BENNER: Indy teams’ success a reflection of strong management

October 19, 2013

It is without dispute that we, as a city and region, have invested heavily in our professional sports franchises.

The shame would be if we received little return on those investments.

The return comes mostly from winning. That’s really all the fan/investor asks. Give us a successful, entertaining product of which we can be proud and do it in a manner that does not bring embarrassment on the franchises or the community.

Viewed in that light, we are experiencing no less than a golden age. The owners—holders of these valued community trusts—have not taken the money and squandered it. They have hired good people who have made wise decisions in how those investments will be spent.

Under the stewardship of Max Schumacher and Cal Burleson, the Indianapolis Indians, recognized as one of the top franchises in all of minor-league baseball, led the minors in attendance. They provide an affordable family experience, turn a profit and—oh, yeah—win.

The WNBA Indiana Fever, under Kelly Krauskopf’s guidance, are but a year removed from winning a championship, and how this summer’s injury-riddled team made it back to the conference finals is nothing short of astounding.

Jim Irsay’s Indianapolis Colts—no matter the loss at San Diego and notwithstanding the outcome of the epic matchup with Denver—are on top of the AFC South. Barring injuries or an unforeseen collapse, they should remain there. Aside from the injury-plagued, Peyton-Manning-less 2-14 season two years ago, the Colts have been a consistent winner in the NFL since 1999, an extraordinary run in a league designed to even teams out over the long haul. During that time, the constants have been Irsay and his right-hand man, Pete Ward.

Then there are the Indiana Pacers and owner Herb Simon.

Because of Indy’s small-market status and the NBA’s salary structure and, yes, because the presence of a couple of knuckleheads can inflict long-term damage on a franchise in a heartbeat, I believe it has been more difficult for the Pacers to achieve and maintain elite status as a franchise.

When Simon and his brother, Mel, bought and saved the franchise, it took years to assemble the right players (Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, the Davis boys, et al.) and the right coaches (Larry Brown, Larry Bird, Rick Carlisle) to become a consistent winner. Donnie Walsh deftly pulled the management strings but also ultimately had to gamble on some players who were as immature as they were talented. It all came crashing down in Auburn Hills, Mich., nine years ago.

Yet even as winning waned, the commitment to it never did. Simon—and Walsh—placed their faith in our Hoosier homeboy, Bird, who stuck to his rebuilding plan in the face of rampant skepticism.

The result? Last spring, the Pacers returned to raging relevancy. And next week, commencing with the season-opener at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Oct. 29 against Orlando, they begin what should be their most highly anticipated season since 1999-2000, when they reached the NBA Finals.

Bird is back and his mere presence should not be discounted. But it will be left to the coaching of the irrepressibly upbeat Frank Vogel, the rise of Paul George, the return of Danny Granger, the presence of David West and the bolstering of the bench, led by the acquisition of Luis Scola. That package has many believing the Pacers are the team best suited to end the two-year championship reign of the Miami Heat.

Of course, they almost did it last year. The town lit up and the fieldhouse—a filled house—pulsed with passion.

Will the paying customers return in the same number and with like fervor? In any case, I appreciate the debate about our investment in professional sports. But I also appreciate that those who own and manage the franchises haven’t taken either that investment or the paying customers for granted. Nor should we take for granted that it’s a good time to be a sports fan in Indy.•


Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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