It’s the end of an era for the front office of Pacers Sports & Entertainment, as longtime executive Rick Fuson on Wednesday announced his plans to retire later this year.
Fuson, 71, plans to depart as CEO on June 18, the same date he began working for the franchise 40 years ago as director of special events at Market Square Arena.
He will be succeeded as CEO by Mel Raines, who joined the franchise in 2015 and has been president and chief operating officer since early 2022. Todd Taylor will become president of business operations.
Fuson has become one of owner Herb Simon’s most trusted lieutenants over the decades and was named CEO in January 2022 after 14 years as chief operating officer and eight concurrent years as president of the franchise.
“I’ve had as great a career as anyone can have … [but] I think it’s the right time,” Fuson said of his retirement. “It behooves all of us in management positions to make sure we recognize that we need to bring the next generation of leaders in earlier. I think that’s really important. We have folks inside the company who will do a fantastic job, and I can still advise Herb as an adviser to the chairman. It’s the best of all worlds.”
He said he hopes to spend more time with his wife, Karen, and their children and grandchildren, as well as some time playing golf and vacationing in Florida.
An Indianapolis native and graduate of Indiana University, Fuson told IBJ he hopes his love for the city shines through when his legacy is noted.
“I hope to be known as a guy who never quit, never gave up, and worked hard to make sure things were right,” he said.
Fuson is credited by many local civic leaders as being a champion of the city’s sports strategy and downtown Indianapolis as a whole, particularly coming out of the coronavirus pandemic. He also has been a driving force for the Pacers’ efforts on social justice and diversity initiatives.
Landing the big ones
The timing of Fuson’s departure—set for just a few months after NBA All-Star Weekend from Feb. 16 to 18—will bookend a career that began with leading efforts on the league’s All-Star Game in 1985, the last time the event was held in Indianapolis.
Fuson said he contemplated retiring in 2021, to make the NBA All-Star Game that year his final event, but delayed the move after the pandemic forced the league to postpone Indianapolis’ turn as host.
Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, said he has known Fuson since he joined the league’s front offices in the 1990s and considers him to be a “trusted friend.” He said Fuson was integral in the local host committee’s pivot of All-Star plans from 2021 to 2024, after the league decided the event would have to be conducted differently due to social-distancing efforts.
“He has an innate ability to bring people together around a common goal,” Silver said in an email. “It was disappointing for everyone involved [to move All-Star Weekend], but so much credit goes to Rick for galvanizing the Pacers organization and the business and community leaders in Indianapolis to refocus their efforts on delivering a world-class event in 2024.”
Silver said neither this year’s All-Star events, nor those in 1985—when the All-Star game was played in a football stadium (Hoosier Dome) for the first time—would have been possible without Fuson’s involvement.
“He’s been persistent in his efforts to bring the biggest sports and entertainment events to Indianapolis and his extraordinary track record speaks for itself,” he said. “Rick is one of the most accomplished and highly regarded operators in the industry.”
Additionally, Fuson has played an integral role in organizing other significant sporting events that have come to the city over the past four decades, in particular the Super Bowl in 2012 and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 2021. He also co-chaired events for the men’s NCAA Final Fours in 1991, 1997, and 2000; produced the Opening Ceremonies for the 2002 World Police & Fire Games; and was on several local organizing committees for the Big Ten Conference basketball championship tournaments.
Patrick Talty, president of the Indiana Sports Corp., said a large amount of credit for Indianapolis’ ability to land almost the entire 2021 NCAA basketball tournament in its “bubble” format can be attributed to Fuson’s role as chairman of the organization during that time.
He said Fuson worked closely with the Indiana Sports Corp. staff and the NCAA during those talks, both to leverage his relationship with the athletic governing body and ensure Indianapolis was the ultimate destination, and to iron out key aspects of hosting.
