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BENNER: From the NBA to the Big Ten, putting butts in seats is king

March 9, 2013

Of this, that and the other:

The Indiana Pacers scored a nice road win over the Chicago Bulls the other night.

Except that it was a home game. The friendly confines of Bankers Life Fieldhouse were only marginally friendly.

Though not exactly United Center South, Bulls fans certainly made themselves known. Even watching the game from home on ESPN, it was impossible not to feel their presence. A casual observer might have thought it was a neutral court.

Thus, the season-long conundrum continues. We ask, what’s wrong with us as Pacers fans? The team has the second-best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference but sports the poorest ratio of victories to attendance. They’re giving us what we won’t pay for, at least in abundance or absent of an attractive opponent. Thus, when a regional foe with a national following—the Bulls—comes to town, their fans eagerly snap up the seats the locals take a pass on. For many, the trip down Interstate 65 is worth it to see the team they can’t witness in the always-sold-out United Center.

It’s not my place to lay a guilt trip or beat up on anyone. The Pacers operate in a free and open marketplace. And this market—crowded with sports and entertainment options—has chosen to hold on to its collective wallet, even as the franchise has wrapped its arms around on-court success and off-court goodness.

There are multiple reasons, but at the bottom of the list—or not even belonging on it—is the ludicrous notion forwarded by a national radio numbskull that we are a collection of closet racists. No more needs to be said about that.

Actually, I think the Pacers may have overexposed themselves in our living rooms at the expense of underexposing themselves at the fieldhouse. Every one of the Pacers’ 41 home dates (in fact, all 82 of their games) is on television. Fact is, the Pacers get strong ratings on Fox Sports Midwest, so it’s not like the interest isn’t there.

The fieldhouse experience, in my view, remains special, and anyone who complains about the nosebleed seats at BLF hasn’t spent time in the upper deck at other arenas (you are closer to the Loop than you are to the court from the upper-deck seats at the United Center). Yet even good seats at the fieldhouse can be had at well below NBA market rates. That’s another reason Bulls fans come to Indy: they think our cheap seats are really cheap.

But no, Indy is not Chicago as a pro sports market and, honestly, the Pacers are not the Bulls as a pro sports franchise. They have demand, we have supply.

• Moving on, but staying on Chicago versus Indy: News that the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament at the 23,000-seat United Center sold out well in advance should raise concern among the local sports community.

Yes, this has been a banner basketball year for the Big Ten. Its undisputed position as the best basketball conference in the country no doubt contributes to the ticket demand in Chicago. And yes, during the years the tournament has taken place in Indianapolis, the market-dominant Indiana University Hoosiers have not been contenders.

But Indy never has had an advance sellout at the 18,000-seat fieldhouse.

The tournament (women’s as well) alternates between Indianapolis and Chicago for the next four years. In my not-unbiased opinion, Indy lays waste to the Windy City in terms of atmosphere and convenience. But Chicago is Chicago, and a sold-out arena in the Big Ten’s hometown commands attention.

Oh, one other note: Don Welsh, the CEO of Chicago’s tourism bureau, came from here. I worked for the guy at VisitIndy. He’s sharp, shrewd and aggressive. And he has Indy’s sports event business in his crosshairs. In the next bid cycle, he can be counted on to be very aggressive in pursuing the Big Ten basketball tournaments. Ditto for the Big Ten football championship.

• Finally, if you haven’t seen producer/writer Ted Green’s documentary, “Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story,” find it on WFYI’s listings or purchase the DVD. Green—via his written dialogue, heartwarming interviews, resounding testimonials and amazing video—truly captured the essence and relatively unknown greatness of the late Pacers star.

And at the end I was glad I watched it … because I needed a good cry. While it’s very much an Indiana story, it’s also a very human story that would play well in any market. Hope it gets wider distribution.•

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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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