It has been well documented, but the NBA was not kind to the ABA when the leagues merged. That article will talk about it in more detail than I will here. The part that matters to our story is the high buy in the Pacers had to pay to get into the NBA and not receiving any TV money for the first three years in the NBA. And once they did get that TV money, a seventh of it went to the former owners of the Spirits of St. Louis.* The Pacers were already on shaky ground coming into the merger and had to sell off their better players, which also did them no favors in making the move.
*That move had to be one of the shrewdest business moves pulled off in any industry at any time.
After the 1977 season, Indianapolis' position as major American city was under attack. The Pacers were in dire straights. The WHA team, the Racers, also had their fair share of problems. But, the NHL had a little more liberal attitude towards merging with their rival, as evidenced by this article.
*This is something I would absolutely love to do. Call me, people who might back me!
The Pacers, unlike the Racers, had an escape plan. They could get enough outside money to keep the team afloat and in Indianapolis, but it came with one big, thick string. The team had to sell 8,000 season tickets in a month. The deadline was the first week in July. As of June 25th, the date of the article above, the team had sold 4,000. There was work left to do. Professional basketball might fail in a place where a source no less definitive than James Naismith said "Basketball really had its origin in Indiana, which remains the center of the sport."
The Pacers had a few ideas how to make up this gap. First order of business was to get local (but bigger) businesses to underwrite season tickets for their employees, which would allow employees to pay for season tickets with smaller deductions taken straight from their paychecks. Colleges do this with their employees now, and I'm assuming did so then as well. Many companies jumped to the call. Indianapolis had long before hitched their economic wagon to sports. They needed to keep this team in this league.
First thing first: this became front page news. When sports jumps out of its section to the top headline on the front page, something big is happening. You might also notice that the continuation is the first mention of a telethon, which was just in the planning stages at that time.
You might also notice the continuation pulls no punches in pointing out why the Pacers were on the ropes. It notes at the end that the Pacers had better than average attendance (though season ticket sales seemed low, a lot of walk up business). That wasn't the problem. No, it was the draconian measures the NBA used to make sure their teams stayed supreme.
"The team's financial problems revolve around the $3.2 million entry fee into the NBA, and subsequent buy-out agreements with former American Basketball Association teams."
That doesn't leave a lot of room for interpretation, you know? The pressure was really starting to ramp up, and the Pacers had to start getting creative. That article was printed on June 28. It reports 4,688 tickets sold. Still quite a ways to go with just a few days to go.
The next day (Wednesday), the telethon was official. It was to start that Sunday (July 3) and go until Monday afternoon. The original deadline for getting to 8,000 tickets was that Friday, July 1, but it was extended just for the telethon. The players were feeling it. There was a very real chance the team would simply disband if the tickets didn't move. The Star made sure to single out the player that both was out in the public the most, and also was one who might have had the most to lose if the Pacers went away. Meet Dave Robisch, an otherwise nondescript journeyman backup center.
The next day came more good news, news Dodger fans can now appreciate. The Pacer owners announced they were able to meet their payroll obligations. It seems like the sort of thing most would take for granted these days, but I suppose when your employer is really struggling, you take the victories where you can get them. Any positive momentum was vital going into such a delicate situation as the one the team was headed towards the next night.
The headline makes it clear. All these underwritten tickets were a huge help, but everybody knew which basket all the eggs were in. The same basket that gets PBS lampooned. The same reason why nobody watches TV on Labor Day.* I would have been getting my resume in order if I worked for the Pacers. The fate of the Pacers rested on the shoulders of the one who would best be described, maybe even to this day, as the heart and soul of the Pacers. One Bobby "Slick" Leonard.
*Okay, so maybe that's a little bit harsh. Raising money for MDA is a very worthwhile cause, and in my guilt, here is a link to find ways to help. But, let's face it, your spokesman is easily confused for a guy that married his 13-year-old cousin. And if that's not what he's known for, he's known for the guy who wasn't Dean Martin. Great Balls of Fire, why did they wait so long to find another host? Sorry, that one was below the belt, too.
After what I'm sure, to Pacer employees and Indianapolis officials, felt like both an eternity and a blink of an eye, the night came for the telethon. Season tickets sold to that point: 5,720. Again, the number everybody knew all too well: 8,000. For those trying to do the math in their head, that's a difference of 2,280.
Headline typo aside, how ecstatic would you have been to be able to put that into the paper? An after the end (remember, the deadline was extended just for this telethon) desperation plea to save the team, and it worked. It worked! I have serious doubts anybody could pull this off today. Truly, it was something special.
Also, did you read the continuation? You need to. Imagine this scenario. The team is on a lifeline, also known as this telethon. Things look to be going well. It's a bit past noon, you look at the counter. 7,600 tickets, it says. 400 more to go. That's a lot in two hours, but at least we can see the finish line. Then comes some news that's about to rock your world. Somebody screwed up counting. We've only sold 6,730.
Now, let's not even touch how you miscount by a thousand. Last season, the Pacers sold all of 3,800 season tickets. It was already a daunting task to sell 400 in a couple hours. Now you suddenly have to sell almost 1,300 in that same time frame. Hope must have been in short supply at that moment. But, in possibly the least cursed moment in Pacer history, the way was found.
Think about that. 8,028. They made it by 28 season tickets. Without that number, there would be no Pacers in Indianapolis. The Racers clearly didn't make it. Without the Pacers, there likely are no Colts in Indianapolis. 8,028. No Fieldhouse. No Big Ten Championships. The NCAA likely doesn't come to town, and the Final Four doesn't have a deal to keep coming back to Indianapolis. No Lucas Oil Stadium. No Super Bowl. 8,028.
Again, this town had, with the Pacers and the Indianapolis 500, pretty well already hitched its economic wagon to sports. This town would have gone bust, except for one number. 8,028.
It really does blow my mind to think about it. If this happened in New York or LA, or maybe even Chicago, you would hear about it ad nauseam. Furthermore, I don't believe this could have happened in those cities. It would have been swallowed up, dismissed. I think Slick had it right. "Something like this can only happen in a place like Indiana."
On July 6, the Star had two things. First, a short blurb about how the Pacers simply couldn't believe the telethon worked. Secondly, a letter from the Mayor, Bill Hudnut. You might recognize the name from a little while ago when I posted about the Colts coming to town. I don't know much else about him, but the path of Indianapolis was set by keeping the Pacers and bringing in the Colts. There ought to be a pretty grand statue to Mayor Hudnut for what he set in motion with Indianapolis.
Today, it seems like the telethon is more of an embarrassment. I can understand that line of thinking. Who saves a professional basketball team with a telethon? Still, I disagree. It should be worn as a badge of pride by the team. In its time of trouble, the Pacers laid themselves entirely on the line and on the shoulders of the people of Indiana. If nobody cared, it would have been made very clear, and Pacers time in the NBA would have been an embarrassing footnote during Indianapolis' flirtation with import.
Tomorrow, we're going to start looking at some brighter days in the Pacers' NBA tenure. Back in a simpler time. A time we all just called "Miller Time."