Fever must build on magical season

One year ago at this time, an Indiana Fever player or coach could run around Downtown Indianapolis without being recognized by a soul. Maybe Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas -- maybe -- but the rest of them? They were just tall young ladies who looked like they might have played ball some time in the past.

Those days, happily, are over.

"When I got here five years ago, any one of us could go out in the city and go incognito," said veteran guard Tully Bevilaqua, who has made her home in Indianapolis. "Now, I get recognized everywhere. I was at the post office a few weeks ago and my dog got free and ran across the street. I saw someone a few weeks later at a Humane Society event, somebody said, 'You're Tully, you're the one whose dog got loose, right?' It's really changed a lot.

It has taken some time and a WNBA Finals run, but the Fever, who open their season Saturday at home against the Washington Mystics, have become part of the sports fabric of this city. In a month's time, they went from niche curiosity to mainstream, from a team appreciated only by those 6,000 nightly diehards to a group whose efforts were supported and applauded throughout the city. (And yes, Pacers president Larry Bird did a very good thing last season, buying out the top level of the fieldhouse to ensure a sellout for the deciding Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.)

With last year's run, they not only captured the town's attention, but they may have saved the franchise, making it next-to-impossible for ownership to sell or move the team to another city.

Which is why this WNBA season is so vitally important.

The Fever can't afford to be one-hit wonders. As quickly as Indy embraced them, the truth is, the city will abandon them with just as much alacrity. When it comes to a sport like women's professional hoops, winning is the only draw. As quickly as the Fever made themselves matter last year, they can recede into the background just as quickly.

For now, though, the numbers are inarguably positive.

Ticket revenue is up 47 percent over last season.

Season ticket renewal percentage is up 12 percent over last year.

Total sponsor revenue is up 25 percent, including two multi-year corporate partnerships with Indiana Members Credit Union and Steak n Shake.

"This has been our best offseason,'' Fever general manager Kelly Krauskopf recently told the Sports Business Journal. ". . . Our profile went to another level with our Finals run. It got a lot of our fence-sitter fans off their couches and into our arena. A lot of our inventory in the arena is sold out.''

When asked about the WNBA, which is in its 14th year, Krauskopf said, "We're right on the cusp. There are fathers who want their daughters to have the opportunity we offer. We've shown growth in traditional and digital media, and that's exciting. This is an elite-level sport."

There will always be those folks, especially men, who will look at the women's game and dismiss it for its lack of athleticism. For them, there's nothing the Fever, or any WNBA franchise, can really do. They've closed their minds to the league and the product.

That said, the game is as good as it has ever been. The WNBA Finals series between the Fever and the Phoenix Mercury might have been the league's best from an artistic and competitive standpoint. And with contraction -- are you watching, NHL? -- the league has strengthened its remaining franchises.

The Fever grabbed Indy last summer, and now they can't let go.
"I can just feel a sense of anticipation in this city that I've never felt before," said coach Lin Dunn, a recent inductee into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. "There are many, many more people aware of the Fever. Every time I go to the grocery store now, I hear, 'Way to go, coach,' 'When's the season start, coach?' 'How's our team look, coach?' There was a little bit of that in the past, but nothing like it is now. There's visibility, an awareness that we're here."

It's hard to imagine this won't be another title-contending season for the Fever. All the core players are back, although they're likely to start slowly with four key players (Catchings, Douglas, Tammy Sutton-Brown and Ebony Hoffman) returning late from their winter basketball jobs in Turkey. If they can stay healthy, this group has another WNBA Finals run it.

The only issue -- besides the fact the Fever have far more late arrivals than anybody else in the league -- is age. Four key players (Catchings, Douglas, Sutton-Brown and Bevilaqua) are 30 or older, which is why Dunn believes she has to do more to develop her bench. She got a glimpse of the possible during the WNBA Finals run, when Briann January and Jessica Davenport played monster roles.

For the most part, this is the same group who stole our attention last season. The city they call home, though, that's changed dramatically.