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Sports Business

Pacers becoming locals' dream, NBA's nightmare

May 17, 2012
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Somewhere in a dark room in New York City is a group of NBA marketers shaking, cradling themselves and pulling their hair out.

Why? The prospect of an Indiana Pacers vs. San Antonio Spurs NBA Finals.

The idea of two small-market teams and almost no marketable stars in the league’s crown jewel event is enough to make any NBA executive a little crazy right now.

Let’s face it, most sports fans outside Indianapolis—and quite a few within the city—couldn’t spot a Pacer if they passed one on the street.

The Spurs aren’t much better. Sure, they have one of the 50 greatest NBA players ever in Tim Duncan, but he’s enough to make a sports marketer—and many fans—launch a big yawn. The Spurs haven’t had star power since Eva Longoria divorced Tony Parker and left town.

The imminent flameout of two Los Angeles teams in the West is enough to bring NBA Commissioner David Stern to tears. There go about 10 million hoops fans out the door and to the beach.

It’s true that Oklahoma City represents another small-market candidate in the West, but they’ve got media magnets like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And who can resist James Harden’s hairdo and robust beard?

Almost any remaining East team—Miami, Philadelphia or Boston—are better for the league and its sponsors than Indiana.

Even if the nation isn’t, we Hoosiers are really starting to love this Pacers team. Note that playoff tickets are selling much faster than they were just a couple of weeks ago. And these days there aren’t nearly as many ticket giveaways, which were rampant through much of the regular season. I’ve noticed that the internal employee raffles for IBJ’s Pacers tickets have become much rarer.

Part of the rise in the team’s popularity might have to do with its no-name status and the national media’s indifference tainted with disdain.

Game two against the Heat had nothing to do with what the Pacers did right and everything to do with what Miami’s star-studded cast did wrong, according to ESPN analysts, and about every other pundit from L.A. to New York.

All this craziness probably explains Stern’s wacky interview during game one of the Pacers-Heat series when he suggested the league should start handing out Oscars instead of MVP awards.

Even on my smallish TV screen, I could almost read between his lines. “C’mon LeBron, stop flopping and start playing. If you don’t put this small-market dog to sleep, they could get in the last howl.”

The injury to Heat star Chris Bosh during game one and the Pacers upset victory in Miami on Tuesday surely had Stern and his minions reaching for the Alka-Seltzer. A Pacers win tonight at Bankers Life Fieldhouse will mean another round of plop plop fizz fizz for the league's marketers.

The re-birth of this once disgraced franchise should be a story sports fans nationwide would embrace. Larry Bird has led this franchise out of the darkness.

But joy in Hoosierland means grief in Gotham. This risen-from-the-ashes tale is making NBA executives, the TV networks and sponsors that profit from the league’s championship series tremble with fear.

And it’s making the smile on Hoosiers’ faces grow ever wider.

Who knows, another couple of victories and maybe even Bird’s ever-present frown will turn upside down.

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