BENNER: Can we keep the franchise the Simons saved?

September 19, 2009

The passing of Mel Simon adds more uncertainty to the Indiana Pacers’ future in Indianapolis.

Without question, Mel’s co-Pacers-owning younger brother, Herb, always has had more direct involvement in the franchise, especially so lately as Mel’s health deteriorated while Herb vowed to reverse the Pacers’ fortunes.

As if they needed it, I’ve defended the Simons’ presence in the city … the jobs they’ve created, their incredible philanthropy and the presence of Circle Centre in the downtown dynamic. More often, I’ve expressed my profound thanks for their decision to step forward and save the Pacers for Indianapolis back in 1982.

You wonder how it might all have played out had the Simons taken a pass and allowed the Pacers to be sold by their then-California-owner Sam Nassi. Would that have dealt a fatal blow to the sports strategy that was just gathering momentum in the early ’80s? What might have been the effect on downtown?

Fast forward to the present. As the situation continues to evolve between the Pacers and the Capital Improvement Board, we again have to consider whether the Pacers—and the WNBA Indiana Fever—can remain viable and how Mel Simon’s death will play into any decisions made at a time when so much is in play. Certainly, CIB Vice President Pat Early’s recent testimony regarding the Pacers’ future had an ominous overtone.

For better (my view) or worse (critics’ view), the Pacers are an institution, part of our fabric and identity.

But circumstances arise and teams come and go. It’s been happening for years and, of course, back in 1984, we were the beneficiary when the Baltimore Colts moved here.

Losing the Pacers, however, would be like losing our firstborn. Without the Pacers, there likely would have been no Market Square Arena, at least not in the time frame it happened. Without Market Square Arena, downtown development might likely have lagged to the point where there would have been no impetus to build the Hoosier Dome.

Without the Hoosier Dome, there would have been no Colts, no Final Fours, maybe no Circle Centre.

Critics say, fine; we’d be better off without all that. I say, nonsense.

Sure, these last few years have been tough for the Pacers. I choose not to rehash.Now I believe the Pacers are on their way back. In the NBA, because of its ludicrous guaranteed contracts, it takes time.

But just the thought of Indy without the Pacers makes my gut hurt. It’s because I remember the men who birthed the franchise and turned it into the old ABA’s finest. It’s because I remember the sacrifices it took to make the team one of four that got absorbed into the NBA in a ridiculously one-sided agreement. It’s because I so well remember the telethon that saved the team in 1978.

And, yes, it’s because I remember the sense of salvation when Mel and Herb Simon bought the team. At long last, the Pacers had solid, well-funded local ownership.

But even rich guys have their limits. The Pacers say they can’t make a go of it without help with the operating expenses of the fieldhouse from CIB. CIB says it doesn’t have the dough. Meanwhile, it seems to me that losing the Pacers (and the Fever) and their combined 60-70-plus dates would exacerbate, not alleviate, the funding issues of CIB and the fieldhouse.

Anyway, to all who would say good riddance, losing the Pacers wouldn’t make us a better city all of a sudden. It wouldn’t raise the graduation rates at IPS, or solve the sewer problems, or keep the streets safer (and please, no “thug” comments, OK?).

Maybe I see too much of the romance and not enough of the reality. The NBA’s salary situation absolutely punishes the smaller media markets. If the Pacers were the only game in town—like a San Antonio or Salt Lake City—it might be different.

Maybe it’s a game we can’t afford to play anymore. I hope that’s not the case.

In any case, it was a stroke of unbelievably good fortune when the U.S. Army assigned a native New Yorker named Mel Simon to Fort Benjamin Harrison, and he later decided to make Indianapolis his home and, with his brother, start a business here.

Along the way, they saved the Pacers once. Now we ask, is the franchise worth saving again? My answer is yes, but I don’t write the checks.•


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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