost an afterthought. Contrast that with the months of angst, hand-wringing and concern as the NFL owners and players association turtle-crawled toward a labor agreement.

As for the NBA … so the training camps might not open on time? So the season might be delayed? So there might not be a season at all?

So what?

Now mind you, that’s not my sentiment. And it’s not the fat cats—the owners and players—I’m concerned about. It’s the folks who derive all or part of their incomes from the presence of the Pacers.

Even with the Super Bowl looming, even with the Georgia Street promenade rapidly taking shape, I’m worried about the impact downtown.

Nordstrom is closed. Border’s is closed. And now, even with the anti-Simon, anti-Pacers feeling that’s out there among those angered by the $30 million from the Capital Improvement Board, you take 50 some dates away from Conseco Fieldhouse and it’s going to hurt.

This is a darned-if-you-do, darned-if-you-don’t situation. The NBA business model is badly broken, especially for the smaller markets. I seriously question whether the Pacers—and many other franchises—can survive without radical changes to the league’s economic structure.

That includes shorter, less-expensive and non-guaranteed contracts for the players, issues they say they won’t budge on.

But it also includes greater revenue sharing and hard salary caps—without exceptions—for the franchises, something the owners themselves can’t agree on.

And while this is a hopelessly naïve thought, will the players and owners come up with any agreement that would provide cost relief for the fans?

Uh, didn’t think so.

Anyway, given the likelihood that the Colts will continue to struggle, the Pacers—if there is a season—would have an opportunity to reassert themselves in our sports marketplace. They’ve signed young, enthusiastic coach Frank Vogel. They’ve added IUPUI and Broad Ripple High School star George Hill to the roster. They have a solid young nucleus that could (emphasis on could) take that next step back toward making the franchise relevant not only locally, but nationally.

As of this moment, there has been little from the NBA labor talks that gives anyone reason to believe the season will begin on time, if at all. You may recall that in 1998-1999, the NBA was reduced to a 50-game season.

So, yes, it could be a long, dark winter in Indy, despite the magnitude of the other events taking place. It’s certainly a reminder that, with professional sports, there are no guarantees, either of success … or a season.•

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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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