David Hoppe

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:: Ballard over a barrel

The cost of being a sports capital

By David Hoppe

It's called being over a barrel - that graceless posture that comes from being bent in such a way that one's hind quarters are put on prominent display. Meanwhile, one's head, the inaptly named "seat" of reason, takes a dive.

This pretty much describes Indianapolis in the matter of Conseco Fieldhouse and the Indiana Pacers. For over a year the Pacers, aka shopping mall tycoon Herb Simon, have been complaining that operating costs at Conseco are too high. Those costs apparently run $15 million to $18 million a year.

It's not hard to imagine that, when the deal between the Pacers and the City was first struck more than a decade ago, the idea of the team paying Conseco operating costs seemed like a reasonable trade-off. In exchange for picking up the operating tab, the Pacers wouldn't be charged rent for use of the hall. And the agreement stipulated that the Pacers would make any money associated with nonsporting events booked into the arena, from rock concerts to performances by Cirque du Soleil.

In the meantime, the City could count on the Pacers, better known as "your" Indiana Pacers, until at least 2019.

Things haven't worked out. Although Indiana prides itself on being America's sweet spot for basketball, the Pacers are a money-losing proposition. At least that's what Mr. Simon says. He claims the Pacers have been in the red every year since moving into Conseco Fieldhouse, blowing through about $60 million over the last two seasons alone.

It's not clear whether the Pacers simply failed to budget for the costs of operating what many spectators consider to be a state-of-the-art basketball facility, or if the costs associated with that facility, not unlike the salaries of many basketball players, have grown in unexpected ways over the past ten years. Who would have thought that somebody like Mike Dunleavy - that's "your" Mike Dunleavy -- could command $10 million a year?

The Pacers told the City they wanted it to begin picking up operating costs. The timing of this demand could not have been worse. The Capital Improvement Board, the City body responsible for managing sports facilities and other downtown resources, had just learned that operating Lucas Oil Stadium was costing about $40 million more than anticipated. To make matters worse, the overall economy was in the tank and citizens had just staged a mini coup, throwing out an incumbent mayor over skyrocketing taxes and a lack of attention to street-level services.

The City, particularly the CIB, has been running a fast shuffle since then, trying to keep its balls (as it were) in the air.

This is a town, remember, where the contemporary origin story goes something like this: Things had turned to dust in this once proud place. People called us Naptown, the city that always slept. But then a group of young and restless civic leaders came upon a Great Idea. And that Idea was to christen this place the Amateur Sports Capital of America. The power of this idea woke our sleeping city, leading to the revitalization of downtown, the building of great temples and even tourists.

It was probably inevitable that the glamour and corporate power of professional sports would come to dominate this narrative. What is an amateur sports capital, anyway? The point here is that city leadership invested heavily in the fixed idea of sport. It was something that was easy to understand and easy to sell to a community notorious for its suspicion of Big Ideas.

But Indianapolis is a small market and pro sports bring large market demands. Hence that barrel Herb Simon invited Mayor Ballard and the CIB to bend themselves over. The mayor, of course, tried to put the best, er, face on this position. "The Fieldhouse is a City-owned public building that must be run with or without the Pacers," he said in justifying the City's picking up $10 million per year in operating costs for the next three years, along with another $3.5 million for facility upgrades.

While the mayor said this agreement was not about the Pacers, he spoke at length about the underlying fear of losing the Pacers to another city -- $55 million and thousands of jobs that, he said, help fund neighborhood improvements and provide employment for everyday folks. "Your" Indiana Pacers, indeed.

What the mayor neglected to say was that 2019 is just a couple of elections away. What's more, we don't know what Herb Simon's plans are. Given the team's lack of financial success, might he be looking for a buyer? Then what?

And how is it the Pacers still get to keep the money from nonsporting events at the Fieldhouse?

Mayor Ballard has been doing yeoman's work lately, finding stopgap ways of keeping libraries open, buses running and, for three more seasons, the Pacers dribbling. Until the city arrives upon a new vision for itself -- something that takes over where sports leave off - don't be surprised if he looks a little bent out of shape.