Despite the exciting play of Paul George and the Pacers, Bankers LIfe Fieldhouse often has many empty seats. / Brian Spurlock, USA TODAY Sports
INDIANAPOLIS - This was in 1999-2000, back before Indianapolis became a racist town. The Indiana Pacers, playing their first season at Conseco Fieldhouse, sold out every game.
This was in 2004-05, the season of The Brawl, but still well before Indy turned virulently racist. The Pacers averaged 16,994 fans per game and had more than 13,000 full season ticket holders or season-ticket-holder equivalents.
This was in 2008, before Indy's latent, simmering racism reared its ugly head. The city, and the state, helped elect Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States, the first time Indiana had gone for a Democratic presidential nominee in decades.
Since then, we've become a bunch of hood-wearing, cross-burning racists who simply won't show up to Pacers games because we don't like black people. Or so it has been suggested by Colin Cowherd, an ESPN talk-show host who is generally the smartest guy out there and has always been extraordinarily kind to me. (So I'll repay his kindness by trashing his argument. Shows you what kind of guy I am.)
"You're holding an organization to a standard that happens because of race," he said the other day on his nationally broadcast show. "There's no other explanation why people don't go to Pacers games."
Well, actually, there is.
There are a couple of reasons.
Here's the big one: The NBA season-ticket-buying culture in Indianapolis is dead, at least for now. That has nothing to do with race. That has everything to do with six years of really bad basketball.
Here's what Colin doesn't quite get as he watches from afar in Bristol, Conn. After that 2004-05 season, pro basketball died here in Indianapolis. Ron Artest went crazy. Stephen Jackson, Jamaal Tinsley and others got in trouble. The team made the playoffs, but it was an unlikable team, and the Pacers were forced to trade all those players in order to change the culture.
The result was five or six years of nice guys who couldn't play a lick of basketball.
After having the 17th-best attendance in the league in 2004-05 - and keep in mind, with the fieldhouse's capacity, the best the Pacers can be is 13th - they dipped to 24th in 2005-06, then fell to 30th two years later, losing more than 3,000 fans per game. And it has remained near the bottom since.
The bottom line is, you don't rebuild a season ticket-buying culture after just one year of reaching the second round of the playoffs. Especially not in a small, relatively soft market, a market hit hard by the bad economy, a market that has seen the Pacers lose corporate sales from the likes of Dick's Sporting Goods, Marsh and others.
While the numbers are still paltry - 5,000 full season ticket holders and 7,000 full season equivalents - the fact is, the Pacers have increased attendance by about 1,000 a game, a 7.4% increase. Fans are not Pavlov's dogs. They don't react overnight. For now, they realize they don't have to purchase a season ticket. Instead, they can get a deeply discounted ticket to any game they select, and do so at the last second.
All of this frustrates the Pacers to no end, and they have meeting after meeting trying to figure out how to fill the house. But it's going to take time. It's going to take continued winning. It's going to take the kinds of solid citizens who currently populate the Pacers' happy locker room.
Maybe I don't believe race enters into the Pacers attendance equation because I don't want to believe it. It's entirely possible I am seeing the world through my preferred post-racial prism, that I am being protective and provincial.
But I don't believe that a few poll responses on an unscientific WTHR-TV poll - a few mind-numbing responses referring to a great group of guys as "thugs" and "criminals" - is somehow representative of the civic mind-set.
Where does race factor into attendance? It doesn't. This team drew great crowds when Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson and Antonio and Dale Davis were battling the New York Knicks and the Chicago Bulls. The team drew well in the early 2000s with Jermaine O'Neal and Co., and the big crowds continued to support the Pacers even after all hell broke loose in Auburn Hills, Mich., on Nov. 19, 2004.
Atlanta, another city with a pretty good team, doesn't draw for the Hawks. And that is a much more populated city with a huge black population. Is it race there, too? Do they hate Zaza Pachulia?
Like the Pacers themselves, I would agree the team should be better supported. This is a very good team with a bunch of likable, approachable young players. They play the kind of basketball Hoosiers profess to love, a democratic style that features teamwork and selflessness.
I also understand it takes time, a couple of years, to rebuild a season ticket-buying culture.
I would ask Colin to do this: Three years from now, if the Pacers are still a contender - and they should be - check back in with us. Let's look at the attendance then. Let's see if the Pacers are filling the house, or at least coming close.
If they aren't, well, then I'll entertain the argument. Until then, no sell.
Bob Kravitz writes for The Indianapolis Star.
Copyright 2013 USATODAY.com
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