Indy’s non-pursuit of NBA all-star game remains mystery

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The lease agreement the Indiana Pacers and Capital Improvement Board finalized in 1999 for the newly built Conseco Fieldhouse could not have been clearer.

Both sides badly wanted to land an NBA All-Star Game. It is right there in the lease between the Pacers and CIB that locals would go after this high-profile event.

So what happened?

After reading a column penned by IBJ Managing Editor Greg Andrews for this week’s print edition, the answer to that question is as mystifying and elusive as ever. And I’ve covered the business of sports here at IBJ for nearly 15 years.

The last serious effort to net the NBA All-Star Game was spearheaded by Don Welsh when he was president of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association (now Visit Indy). In 2010, he led a recon mission to Dallas—that year’s host city—to see what it would take for Indianapolis to host the glitzy event.

Welsh’s effort, for unknown reasons, went cold quickly. Then Welsh departed for Chicago the following year and the effort has not been revived.

Fourteen years after the Pacers-CIB agreement for the Fieldhouse, the 1985 NBA All-Star Game, held at the newly built Hoosier Dome, remains the only all-star game the league has held in this city—a curious omission given Indianapolis’ propensity for landing big-time events.

Odder still, no one locally can give a good reason why Indianapolis hasn’t landed the game or isn’t going after it.

The NBA’s All-Star Weekend starts Friday and features a variety of events, including slam-dunk and three-point-shooting contests, leading up to Sunday’s game. A study commissioned by the Orlando Magic found that last year’s festivities in Orlando had an economic impact of $95 million, including $56 million in direct spending.

An estimated 37,000 visitors from outside the county spent an average of $1,020 during their visits, and NBA players alone dropped $440,000, according to the study.

Those are big numbers. And big numbers need to be put in perspective. Direct visitor spending for the 2012 Super Bowl in Indianapolis was $175 million, according to a study commissioned by the local host committee. A Final Four delivers $40 million in direct visitor spending to Indianapolis, according to Visit Indy.

Did you catch that? An NBA All-Star Game could deliver $16 million more in direct visitor spending than a Final Four.

Visit Indy and CIB officials seem to be at a loss for why this event hasn’t been pursued more aggressively. Pacers President Jim Morris said the Pacers would love to host it, but Bankers Life Fieldhouse’s schedule is simply packed.

Really? Too crowded for an event with this type of economic impact?

Apparently, it’s not just the Fieldhouse schedule that’s crowded.

“Sometimes, even when we might be available, hotel rooms might not be available” because of sporting events or conventions held elsewhere downtown," said Rick Fuson, the Pacers chief operating officer.

I’m guessing that’s a problem Welsh’s replacement at Visit Indy, Leonard Hoops, would like to wrestle with. February isn’t one of Indianapolis’ busiest convention months.

Despite competition from other cities, if Indianapolis throws its hat in the ring, it surely will be able to work its way into the hosting schedule, said David Morton, president of locally based Sunrise Sports Group. He sees Lucas Oil Stadium, which proved its mettle as a basketball venue when it staged the 2010 NCAA men’s Final Four, as the ideal location.

The NBA has gone both big and small with past venues. The 2010 game was in Cowboys Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, while this year’s game is at Toyota Center, home of the Houston Rockets.

There’s one consideration Pacers officials aren’t likely to address publicly. In recent years, some NBA all-star games have been marred by violence and other mayhem. So the security costs would be considerable.

But this seems surmountable for a city that has become known as one of the most creative nationwide for hosting sporting events.

Fuson—who as a new Pacers employee helped ready the Hoosier Dome for the 1985 game—fondly recalls that event. He said larger isn’t necessarily better. He called Bankers Life Fieldhouse the best basketball venue in the country. And he said its appeal has only grown with the installation this season of a massive high-definition scoreboard.

“Our new scoreboard makes a significant difference about the NBA wanting to be there, too,” Fuson said.

So again, I ask, what are we waiting on?

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