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The Journal Gazette

  • Brett Luke | The Journal Gazette Pacers mascot Boomer dunks during a halftime show at Memorial Coliseum during a Mad Ants game this season.

  • Brett Luke | The Journal Gazette C.J. Fair drives in for a layup against the Northern Arizona Suns at Memorial Coliseum.

  • Brett Luke | The Journal Gazette Walt Lemon Jr. shoots against the Northern Arizona Suns at Memorial Coliseum.

Sunday, December 10, 2017 1:00 am

Ants staying? Coliseum optimistic

Downtown arena announcement clouds team's future

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

The NBA's Indiana Pacers, who own and operate the Mad Ants, were on record of being in favor of Fort Wayne building a downtown arena in which the G League team would have been a primary tenant.

Since Mayor Tom Henry's Nov. 17 announcement that he was shelving plans for the proposed $105 million arena, neither the Pacers nor the Mad Ants have given any public indication as to their plans or if their commitment to Fort Wayne remains as strong as it was when the 2015 purchase from a local ownership group was completed.

The Mad Ants' lease to play basketball at Memorial Coliseum expires July 31 and, according to Coliseum general manager Randy Brown, almost no conversations have taken place about renewing.

However, that's “not unusual at all,” Brown said.

In fact, the Mad Ants' current lease, titled a “license agreement,” obtained by The Journal Gazette through the Freedom of Information Act, shows that it wasn't signed until Sept. 29, 2016, meaning there's plenty of time for the Coliseum and the Mad Ants to work out an agreement for the 2018-19 season.

It may be that the Pacers are evaluating their options before conversations happen, but several requests over the past three weeks to speak with either Pacers president and chief operating officer Rick Fuson or Mad Ants president Tim Bawmann weren't answered.

The only response came in a text message from Bawmann that read: “We look forward to winning more games and fans continuing to come see us play.”

The Mad Ants went into Saturday night with a division-best 10-3 record, including a 7-1 mark at the Coliseum, certainly the best they've played since they won the championship in 2014 and reached the finals again in 2015 – under the previous ownership group.

Assuming the Mad Ants remain in Fort Wayne – and there's no indication beyond conjecture that they won't – the Coliseum would be the only logical home, at least in the near future.

“They have positioned themselves as Fort Wayne's basketball team, and we are the premier basketball facility in Fort Wayne,” Brown said. “I have every reason to believe that our relationship with the Mad Ants and the Pacers will continue for years to come.”

That would, of course, need to begin with conversations with Fuson, who has attended at least two Mad Ants games this season.

“We had just a very brief, 'Hey, how are you? That's something we need to talk about in the future,' ” Brown said. “To call it preliminary would be an overstatement. I have every reason to believe, though, that we could get something done. We have favorable (lease) terms and I don't think it would be a complicated process.”

Through their first eight home games, the Mad Ants' average announced attendance is 2,808, the fifth highest in the 26-team G League, and according to records obtained from the Coliseum, the number of people actually attending Mad Ants game was 1,658 per night.

However, the report by Victus Advisers of Park City, Utah, commissioned by the Allen County-Fort Wayne Capital Improvement Board to gauge the feasibility of a downtown arena, noted that the “Mad Ants are better suited to play in a mid-sized facility.”

Most G League teams play in arenas smaller than the Coliseum with the smallest attendance average this season being the South Bay Lakers' 614 at the Los Angeles Lakes' practice facility, the Toyota Sports Center, and the largest being the Texas Legends' 5,628 at Dr. Pepper Arena.

The league average for announced attendance was 2,336 though the first 164 games.

It's possible the Pacers could look to fund or partner with another facility, or develop another property on their own, in Fort Wayne. Two sources not affiliated with the Pacers told The Journal Gazette they considered the former General Electric campus, which is being developed into a mixed-use district.

But Kevan Biggs, one of the developers within RTM Ventures, which is developing the public-private partnership, wrote in an email, “At this time we have not been directly contacted by the Pacers.”

There have been rumors that the Pacers could move the Mad Ants to Anderson or, more likely, the Carmel/Fishers/Noblesville area, which would put their operations just outside Indianapolis and cut down on the cost of staff, travel and, perhaps, a building.

Where would they play there? The most likely candidate had seemed a sports pavilion in Fishers, but that has endured delays and the plans unveiled in August no longer featured a center arena, though there would still be several courts. There are other facilities in and around Indianapolis that could potentially hold a G League team, including but not limited to: the Pacers' home, Bankers Life Fieldhouse; Indiana Farmers Coliseum, where the IUPUI basketball team and Indy Fuel hockey team play at the Indiana State Fairgrounds; a potential new complex in Greenwood; Hinkle Fieldhouse, where Butler plays; or, with some creativity, perhaps even the Pacers' practice facility – St. Vincent Center.

That would fly in the face of what Fuson told The Journal Gazette 13 months ago: “There have been some reports that we're going to take the Mad Ants and move them to the Carmel area. I live in Carmel. I don't want the Mad Ants there. I want them to be in Fort Wayne. I'm here to say to you today that Herb Simon and his ownership group have never moved a team. He's never threatened to move a team. And it's not going to be like that here.”

jcohn@jg.net