With the Indiana Pacers starting the season with a red-hot 13-1 record, Herb Simon is smiling a lot these days.
“It’s an understatement to say I’m pleased,” said Simon, who’s been the sole owner of the Pacers since his brother, Mel, died in 2009.
At the same time, Simon is smart—and engaged—enough to know there are still milestones to mark. First, he wants an NBA championship. But that’s not all.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Simon told IBJ this week. “We’re way behind at the gate. We lost a lot of fans [after the brawl in Detroit in 2004] and we have to continue working to get them back.”
In the months and years since that fateful November night when Pacers players scuffled with Pistons fans, the Pacers front office has gone from reactive to proactive, and Simon deserves a lot of credit for that.
The Pacers beefed up sales, marketing and customer service efforts in recent years. Team officials have bolstered their television contract to ensure all 82 games are aired, and tweaked the in-arena game presentations and entertainment to appeal to a broader range of fans and sponsors. They’ve overhauled their roster and made myriad community connections through charity work and other outreach programs.
This fall, the Pacers were the first team to join a league initiative urging teams to partner with Orlando-based Disney Institute to improve customer service. Two Pacers staffers have already gone to Orlando for training, and staff-wide training is expected to begin next month. The Pacers are expected to invest around $100,000 annually for that initiative alone.
Simon should be credited for sticking with his instincts when times were tough following the brawl. He continually stood by basketball operations boss Larry Bird even when public sentiment about the former Boston Celtics star was mixed here.
“I’ve always told Larry, he can work here as long as he wants,” Simon said. “He’s done an outstanding job.”
Despite Simon’s continued concerns about attendance, the Pacers have come a long way in recent years.
Through eight home games, the Pacers are 20th in the 30-team NBA. But that’s deceiving. Due to the relatively small size of the 18,165-seat Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Pacers would never likely rank higher than 13th.
The Pacers this year are averaging 16,226 fans per home game. That’s nearly 90 percent of capacity.
The early attendance numbers compare favorably to last year, when the team averaged 15,269 per game. Since attendance often improves in the second half of the season, it’s not inconceivable that the Pacers could approach average attendance of 17,000 this year. If the Pacers reach that milestone it will be the first time since the 2000-01 season that the team's average home attendance eclipsed 17,000.
It’s almost easy to forget now that the Pacers had a league-worst attendance of 12,221 per game as recently as the 2007-08 season.
Pacers sales executive Todd Taylor says both attendance and ticket revenue are up this year from the same period a year ago. So that means deeply discounted and free ticket distributions are down.
Still, Simon says he and his staff won’t rest until the Fieldhouse is packed every night.
Though Simon is 79, he appears to be moving full-speed ahead with this team.
“I’m maintaining my focus on the Pacers,” Simon said. “I’m concentrating on making the Pacers economically viable for the long-term.”