“He was so good at making sure we had what we needed, when we needed it,” Talty said. “When we needed to help the city recover, and sports was going to be one of the things that helped us recover, he was tenacious about making sure that we had the tools to do that—what we needed fromm the city, from the state, from the [Pacers]. That was really important and it helped a lot with us landing March Madness.”
A tough negotiator
Mel Raines has known Fuson since they served together on the Super Bowl Village Committee from 2011 to 2012. She said while he largely flew under the public’s radar for his work as co-chair of the committee, she recognized him as someone who knew how to get things done.
“I was like, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’” Raines said of her time on the Super Bowl committee. “He’s a force.”
Four years later, Fuson hired Raines—who had been entrenched in Republican politics as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks and adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney—onto the Pacers Sports & Entertainment team, giving her the literal and metaphorical keys to the fieldhouse.
“I think his legacy is so much bigger than just Pacers Sports & Entertainment,” she said. “Really, his career has mirrored the growth of downtown and where we are today—and what we’re on the precipice of becoming. We also are the organization we are today in large part because of his dedication to this franchise, this city and to continuing to improve things. It will be a big moment for the company, certainly, to have him stepping away at the end of the season.”
The pair worked closely on the 2019 deal between the city of Indianapolis, the Capital Improvement Board and the Pacers, which led to the $400 million Fieldhouse of the Future renovation project that was completed last year.
That wasn’t the first time Fuson sat across from city officials to discuss significant plans for the building. He led the original construction efforts for the fieldhouse in the 1990s and a minor refresh of the building’s technology in 2012. Fuson also helped secure a separate 10-year, $160 million subsidy deal for PS&E in 2014.
Raines said because of Fuson’s “incredible work” on the original build, the most recent renovations focused on making substantial improvements to the fan experience, rather than fixing earlier mistakes—something other arenas across the United States have been forced to spend money on as part of their own improvements due to shoddy construction.
“Rick led the design and building of the fieldhouse originally, so he was our guiding star on that renovation,” Raines said. “There wasn’t anything that ended up happening that he wasn’t fully in agreement and signed off on. The money all went toward making improvements, and that’s that’s because of him, quite frankly, because the initial design was so strong that we weren’t having to rebuild the place.”
Downtown Indy CEO Taylor Schaffer was involved in executing the 2019 fieldhouse refresh as chief of staff to Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett from 2021 to 2022. She said while her time came after most of the major pieces were done (Senate Bill 7 laid the framework for how a deal would look), she still worked closely with Fuson and Raines to iron out the details.
“Negotiating with Rick was always tough, because he always knew where he wanted to end up, but was never going to allow the details to get in the way of the big picture,” she said. “There were many times during that process where we didn’t necessarily begin [conversations] seeing eye-to-eye, but I always felt like we had a common goal. Each step of the way was trying to figure out how to put the pieces together.”
Schaffer said Fuson’s admiration for downtown was apparent.
“Rick is someone who loves downtown Indianapolis, and he’s going to be a cheerleader and champion for downtown every single day,” she said. “But he’s not going to hesitate to tell me when something needs to be addressed or when he has concerns about something. And that balance of being so passionate about the work and the space always ensures that I know that feedback is coming from a good, meaningful place.”
Hogsett said he thinks Fuson has been critical to not only carrying out the Simon family’s vision for its corner of downtown, but helping propel the entire city forward coming out of the pandemic.
“Had it not been for Rick, I don’t think we would be as far along as we are,” he said. “And I know that we definitely would not be in a position to be welcoming the world to Indianapolis in just three weeks” for NBA All-Star Weekend.
‘A very special person’
Herb Simon told IBJ it took about 10 to 15 years of Fuson working behind the scenes before the two really connected, but his ascent through the ranks led the pair to build “the closest possible relationship.”
“I’m sort of semi-mourning his [departure], because of our close work together, and how important he has been to the franchise, to the community, and to us personally, our family,” Simon said. “He’s a very special person.”
Fuson said he views the elder Simon (Simon’s son Steve and several other children are also involved in PS&E) as a father figure, of sorts, much in the same way he views PS&E Vice Chair Jim Morris, who he worked with for decades on civic and business matters.
