How Pacers have ignited a fan base

INDIANAPOLIS — Willie Smith would get annoyed and kind of angry. He calls it “frustrated.” But as he talks about last season, it’s clear to see he was annoyed and kind of angry, sitting there in his assigned season ticket holder seat in section 118 overlooking the court of Gainbridge Fieldhouse with opposing fans all around.

It didn’t matter if they were Knicks or Lakers or Cavs or Celtics fans, they all seemed kind of “obnoxious” to Smith. But maybe that was because the Indiana Pacers were losing a lot at home, 25 of 41 games, to be exact. Which meant those fans next to Smith were winning. And it felt like their cheers were really taunts breaking his blue and yellow heart.

“It was frustrating,” Smith says again.

Smith and his wife Becky, of Thorntown, are devoted Pacers’ fans. They’ve been season ticket holders – on and off, mostly on – since the early 1990s, since the Reggie Miller era, attending hundreds of games.

And last year was one of the worst to be sitting in section 118, row 1, seats 1 and 2 at the fieldhouse that was once Conseco then Bankers Life and now Gainbridge. One of the worst of those nights long ago when the Smiths watched the Pacers play inside Market Square Arena.

It wasn’t just the losses last season that frustrated the Smiths, but the atmosphere, the lack of electricity — from the team and the fans. Attendance at Gainbridge averaged 14,359 per home game for the 2021-22 season in an arena that seats 20,000. That ranked the Pacers 30th, last in the NBA for home attendance, according to ESPN, filling just 588,743 seats for the entire season.

Couple that with a 25-57 finish? “Last year was rough,” said Becky Smith.

Longtime Pacers fans, Willie (left) and Becky Smith from Thorntown are season ticket holders.  They have been attending games since the Reggie Miller era of Pacers.  Photographed on Saturday, Jan.  14, 2023 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Longtime Pacers fans, Willie (left) and Becky Smith from Thorntown are season ticket holders. They have been attending games since the Reggie Miller era of Pacers. Photographed on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

But things have turned around this season. And it’s starting to feel a lot like “being back,” Becky Smith said. Back to those crazy, raucous days when Reggie Miller played, when the team made it to the 2000 NBA Finals. When the roar of the crowd at Conseco was so loud you couldn’t hear the person sitting next to you.

The Smiths try to explain what happened this season as they sit on a plush orange couch just up the steps from their seats before the start of the Pacers game Saturday night. As the music blares and the Pacers’ announcer boasts a sold out crowd, the second of the season.

There is something about this team, the Smiths say. First off, they’re winning more, 23-24. The Pacers have already won almost as many games as last season and they still have more than 30 left to play. Attendance is up to 719 fans per game and the franchise has recorded its first two sellouts since Feb. 8, 2020, the last home game before the pandemic shutdown.

But it’s more than the wins. There is grit with this team, Becky Smith says.

“They really seem to be trying hard. They hustle. They don’t give up. We might be down 10 or 15 but they don’t give up and they keep fighting,” she said. “There’s always a chance. We’ll get down and I’m like, ‘That’s going to make the comeback that much better. Because we’re going to come back.'”

And as the Pacers come back, as they fight for wins, as they play with grit, they have ignited a fan base. Some fans say maybe, just maybe, the Pacers could finally get back to those Miller days.

‘The loudest I’ve seen it’

“I was at all of Reggie’s games,” Marita Garner says, clad in a No. 31 Miller jersey with a bucket of popcorn in hand before Saturday’s Grizzlies matchup.

“It was magical,” she said. “It felt like electricity was running throughout the court and up in the stands. It was electric.”

Garner doesn’t want to jinx what she says is a “really cool team who could go far in the playoffs.” She knows her opinion is only based partly on the team’s performance and mostly on her own hopes.

“But I just feel like the team can do it and people are really excited,” she said. “I know I am.”

Fans sit in the stands during a timeout Saturday, Jan.  14, 2023 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.  The Memphis Grizzlies lead after the half against the Indiana Pacers, 73-58.

Fans sit in the stands during a timeout Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Memphis Grizzlies lead after the half against the Indiana Pacers, 73-58.

IndyStar posted a Twitter polls asking Pacers fans who have attended a home game this season how the excitement around the team and the atmosphere inside Gainbridge compares to last season. More than half of fans said it is better than last season with more than 37% saying it’s “unbelievably electrifying.” About 11% of respondents said it was the same or worse than 2021-22.

Myles Turner, who has played for the Pacers since 2015, says he feels a home game spirit like none he’s felt before.

“It’s completely different from last year to this year. It’s been incredible,” Turner recently told Pacers sideline reporter Jeremiah Johnson. “Even throughout my whole tenure here, this is the loudest I’ve seen it. I love it.”

‘I definitely think it’s the team’

The highest home attendance for the Pacers in the past 20 years came in 2001, the year after the team made it to the NBA Finals, losing to the Lakers. An average of 17,888 fans filled the arena per game, ranking the Pacers 10th in the league.

