Indiana poised to become a basketball state once again

December 16, 2011
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Some say Bob Knight’s ouster at Indiana University in 2000 started it.

Others will tell you the swing began when the Indianapolis Colts drafted Peyton Manning in 1998 and started winning.

There’s a large contingency that insist the decision to end the state’s single-class high school basketball tournament in 1997 is what pushed the pendulum.

Then there’s the camp that says the tables turned after the 2004 brawl involving the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons.Still others point to the moment Reggie Miller took off his blue-and-gold uniform for the final time in 2005.

But the final straw, others will tell you, is when Manning led the Colts to Super Bowl glory in 2007 and Kelvin Sampson led IU down the road to perdition in 2008.

The truth is, it’s probably a combination of all those things that transformed Indiana from a basketball to a football state.

While the IU men’s basketball team continued to attract solid crowds even during its darkest days, there is no doubt the legions that followed the program were way down from the glory days of Knight’s tenure. Television ratings and merchandise sales, among other factors, bear that out.

The Pacers, meanwhile, went from selling out their home venue on a regular basis (every game during the 1999-2000 season) to being last in NBA attendance in recent years.

The Colts went from practically giving away tickets to home games to avoid local TV blackouts to compiling a season-ticket waiting list of more than 20,000.

It has been well chronicled that attendance at high school basketball games has been down for more than a decade, while participation in youth football in recent years has never been higher.

Now, though, there’s some hope for hoops fanatics that Hoosier hysteria is ready to rear its head and football may be taking a tumble in popularity—at least at the highest levels, and probably for the short term. Colts tickets this season are selling for $10 on the secondary market.

There are a number of reasons for the shift.The three most obvious—and recent reasons—are the sudden rise in IU’s basketball program, the stunning demise of the Colts and the re-emergence of the Pacers as a playoff contender.

IU’s victory over Kentucky last week sent fans scrambling for the last tickets for the IU-Notre Dame and Butler-Purdue double header Saturday in Conseco Fieldhouse. There hasn’t been this much excitement about a regular-season college basketball game in Indianapolis in years.

That’s not to diminish what Butler has done, either. The Bulldogs’ magical run under coach Brad Stevens—including two consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances—has been a huge part of the Hoosier hoops uprising. Ticket sales at Hinkle Fieldhouse have been on the rise the last three years and never has there been more Dawgs gear seen in the Circle City.

Purdue’s performance under coach Matt Painter also has given people in this state lots of reason to cheer in recent years. While no one is questioning Gene Keady’s legacy, few argue that he should have been retained a few more years in West Lafayette. Painter has been the perfect fit and a great ambassador for Indiana basketball.

The Pacers under basketball operations boss Larry Bird has at last put together a team capable of making some noise in the playoffs. And they have a coach in Frank Vogel that Hoosiers can really relate to.

It’s true that with the tendency of big stars going to large markets in the NBA, the Pacers’ ability to put together another championship run is anything but certain. But people in this state love a team with a blue-collar identity. They also love an underdog, and the NBA’s current set-up provides the perfect scenario for the Pacers to be a lovable David in a world of Goliaths.

“We have things in place … to take this league by storm,” Vogel said.

If Vogel is right, there’s no doubt Conseco Fieldhouse will be rocking like it’s 1999. With the Colts in the midst of their worst season in franchise history, this city is hungrier—much hungrier—for a winner than most. And since people are spending less this year to buy Colts merchandise and tickets on the secondary market, they likely have more money to spend to satisfy their sports hunger.

But one tough question for this relatively small market city remains: What happens when the Colts come back?

With Peyton Manning on the mend—to some extent anyway—and with the Colts in line to draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck No. 1 in the next draft, it’s not a question of if but when the Colts will be back.

Colts owner Jim Irsay has never been afraid to spend money to stockpile star players, so you have to believe he’s planning for an active off-season to put this team back in the playoffs. You know Colts President Bill Polian is eager to patch up his legacy.

Mark Rosentraub, a noted sports business expert, author and former IUPUI dean, has often said that this town—and the people who live in it—only have enough money to support one major-league team in a big way. He said when the Colts started their surge in 1999, he feared it “would suck the [financial] air” out of the Pacers. You could argue that it has.

Of course, others disagree and would eagerly tell you that Indiana is sports hungry enough to support both teams and other sports endeavors simultaneously.

But it hasn’t happened yet. The state has never simultaneously poured its heart out with equal fervor for basketball and football.

So where will loyalties lie? Where will money be spent?

We’re nearing unchartered waters, so it’s anybody’s guess.

One thing is certain. Until this year—and certainly into next—Indiana residents have never had as much sports-wise to cheer for.

In this new chapter, the city has to be hoping for a very un-sporting result, that winners and losers don’t come in equal parts.

