SBJ/August 20 - 26, 2007/SBJ In Depth

Fort Wayne's #1

The faces in the framed photographs stare down from the wall behind Carl Bennett as he walks, slowly and meticulously, through the story of the day in 1948 that set a course for sports in Fort Wayne, Ind., and, as it happens, for professional basketball across the world.

The Fort Wayne skyline

Walter Brown. Ned Irish. Red Auerbach. Eddie Gottlieb. Maurice Podoloff. Pioneers of professional basketball, they’re all on the wall in Bennett’s den, posed around tables, frozen in black-and-white.

Bennett’s story starts with a phone call. Podoloff, the president of the Basketball Association of America, dialed up Bennett, who ran the Fort Wayne Pistons, one of the more successful franchises in the rival National Basketball League. He wanted to come to Fort Wayne and talk, in confidence. About what wasn’t clear. But Bennett had his suspicions.

The BAA, which was coming off its second season, played in most of the country’s larger markets, with teams owned by the operators of big arenas. The NBL, formed in 1939, had franchises playing mostly in 3,000-seat gyms in midsized cities like Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Rochester, N.Y., and Sheboygan, Wis.

“We had all the good players,” Bennett said. “They had the big arenas, but nobody in the seats. The BAA was in trouble. So I had an idea of what Maurice wanted to talk about.”

Bennett cleared the meeting with team owner Fred Zollner, who owned a large piston plant in town that employed about 1,000 people. He told Podoloff he could see him the next day.

“That’s how we ended up — myself and Mr. Maurice Podoloff — in my little house on Alexander Street,” Bennett said.

2920 Alexander St., to be precise.

Biggest small town

The blister of an August afternoon has sucked the breath, and chased most of the anticipated crowd, from a rare, Thursday matinee at Memorial Stadium, where the Class A Fort Wayne Wizards are locked in a close game against the Beloit (Wis.) Snappers.

No matter. Today, in Fort Wayne, the Wizards are better heard than seen. That’s because for this game, with an opening on the usual radio crew, Wizards general manager Mike Nutter has invited Bob Chase to join his regular play-by-play man in the booth.

Anyone who hadn’t heard about this during the previous night’s broadcast, or during Chase’s much-listened to morning drive sports report on WOWO radio, an anchor on the AM dial since 1925, certainly found out on the way to the game, thanks to the sign outside the Mr. Music store, down the street from the ballpark.

“Bob Chase, No. 1 Komet.”

Mr. Music will get no argument here.

Paris has Eiffel. Memphis has Elvis. And Fort Wayne has Bob Chase. Since 1953, he has called play-by-play on Fort Wayne Komets hockey games on WOWO, a blowtorch of a station that carried the highest ratings in the country in the ’60s. The coming season will be the team’s 56th and his 55th.

Certainly this is basketball country. And its baseball roots trace back more than a century. But Fort Wayne is a Komets town first, with fans turning out at a clip of 7,588 per game last season. Only six minor league hockey teams drew better. Five play in the AHL, which is the hockey version of Class AAA baseball. The Komets were in the UHL, a lower-level league that this year changed its name to the IHL. It will have six franchises, down from 14 two seasons ago. Komets fans have followed the team from one rickety league to another over the years, with Chase, still behind the mike at age 81, as their guide.

Last season, the Komets gave away 1,000 Bob Chase bobbleheads before a game. Three hours before faceoff, about 3,000 fans ringed Memorial Coliseum, hoping to snag one.

“I put myself through college as a bouncer, and I was frightened,” said Scott Sproat, executive vice president and minority owner of the Komets. “It was almost a riot situation. Bob is as big as it gets here.”

With that in mind, there may be no one better to turn to for an explanation of why Fort Wayne is what it is: the busiest and best minor league sports market in the country, with franchises in baseball, hockey, arena football and, starting later this year, basketball.

“This place started out as a major league sports town,” Chase said, pointing to both the Pistons and a baseball history dating back to the 1870s. “But we accept the fact that we’re not a major league town now, and it doesn’t bother us in the least. We’re terribly proud of the fact that we’re a darned good minor league town.

“That goes a long way here.”

Perhaps the sporting magic in Fort Wayne stems from the fact that, while it may sound like a small town to outsiders, and it embraces many of the values and attitudes of a small town, it is actually a regional hub, the second-largest city in Indiana, with almost 250,000 inside its city limits and a metro population of 565,000.

