It's a Full-Court Press To Lure Fans to Fieldhouse

May 10, 2008

The Star's position: Pacers’ leadership team working hard to turn around troubled franchise.

Herb Simon and Jim Morris want to deliver a message to Pacers fans: They get it.

In a meeting this week with The Star's Editorial Board, Simon, the Pacers' co-owner and new CEO, and Morris, in charge of the franchise's business operations, acknowledged how far out of favor the team has fallen with the community.

How bad is it? In a city and state filled with dedicated and knowledgeable basketball fans, the Pacers recorded the worst attendance in the NBA this season.

Morris, who not long ago was fighting the effects of famine and natural disasters as director of the United Nations' World Food Program, is now battling to restore the tarnished image of a team that he considers an important part of Central Indiana's social and business fabric.

The franchise's troubles began with the infamous Detroit brawl but have deepened in subsequent years as players became embroiled in several off-the-court scandals.

It's not surprising then that Morris calls character a paramount consideration in rebuilding the team's roster, including through this year's draft. He noted that when focus groups have been asked to pick between a player with great skills but questionable behavior and one with lesser talent but sound character, the fans chose character.

Not that winning isn't important in reconnecting with the community. After all, much of the good will the team built up with the city in seasons past grew out of the excitement generated by playoff battles with the Knicks, Bulls and Lakers.

But fans want a team they can be proud of for excellence on and off the court. To reach that goal, Morris promises to increase the team's involvement in the community and to improve the franchise's support services for young players who must learn to cope with wealth, fame and a multitude of readily available temptations.

As the team's co-owner, Simon has a personal and financial stake in turning around the franchise, which a few years ago was considered among the NBA's best. He hopes to see improvement on the court next season, but acknowledges that salary-cap constraints could require a three-year rebuilding process.

Simon also wants fans to understand that another community institution -- the WNBA's Fever -- is entering a period critical to its future. The organization has assembled a championship-caliber roster. Ticket prices are low. Yet attendance must grow if the franchise is to finally break even. Simon's ability to continue writing off the Fever's financial losses is no doubt constrained by the Pacers' problems.

Two teams. Two sets of challenges. And not much time for either to begin packing fans into the Fieldhouse.

I didn't want this to slip between the cracks since this article showed up in the opinion section of Saturday's front page section.