Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Opinion and Fever and Sports Business

BENNER: We've got the Fever, but will we be able to keep it?

October 10, 2009

I’ve written about the Indiana Fever twice earlier this year. Both times, I received an e-mail response from a gentleman named Harold.

First e-mail: “They will crash and burn in the playoffs as they always do (even with an apparent home court advantage). Their coach (in her mediocre career) has never accomplished anything in crunch time.”

Second e-mail: “Good Lord, another of your columns on a has-been coach and a team that has NEVER delivered.”

Now I’m not knocking the guy, and here’s why. Because he at least seems to care.

That has been the issue for the 10 seasons the Fever have been with us: inspiring the city and region to care, one way or the other. For too long, the Fever didn’t benefit from regular-season success, nor were they damned—except by a few Harolds—for repeatedly coming up short in the postseason.

Indifference has been their biggest enemy. After all, the worst reaction you can get from fans is a shrug of the shoulders.

Winning, of course, cures all, and it was great to witness the Fever bandwagon quickly overflowing as the team finally crashed through to the WNBA Finals against the Phoenix Mercury. As of this writing, the series was tied 2-2 going back to Phoenix. By the time you read this, you will know how it turned out.

Either way, some celebration is in order. Beginning with Pacers President Larry Bird’s magnanimous gesture to buy out the Conseco Fieldhouse balcony and distribute those tickets for free in the decisive Eastern Conference final against playoff nemesis Detroit, the tsunami of momentum carried right through the two Finals home games.

Suddenly, the fieldhouse rocked with noise, passion and, most of all, tension. It was like those Pacers-Knicks playoff battles.

Here’s hoping the newbies who have sampled the product will come back next year. And those males who declare the women’s game “unwatchable” are most certainly watching a different game than I. The first four games of the Finals provided captivating competition and outstanding basketball.

The euphoria over the team’s playoff run has not, however, displaced the harsh realities facing the Fever in particular and the Pacers organization in general. Nothing has yet occurred that will plug the Pacers’ stated $15 million gap in operating expenses for the fieldhouse. Owner Herb Simon continues to express support for both franchises, but, ultimately, the bottom line is, indeed, the bottom line.

That said, losing this team would be a crying shame. The Fever represent all that we say we want in professional sports. They offer an affordable product. They win. They compete at a high level every game. They have players with high character who are engaged in community service. Tamika Catchings is as good a person as she is a player and that’s really saying something. Katie Douglas is the home-grown heroine who came home. Ebony Hoffman is true grit—think Dale Davis with a jump shot. Briann January is a sparkling rookie.

Then there’s General Manager Kelly Krauskopf, who has led the franchise from birth to these boom days, never making excuses or whining to the community about lack of support. And coach Lin Dunn reminds me, in more than a few ways, of one Slick Leonard. The main difference is in the twangs.

At the very least, the Fever’s playoff run should have bought them another year. That’s when it will be up to us, as a community, to show that we want them to stay.

Moving on.

On the first weekend of October, the Indianapolis Colts, Fever, Indiana Pacers (preseason game) and Circle City Classic accounted for about 130,000 spectators. Downtown was absolutely alive, with the hotels and restaurants full. Don’t take it for granted. In many cities, it would have represented an extraordinary weekend. Here, well, it’s just what we do.

And on a perfect fall Sunday—temperature in the mid-60s, mostly sunny—isn’t it great to not have to go inside to watch a Colts game? Yes, Lucas Oil Stadium’s retractable roof was expensive, but it’s a spectacular feature. I hope it stays open, even as the temps dip into the ’50s and ’40s.

Finally, I’m going to reserve judgment about the Colts’ chances in the playoffs until the playoffs. We’ll get to the destination quickly enough. For now, enjoy the ride.•

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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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