  • From Basketball to Football Town
    I was one of those big Pacers fans who eventually lost interest over the years. For me personally, it was when Reggie left the team combined with the team dynamic of the mid-/late-90s breaking up. That's when the Pacers were most exciting to watch. Since then, we've seen more of a revolving door of players which makes it hard to get emotionally invested in the team. The other piece that made me less interested is that the NBA as a whole seems to play a different game today than they did in the 90s. It's more fast-paced/streetball-style with fewer plays and more dribble drives. Possessions don't feel very meaningful since they chuck the ball towards the hoop right away. To contrast with college-style, you see more set up plays that take time to develop, so each possession has more weight. (one can say the 90s NBA style has become more fast-paced than 80s or 70s, etc, but I personally liked the 80s and 90s style better than today's style).
  • Knight, Keady influence
    You bring an interesting perspective, Dan. I wonder if you and other people in this state feel the way you do in part because you were brought up on a steady diet of deliberate, disciplined basketball ala the Knight-led IU teams and the Keady-led Purdue teams. The pass first, shoot second, set up a play mentality. I think that's maybe why the Pacers bump-and-grind show led by Mark Jackson and Reggie Miller played so well here, but not so much across the U.S. Of course, winning certainly plays a part in whether you like a team or not no matter how they play. Thanks for reading.
  • You can't have a ying without a yang. The Pacers were not only winners, but they had their rivalrys. Be it Spike and the Knicks or Jordan and the Bulls for the Pacers, in college is was iu and Knight vs. Purdue and Keady. Those rivalrys stoke the fans. After the Knight fiasco tore the heart out of iu, Purdue's success wasn't as fun.

    You can see the same thing in class basketball. Before that you had sectionals with teams in your neighborhood, now you are lucky to play teams in your area code. Hinkle Sectional was where you put every Indy team in a building and let them duke it out. Now Indy teams have to drive to Mount Vernon or New Pal for sectionals. Where is the local rivalry?

    Butler has been fun, but who can name their rivals? Who is their nemesis?

    Even the Colts success was made more fun with the evil Brady led pats. If iu is truly back, and that is a big if still, then the iu Purdue rivalry will be more exciting and get the State stoked.

    Pacers have a fun young team, but they need to reestablish a rivalry and a team with the face of evil.

    Finally, unfortunately class basketball is dead, but they can bring back the excitement by bringing back the Hinkle Secitional with it loaded with local teams. Run multi classes through there, but rebuild the local rivalries.
    • Who's King?
      Good points, Indyman. The legacy Indiana enjoyed in HS basketball was ruined by the likes of Blake Ress and the silly notion to "make everything fair". Sad part of it is, the folks in charge still don't see the error of their ways and, as you say, don't set the games to properly draw fans. They are still more interested in the "fairness" than they are drawing fans.

      Oh, for the good 'ol days......
    • Not so fast my friend...
      First, there is absolutely no guarantee the Colts will be back to being a playoff team anytime soon. We have no idea if Peyton will be back or if he will perform at a high level if he does come back. There is no guarantee yet that Andrew Luck will be here as it's not inconceivable the Colts could win two of the three remaining games. Now, I think it's likely Luck does become a Colt next year but that's no guarantee of success either. There are far too many Jeff George, Ryan Leif, etc. stories of "can't miss" guys that missed big. The Colts hit a home run with Manning. Beyond that, they've made some good decisions and some bad ones to where I don't think you can count on anything. The many draft picks that haven't worked out in the last several years have put them in a position where even strong qb play may not be enough to overcome everything else.

      Oh, and for the guy saying IU may or may not be back...they are back or least on their way. Between the talent they have now and the talend already committed to coming in during the next three years IU basketball will be back in a big way. Count on that. The Colts are a much more difficult projection to make.

      Finally, I don't get the questioning of whether Indy can truly support two teams. You've got to have a time period where both teams are good to really have any evidence there. Plus, the Colts draw a lot of fans from outside the Indy metro area. Both teams seemed to be drawing pretty well in the first few years of the last decade prior to the fight in Detroit.
    • football town
      The only reason basketball was ever king was because of the decades without an NFL team or a successful IU football program. The problem with basketball is, well, it's basketball; and NBA basketball is NBA basketball. THe NFL is simply a better product which is why it is so incredibly popular; and even though the Colts might have up and down years, they still have the NFL football entertainment factor going for them.
    • hoosier hysteria
      I haven't followed Indiana basketball for years. The biggest reason is academia has taken control of the sports in the state.
      When Bob Knight was tossed it was because the administration felt that his standards where to cruel for the students.

      the high school principles for some reason felt the one tournament for all the schools was unfair.

      I lost all interest in Ind. basketball when this occurred.

      Indiana had an excellent program which allowed many of the high school students opportunities in Ind colleges. I look back on the 1st time Vincennes U. won it's national title. Those guys were all local boys.Never happen today.

      Maybe Mitch can right the HS class situation and bring back one of traditions that made Indiana youth into excellent men.

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