Indiana poised to become a basketball state once again

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.

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