“These guys have seen more than I’ve seen, and they can help teach,” Fuson said. “If you’re not learning at whatever age, you’re not very smart. They continue to teach me. Forty years ago, Herb didn’t have a clue who I was, but our relationship has grown in the last 20 years more and more. He’s a mentor, and he’s kind of a dad figure. And he’s a damn good negotiator, and you can learn from that.”
Fuson said the Simon family has given him their “full trust” to operate the franchise over the years, including broaching difficult conversations in the wake of the pandemic—both related to ensuring the success of the business and downtown, but also about giving players and Pacers Sports & Entertainment staff a larger platform to address issues they feel are important.
“It was a turning point in my life.” Fuson said of the pandemic, and the subsequent murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked days of protests in Indianapolis and other major cities.
“I’ve said often that is maybe the second chance I’ve had in my lifetime to help make a difference. The first time was maybe in the late ’60s and early ’70s, where we had so much strife in our country. We tried to do some things, but I think we failed.”
Fuson said he felt it was important that PS&E employees “knew that we were with them,” which led to weekly discussions, both virtual and in person, to discuss key issues. He said navigating the pandemic was the most difficult period he’s experienced in his professional life.
“We took some risks sometimes and talked about topics that some people really were opposed to, but we looked at it with an open mind, to talk about how we can, as a company, come out of that [situation] better,” he said. “I’m proud of the way that our company—the management, owners and employees—came together to help our company move forward.”
On a larger scale, the NBA used that moment to give its players a larger platform to speak about social issues, something that has evolved over the past several years but reached a boiling point with Floyd’s death. Silver said he felt the approach taken by Fuson and the Pacers was the right one for the moment.
“The Pacers are an exemplar of community engagement,” he said. “Under Rick’s leadership, the organization invests an enormous amount of time and resources in the community because they understand the power of sports and the Pacers brand to address important social issues and make a positive impact on the people of Indiana.”
Fuson has also worked to secure a strong cast of basketball operations personnel.
The Pacers recently picked up two-NBA All-Star Pascal Siakam, part of a three-team trade involving New Orleans and Toronto. Fuson said he is optimistic the team will continue improving its performance this season with the addition, as well as several others that have been made in recent years, like extending the contract of Myles Turner and adding Tyrese Haliburton. The Pacers (24-20) are currently No. 7 in the Eastern Conference.
“Our basketball leadership has done a remarkable job, along with Herb, with how they’ve recreated this team and the image” of the Pacers franchise, Fuson said.
“Having been here for so long, and we’ve seen those ups and down, seeing the things they’ve been able to do from a deal standpoint is really remarkable. The fact that we have now gained another All-Star on our roster is unbelievable—they’ve been trying that for years happened. I think the future is bright.”
He said he believes the WNBA’s Fever, which for the second year in a row will have the first overall pick in the league draft, is also poised to make strides in the coming years.
Beyond what happens on the court or in the boardrooms, Fuson said he’s long had a sense of civic duty and pride with his work. He said he is “hopeful” that future generations of Indianapolis residents continue to push the city ahead, and always look for ways to make it a better place.
“I get a little concerned at times about whether or not we’re going to be able to sustain [what’s been built] going forward,” he said. “I think it’s very, very important for the next generations to make sure that they … see the benefit of the relationships that make our city better. It just doesn’t happen, and we have to keep it going, to say, ‘Indianapolis, we are a great city, but we can’t rest on our laurels.’ We’ve got to go forward.”
And while it may take some time for Fuson’s legacy to be fully etched etched, those closest to him, like Herb Simon, already place him in a category with the likes of Jim Morris and former mayors Dick Lugar and Steve Goldsmith.
“He certainly is among them,” said Simon. “Whether he’ll be recognized as much as them, it’s up to history. But those who know him know he played a vital part. And that’s what counts, really.”