Championship or go bust?

By David Woods
Updated: September 16, 2009

INDIANA – The Indiana Fever had the best regular season of their 10-year history. They have the WNBA’s second-best record (22-12), championship hopes, increased attendance and new sponsors.

Behind the glow of a playoff run that begins Thursday night (7 p.m. ET on ESPN2) lurks another reality: This season might be the Fever’s last.

In March, co-owner Herb Simon said the team had lost “several million dollars,” and must double sponsorship and attendance to survive.

Attendance hasn’t approached that goal — it’s up 3 percent, or 237 fans per game — and the team hasn’t disclosed the value of its three new sponsorships, with Kroger, Old National Bank and Lucas Oil.

“There’s no reason to comment on the future of the team when we have so much good and positive to focus on,” said Jim Morris, president of Pacers Sports & Entertainment. “We want this to work more than anybody in the world.”

Morris said he was speaking on behalf of Simon.

Morris said recently that they want an average of 8,000 to 10,000 fans a game. This year’s average was 7,939, sixth in the 13-team WNBA.

The Fever’s fan base, though small, is devoted. Maureen Jaenicke, 56, Indianapolis, has been a season ticket-holder all 10 years. She said she would be “devastated” if the Fever folded.

Jack Smith, 52, Batesville, and wife Pixie, 55, also are longtime season ticket-holders. They began attending games so their daughter, a basketball player, could see role models. Their daughter has moved on.

“We kept coming because we enjoy it so much,” Pixie Smith said.

Some fans have complained about the Fever’s lack of television and newspaper coverage.

“I think it’s a shame we don’t support them more than we do,” said Dana Orr, 46, Indianapolis.

The failure of a WNBA team wouldn’t be a shock. Five teams have shut down during the league’s 13-year history, including the Houston Comets, who won the first four league titles (1997-2000). The Orlando franchise relocated to Connecticut.

Fever guard Katie Douglas has been through this before. She was on that Orlando team and said she “heard the whispers” about the struggling franchise.

Another Fever player, Tamecka Dixon, was on the Comets last year. She said there were signs of trouble and that players met several times during the season with league president Donna Orender.

Dixon said there have been no such warning signals in Indianapolis. Fever players said they don’t talk about the franchise’s future and that the issue has not affected them. Coach Lin Dunn said it has not been a distraction.

“With the veterans we have on the team, we’re not worried about the team next year,” Douglas said. “We’re worried about getting fans in the door and getting excited. I think definitely you’ve seen the city energized and excited about this team.”

The WNBA got a boost last year with a new television contract, including an undisclosed rights fee, to broadcast games through 2016 on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2.

If Simon tries to sell the team, sports business experts say, there would be few potential buyers.

3 key issues facing the Fever

– Pacers’ finances. If the Pacers’ attendance and won-lost records hadn’t suffered in recent seasons, the Fever’s future probably wouldn’t be in question. Jim Morris, president of Pacers Sports & Entertainment, acknowledged the finances are linked. “We need to make progress on each piece of it for things to work,” he said.

– Fever attendance. Home attendance has increased only slightly over the past two years, to a 2009 average of 7,939, sixth in the 13-team WNBA. The Fever have averaged 8,000-plus just once since 2003. Against Detroit on Aug. 15, the Fever had the biggest Conseco Fieldhouse crowd (9,963) for an August game since 2003. “Fan support is the basic barometer of whether something is going to make it or not,” Morris said.

– What’s next? A WNBA championship this year would help cement the Fever’s place on the Indianapolis sports scene. If they can’t become champions — or attract spectators — on a team featuring a two-time Olympic gold medalist (Tamika Catchings), hometown MVP candidate (Katie Douglas) and fan favorite Tully Bevilaqua, they would be in jeopardy when an inevitable downturn occurs.

Pro sports don’t come cheaply, but operating a team in the WNBA costs far less than in the NBA. For instance, the salary cap for a WNBA roster is $803,000, less than the $826,269 minimum for one third-year player in the NBA. Teams travel by commercial airlines instead of by charter flights.

Getting to a break-even point with the Fever is a challenge in a small market, Morris said, as it is with the Pacers. But he added that Pacers Sports & Entertainment is focused on what he called this year’s success story.

“We have a chance to win a championship,” Morris said. “And to bring a championship to the state of Indiana and Indianapolis would be a great thing.”

If that happens?

“It’s going to be hard for the owners not to bring the Fever back if the Fever win a championship,” Dixon said.