The Indiana Pacers Are Pressing “Reset” On The Court—And In The Boardroom
It’s 10 a.m. in California, and sunshine is streaming into Steve Simon’s San Francisco office. Framed rock posters lean against the wall, waiting to be hung. There’s the Grateful Dead; Sly and the Family Stone; Radiohead; that famous one by Milton Glaser in which Bob Dylan’s hair is a psychedelic rainbow.
Simon, who gets up an hour or two before his family to meditate (he and his wife have four young kids), is already well into his work day. At 54, the private equity firm owner percolates with affable, boyish energy. “I have ADHD,” he says, presumably as an apology for his conversational style, which tends to drift from the topic at hand.
Today, that topic is the Indiana Pacers, which Steve’s father and uncle, Herb and Mel Simon, bought in 1983. Since Mel’s death in 2009, Herb has been the Pacers’ sole owner and shot-caller. At 86, he is now the NBA’s oldest and longest-tenured owner. According to some of his colleagues, he is of sound enough mind and body to continue the job indefinitely. But, in recognition of time’s undefeated record against mere mortals, Herb announced in 2017 that his son, Steve Simon, would be his successor.
The truth is, the younger Simon has been quietly involved in the Pacers organization for years. He is an alternate governor for the team, which means he is officially recognized as an NBA team owner. He is intimately involved in budgeting and strategic planning for Pacers Sports & Entertainment, which includes the Pacers, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, the Indiana Fever, Pacers Gaming, the Pacers Foundation, and Bankers Life Fieldhouse. And he has had a major hand in facilitating community and business partnerships. He was instrumental, for example, in bringing the Techstars Sports Accelerator to Indianapolis, which has helped position the city as a destination for startups in the sports-tech sector.
Still, to a large degree, Steve remains an unknown quantity to Pacers fans. As one of the strangest seasons in NBA history begins this month and he assumes more control of the team, it’s fair to wonder: What kind of owner will the Silicon Valley–based, rock-art-collecting, private equity honcho be?
In 1983, Indianapolis civic leaders were scrambling to find a local buyer to keep the Pacers from being shipped out of town. At the time, Herb and Mel Simon were redefining the American retail experience by building large enclosed shopping centers known as “malls” across the country. The enterprise made them extraordinarily rich. When they were asked to buy the Pacers for $10 million, they barely blinked. “We said ‘yes,’ almost as a civic responsibility,” Herb says now. The good deed paid off handsomely. Today, Forbes estimates the Pacers to be worth $1.525 billion. If that sounds crazy, consider that the Utah Jazz, a team in a similar-sized market, recently sold for $1.66 billion.
With market prices like that—and with the family patriarch and owner in his twilight years—it’s reasonable to wonder whether the Simon family might consider selling the team. But Herb put the kibosh on that notion in 2017, telling The Indianapolis Star, “I want to leave my legacy: this team permanently in Indianapolis.” He struck a deal with the Capital Improvement Board of Managers of Marion County in 2019 to keep the Pacers here through 2044. The agreement includes $360 million for Fieldhouse improvements, mostly funded by CIB sources and the city. The Pacers are pitching in $65 million of that to pay for renovations, including a 1.5-acre plaza next to the Fieldhouse featuring an ice skating rink that will rival the one at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
That’s fitting, in a way, considering the Simons’ New York roots. But according to Herb, his loyalties lie in one city and one city only. “I’m not a Bronxite, I’m a Hoosier. Indianapolis is very, very important to me and my family,” he says. Ask city and state leaders, and they’ll tell you the feeling is mutual. “The work Herb and Mel put into stabilizing this franchise was the foundation for making Indianapolis the sports attraction it is today,” Governor Eric Holcomb says. “They’ve been tremendous partners on so many issues, both public and private.”
Not that owning the Pacers has been all champagne and lollipops for the Simons. In the ’80s, the team was so woefully unpopular that the upper tier of Market Square Arena was routinely draped with curtains. The team’s fortunes changed with the arrival of Reggie Miller, who led the team to a series of iconic playoff battles, an NBA Finals appearance, and a surge in popularity. The Pacers had a legitimate shot at an NBA title in 2004, but that was torpedoed by the infamous Malice at the Palace. The next few years were dicey. Several cases of player misconduct tarnished the team’s image and sent the franchise into what Herb calls “a tailspin.” But under his stewardship, the Pacers clawed their way back. By 2013, they were pushing the LeBron James–led Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
By nearly any standard, the Pacers of today are a model NBA franchise. They’ve made the playoffs for the past five consecutive years. They’ve made uncommonly savvy personnel decisions, like flipping a disgruntled star, Paul George, for two future All-Stars in Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, and swiping the undervalued T.J. Warren from the Phoenix Suns. But they do have one glaring shortcoming: Since joining the NBA in 1976, they’ve never won a championship.
If you spend enough time in the comments sections of the most popular Pacers blogs, you’ll encounter fans who think Herb Simon is the problem. They say he refuses to open his wallet to pay for top-shelf talent. They complain that he’s too reluctant to pay the luxury tax, which is triggered when NBA team payrolls hit a certain threshold. But ESPN analyst and former Indiana Pacer star Jalen Rose laughs off those arguments.