Through 2005, the Pacers had respectable home attendance finishes, 15th, 16th and 17th in the NBA. But since that year, minus the 2014 season when the team marked their best start in franchise history, 16–1, and finished the regular season 56–26, the team has fallen to the bottom third of the league’s home game attendance, many times at the bottom.

This season, tickets are selling more quickly and easily with two games sold out, something the fieldhouse didn’t see last year.

The Smith family, longtime Pacers season ticket holders, inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse.  From left, Jaclyn, Becky, Willie and Jason.

The Smith family, longtime Pacers season ticket holders, inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse. From left, Jaclyn, Becky, Willie and Jason.

Willie and Becky Smith said there were times last season when they wanted to watch their son, Jason, as assistant basketball coach for Kokomo High on a Friday night and couldn’t sell their Pacers tickets. They would come to Gainbridge and watch the Pacers, as they watched Kokomo High basketball on their phones.

This year, the Smiths have had no problem selling their season tickets, often above face value.

Todd Taylor, president and chief commercial officer of Pacers Sports & Entertainment, would like to claim that the surge of ticket sales and attendance this season has to do with sales and marketing. He jokes it’s the free T-shirts that pull fans in.

But then he gets serious.

“I definitely think it’s the team,” said Taylor, who has been with the Pacers for 11 years. “Every so often there just seems to be a team that resonates with our market.”

When it comes to NBA attendance, there is no magical formula, he says. “There aren’t very many times when the stars kind of align.”

But Taylor feels it now, those stars aligning. “Our players play hard, fight to the end.” Fans like that.

“That’s really all we want is just great effort,” said Willie Smith. “Winning is great, but it’s the effort.”

‘If feels good to be back’

The crowds are streaming into Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Saturday. Seats that are usually open to any fan walking around (standing seats at a table on concourse level by a bar) have been sold for this game for $130, to stand and watch the game.

“I came last night and I had to come again,” Michael Crown said as he waited for chicken nachos before the Grizzlies game Saturday. He had been at Gainbridge for the Pacers-Hawks game Friday, when the team lost 113-111. But it didn’t feel like a loss.

“I feel like this is a team I could really be into, you know, like maybe getting behind for a long time,” he said. “I kind of lost interest the last couple of years. It sounds silly, but it feels good to be back.”

As Crown is talking, fans are walking by yelling “Go Pacers.” The halls of Gainbridge are full, with people backing up in lines to get to their seats.

It’s a sold out game. “So it’s going to be crazy,” said Becky Smith.

The Smiths live 40 miles from Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Thorntown. But they come for almost every home game. Willie is a retired teacher and assistant basketball coach at Western Boone. Becky is retired from Charles Schwab after 26 years in IT.

The Pacers mean a lot to them. As a kid, Willie watched a game or two at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum when the ABA Pacers played. He always wanted to see more. He and Becky became season ticket holders. They watch every away Pacers game on TV at home.

Willie and Becky Smith's children Jason and Jaclyn at Reggie Miller's final regular season game in May 2005.

Willie and Becky Smith’s children Jason and Jaclyn at Reggie Miller’s final regular season game in May 2005.

The Smiths have memories of the Pacers for the past 30 years. Becky remembers Miller’s last regular home season game where their kids, Jason and Jaclyn, held up “Thank you Reggie” signs.

She remembers his last game against the Pistons in the playoffs. “It was sad.”

Willie’s favorite memory through the years is the game at home after the Malice at the Palace. The Pacers had eight active players, none of them starters.

more:The night after ‘Malice at the Palace’: 6 Pacers played ‘the best game’ Reggie Miller had ever seen

“And they played their butts off,” he said. “They lost but they just played their butts off.”

they cared. And Willie Smith said that’s what this Pacers team has. And that is why they are igniting a fan base.

“This whole team has just meshed,” he said. “And not just together but with the fans.”

20 seasons of Pacers attendance

Pacers’ average home attendance, season home attendance, and rank of NBA teams

2001: 17,888, 733,444, 10

2002: 16,744, 686,537, 16

2003: 16,352, 670,461, 15

2004: 16,544, 678,326, 16

2005: 16,994, 696,764, 17

2006: 16,179, 663,368, 24

2007: 15.359, 629750, 28

2008: 12,221, 501,092, 30

2009: 14,182, 581,472, 28

2010: 14,202, 582,295, 27

2011: 13,538, 555,077, 30

2012, 14,168, 467,561, 29

2013, 15,269, 626,069, 25

2014, 17,501, 717,542, 15

2015, 16,864, 691,434, 22

2016, 16,847, 690,733, 21

2017, 16,697, 684,578, 22

2018, 16,051, 658,119, 27

2019, 16,812, 689,310, 22

2020, 16,531, 529,002, 22

2021, Not applicable due to pandemic

2022, 14,359, 588,743, 30

2023, through 24 home games 15,078, 361,874

Source: ESPN

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: [email protected].

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indiana Pacers: How they have electrified their fan base, attendance

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