BENNER: Will winning be enough for the Indiana Fever?

June 8, 2009

We have seen our fair share of teams come and go from the Indianapolis landscape.

Once upon a time, there were the Indiana Loves of World Team Tennis, the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association (for whom a 17-year-old Wayne Gretzky scored his first professional goal), the Indiana Firebirds of the Arena Football League, the Indianapolis Checkers and the Indianapolis Ice of the central and international hockey leagues, the Indiana Twisters of the Continental Indoor Soccer League, the Indiana Blast of the United Soccer League, the Indiana Legends of the revived American Basketball Association.

Going further back, we had the Indianapolis Olympians of the National Basketball Association and the Indianapolis Capitals of the Continental Football League. Speaking of the Caps, maybe you don't recall that they almost signed a running back out of Southern California before the NFL Buffalo Bills did. Yep, it was O.J. Simpson.

I mention those names for two reasons: one, to offer a little jaunt down memory lane and, two, in hope that the past is not prologue.

On June 7, the Indiana Fever were to open their 10th WNBA season at Conseco Fieldhouse. When the Fever were formed 10 years ago, I was certain they would be a successful franchise. After all, this is, as we remind ourselves so often, basketball country, and I believed our collective love for the game would translate into solid, if not great, support once the team did the requisite winning of all successful franchises.

Nine years later, the Fever still haven't taken hold of this market, despite making the playoffs each of the last four years and twice reaching the conference finals.

I've heard all the reasons. Many men refuse to buy into the women's game, mostly because they compare it to the men's game. Some aren't crazy about going indoors to watch basketball--men's or women's--in the summer months. And, finally, the Fever simply haven't commanded attention by vying for the championship, unable three of the last four years to get past their playoff nemesis, the Bill Laimbeer-coached Detroit Shock.

Since their initial season in 2000, the Fever have never ranked higher than seventh in the WNBA in attendance. The last three years, they've been 10th, 11th and 10th, with an average attendance of 7,000-plus.

That said, the Fever, guided by former Purdue University coach Lin Dunn, have been a fun, entertaining team, and should be again this season. In do-it-all Tamika Catchings, they have one of the great female players not just of this era, but of all time. They feature a local favorite in former Perry Meridian High School and Boilermaker star Katie Douglas. Along with other veteran returnees in Tully Bevilaqua, Tammy Sutton-Brown, Tan White and Ebony Hoffman, they've added two former all-pros, Yolanda Griffith and Tamecka Dixon, and a rookie with starting lineup potential in guard Briann January.

In short, they're loaded.

But, then, so is virtually every team in the WNBA. The reason is, there are fewer teams (the four-time champion Houston Comets folded in the off season, leaving the league with 13 teams) and fewer roster spots, down to 11 from 13 last year in a cost-containment move.

Then there's the ongoing saga of the Fever's Simon-owned parent, Pacers Sports & Entertainment, which has been bleeding red ink with the NBA Pacers and the operation of Conseco Fieldhouse, a situation further muddled by the uncertain funding of the Capital Improvement Board.

Even with a salary cap ($800,000) that is a fraction of the NBA's ($58 million), it's not difficult to guess which team--Fever or Pacers--would be sacrificed to save money.

Again, I don't want to see it come to that. A positive sign is that, even in a tough economy, corporate support has increased from last year, according to Chief Operating Officer and General Manager Kelly Krauskopf, who has guided the franchise since its inception.

Still, for whatever reason, the Fever have yet to light a fire with the Average Joe--or JoAnne--despite the best efforts of the folks at PS&E, who work hard and creatively to market the team. I hope I'm wrong in saying that even winning might not be enough to sustain the franchise. But this season, particularly, win they must.


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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