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Herb Simon on the Pacers’ Future: ‘We Have a Succession Plan’
A conversation with the team’s owner and CEO ahead of our season preview in the November issue—and amid longstanding speculation, he gives strong signals on who will occupy the owner’s office when he’s gone. Want a name? Read on.
Why did you and brother Mel decide to purchase the club?
We’re talking 1982 or ’83, and my brother and I were just starting to really move ahead in our business, and apparently the team was being moved—I think it was to Sacramento at the time. The city, the mayor, and citizens who cared a lot about the city were looking for local ownership. And they came to my brother and I, and we said “yes” when we realized if there was nobody else to do it, this team would be gone. We felt it was important to us and our community that we keep the team, and we agreed to buy it. I know that they had asked four or five other people who turned them down. I found that out many years later.
Anyone you can name?
No, I can’t do that.
Did you see a business opportunity in the purchase?
Well, as you recall, back then the NBA was not very—it wasn’t as desirable as it is today. In fact, our company was entertaining people at the Speedway, mostly.
Did you see any growth potential in the franchise?
To be quite frank, I didn’t think about that. It was a civic obligation, and we felt the city was good to us, and this was the least we could do for the city.
Why was it important to keep the team in Indianapolis?
Well, don’t forget, this was before we had a pro football team. It was a time when the city was starting to come along, and it would have been a big blow, a negative blow, to the city to lose an NBA franchise. But again, when you’re asked by the people in the city that’s been good to you and your family, to do something that wasn’t that unreasonable, you do it, and you don’t think about all those other consequences. Just think about Indiana, the home of basketball, without a basketball franchise. It would have been almost unthinkable.
It’s been reported that the organization has lost money since you bought it. Wouldn’t someone else have just moved it or sold it?
That’s what was happening, and that’s why we decided to step in. It’s something I don’t want to—you know, other than to say, we understand the responsibility we took on, we understand the exposure we have, but we’re not doing it just to lose money. We’re trying to improve our asset, so that eventually, even though we have suffered losses, we can rectify that. It’s an important asset to the city, and it’s something that we’re working on, to make it more profitable.
If the Pacers hadn’t remained in Indianapolis, would Circle Centre Mall still have been built?
We can’t speculate like that. That’s an important piece of the city’s infrastructure. Lucas Oil Stadium is important to the city. The Indianapolis Indians baseball team is important. The museum is important. The zoo’s important. IUPUI. This is a great city. And basketball is one of those valuable elements that make this city as vibrant as it is.
Were you into basketball before becoming a team owner?
I used to go to Pacers games at the Fairgrounds, so I go back pretty far.
I imagine ownership has added some depth to your understanding of the game.
I still listen to Donnie [Walsh] or Larry [Bird] on all basketball decisions. I’m smart enough to know that I’m not a basketball expert.
Ever tell Donnie or Larry “no”?
I wouldn’t want to tell you if I did.
What do you think the future might hold for the organization after your tenure as owner?
You mean after I’m gone? [Chuckles.] At my age, we do plan for that eventuality, and I have a son, Stephen, who’s interested in the team and has been involved with me, and we have a succession plan. And our hope and desire is if we can get things working properly, then we want to stay here for the foreseeable future.
It’s a great place to live here. It’s a great place to work. Our main company, Simon Property Group, has a major presence. My brother and I came here many years ago, and the people have been incredible, the environment has been incredible, and we’ve been able to make a good living and bring up families here. So this is a very special place for us.
See the November 2012 issue for more on the Pacers, past and present.