“People always count championships,” Rose says. “Well, newsflash: The Lakers and Celtics have 50 percent of the championships. So that leaves 28 teams scrambling for the other 40 championships.” Further, he says, the Simons’ ownership has coincided with the rise of arguably the two most dominant NBA players of all time. “With Jordan there, nobody else was getting championships. Not Clyde Drexler, not Patrick Ewing, not Karl Malone.” Then came LeBron James, and it was more of the same. So, in Rose’s mind, the Pacers have been wise to practice fiscal responsibility when the odds of winning a championship have been so long.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver agrees. He adds that the luxury tax is particularly onerous for teams with smaller revenue bases like the Pacers. “It’s not the proudest part of our system,” he says. “But it’s the only system we have right now.” Silver says that even if all 30 franchises were well managed, and if good and bad luck were distributed equally, a team’s chances of winning a championship would still be only a little more than 3 percent. “You can’t operate a franchise with your sole goal being to win it all, because the odds are heavily against you,” he says. “But you can operate your team to always be a respected member of your community, to have a positive impact on people’s lives, to create an enjoyable experience for your fans, and to build personal satisfaction from it as well.”
Steve Simon agrees with the NBA commissioner’s vision of a model franchise. “What I’ve realized over the years is how this is a community asset and an impact enterprise at the highest level,” he says. Not that he doesn’t want to win basketball games. Simon is deeply emotionally invested in the Pacers’ on-court success. He cried when they lost Game 7 to the Bulls in 1998. He counts himself among the “screamers in the family” who drove Herb Simon away from his old seat in the Fieldhouse to where he sits now, near the tunnel by the Pacers locker room. “We were, let’s say, ‘flavorful’ in our vocal enthusiasm,” he says.
In the beginning, though, Simon’s enthusiasm for belonging to an NBA family was tempered by a desire for anonymity. He was a high school student when his dad and uncle bought the team, and he says “it put a spotlight on the family, and on me, that I wasn’t comfortable with.” According to Rick Fuson, COO and president of Pacers Sports & Entertainment, Simon’s disdain for publicity is a hereditary trait. “He’s his dad’s son, there’s no question about that,” Fuson says.
Steve “hates to use the word humility,” but his friends and colleagues invariably use some variation of it to describe him. “He’s very humble,” says Scott Dorsey, cofounder of the local venture capital studio High Alpha. “He’s the kind of leader that lifts everybody else up, and is quick to deflect credit to others. He cares about social issues and the impact the Pacers can have on the community.”
Surprising no one, Steve recently took a lead role in putting together the Pacers Inclusive Excellence Action Committee, a group of employees focused on changing the way the franchise operates regarding inclusiveness and diversity in human resources, purchasing, employee evaluation, and more. He says the murder of George Floyd broke open the Pacers organization in a “painful but beautiful way.” He recently read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a memoir about the Black experience in America, on the recommendation of Pacers point guard Malcolm Brogdon. “It’s a very important and profound book, and almost required reading for white folks,” he says.
Several Pacers players, Brogdon among them, have been vocal in their support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Steve says he will continue to encourage Pacers players to raise their voices to advocate for racial justice. “I’m a short white Jew from Indianapolis,” he says. “I’m never going to know what it’s like to be Black and to be afraid to drive home from the practice facility because I’m worried I might be pulled over and something might happen. So we’re going to follow our players on this.”
When it comes to leveraging technology to improve Pacers basketball and the fan experience, the Pacers are following Steve. With his Silicon Valley connections, Simon is especially interested in how data can be leveraged to create a more engaging fan experience. Last year, he spearheaded efforts to make the Indiana Fever the first WNBA franchise to livestream games from the “Wubble.” And he pushed the Pacers to partner with Salesforce on an interactive email initiative that has dramatically improved fan engagement. Fuson says Simon is single-handedly pushing the Pacers into new territory tech-wise. “We wouldn’t be as aggressive as we are without Steve’s prodding, his knowledge, and his helping us understand it,” Fuson says.
Simon is making his presence felt at the league level as well. “Steve and I speak frequently,” says Silver, the NBA commissioner. “He’s thinking a lot about social media, about the community aspect of the NBA, and about how we can scale media on a global basis. Steve has a real specialty in those issues.”
When asked how he expects Steve to lead after Herb departs, Silver pauses for a moment. “Well, I have to start by saying I don’t think of Herb as ever departing. But I recognize that, at some point, there will be a transition. I think Steve in many ways will be Herb 2.0. He has learned so much directly from his father over the years. I think what will probably make Herb proud is that Steve will improve on what Herb has done.”
This month, as the NBA begins its season in the midst of a pandemic, Herb and Steve are mostly focused on keeping everyone healthy. Neither is looking that far ahead, and the pressure to take home a championship in 2021 is minimal. But for all his talk about community and social media improvements and leveraging data, Steve admits that he shares his dad’s longing for the thing the older Simon has struggled for so many years to achieve: winning it all.
“It would be so sweet,” he says. “From day one, when we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, the goal was always to bring the amazing fans of Indiana an NBA championship.”