That makes it the largest city in the Class A Midwest League, and the third-largest metro market in the league, behind Dayton, Ohio, and Grand Rapids, Mich. It’s also the largest market in the six-team International Hockey League.

There are two newspapers — one published in the morning, the other in the afternoon — along with network affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, as well as a local PBS station.

“This is a little big town, or a big little town,” said Nutter, who joined the Wizards in 1999 after working at the Class AAA baseball franchise in Nashville. “I’m not sure which it is, but I’m not sure it matters.”

Memorial Coliseum, home of the Komets.

Sproat was born and raised in Auburn, Ind., a town of about 12,000 that’s about 25 miles north of Fort Wayne. Before joining the Komets in 2001, he ran the now-defunct Fort Wayne CBA team, where he worked for 10 years.

Chase, who did stints as general manager of the Komets while broadcasting the games in the earlier years, credits Sproat with “milking money out of this town like you couldn’t believe.”

“Nobody in this town has done the job better than Scotty,” Chase said.

Sproat described a formula that takes advantage of both sides of Fort Wayne: midsized market and small town. The Komets build $100,000 sponsorship packages that offer exposure for large companies, such as Comcast, but also maintain relationships with mom-and-pop shops, such as Ziffle’s Rib Bar, which spends about $5,000 and has to stretch to justify even that.

“We try to be something for everyone here,” Sproat said. “We’re the biggest small town in America. We’re the last place in America where if you went across the street and opened a general store, it’d still work. This city was built on hard work; blue collar. Even white collar here tinges blue.”

A buyer arrives

Carl Bennett’s story picks up in that little house on Alexander, where after a brief exchange of pleasantries and a general chat about basketball, Podoloff cut to the point of his visit.

“He was very candid,” Bennett said. “He wanted to talk about some of our teams joining some of his teams.”

Podoloff wanted four NBL franchises — Fort Wayne, Minneapolis, Rochester and Indianapolis — to join the eight strongest BAA franchises.

It would mean leaving behind a good thing.

In their early days in Fort Wayne, the Pistons were on the right side of the supply-and-demand equation. They played at Northside High. It doesn’t sound like much but, remember, this was high school basketball in Indiana. The gym seated about 3,200. Most nights, the Pistons sold it out. The story was similar across much of the NBL, Bennett said.

“We always paid our bills and paid the referees,” Bennett said. “We would play in arenas of 2,000 to 3,000 people in small towns. And, of course, those teams were the apple of the town. There was nothing else to do but go to a basketball game. We had it pretty good in that league.”

Driving redevelopment

Three weeks ago, a few hundred people showed up at a public meeting to unveil plans for a new downtown baseball park for the Wizards. It was enough to overflow the room at the Grand Wayne Convention Center, across the street from the proposed site of the park.

Fort Wayne’s downtown still is home to enough business and municipal activity that you can’t quite declare it dead. But it’s headed that way.

Fort Wayne missed the bus when cities large and small across the country were inviting private investment to their declining, urban cores in the late ’90s. “We didn’t have a plan,” said Deputy Mayor Mark Becker, a leading proponent of the ballpark. “Now, we do.”

The anchor to that plan is a new, $30 million ballpark for the Wizards. It would be unprecedented, in that it would be the first that would be built as part of a larger development, guaranteed by the owners of the team. Hardball Capital, a partnership between Atlanta-based developer Chris Schoen and attorney Jason Freier, has promised a hotel, condominiums, street-side retail and a parking garage as part of the $130 million project, called Harrison Square.

The team has pledged $5.5 million toward the ballpark and Schoen’s real estate company will put about $14 million into the retail and condos.

While many cities have used minor league ballparks to attract commerce and residents back to their declining downtowns, none have launched them in tandem, from the start. The potential to be part of that sort of real estate play was attractive to Freier and Schoen, who bought the team a year ago.

But Freier said they had no guarantees when they bought the team that the project would go. After all, the ballpark that the Wizards play in now is only 14 years old, and they draw well there. They made the purchase anyway, confident that they could succeed in Fort Wayne even if Harrison Square didn’t get off the sketch pads.

“Here, we found a great market,” said Freier, an attorney educated at Harvard and Yale. “This team has been extremely well-supported over time. We saw the kind of support the hockey team got. You go into certain towns, and they can either take or leave their minor league teams. Here, people care deeply.”

Poll the man-on-the-street and you’ll find tepid support for Harrison Square. Many say the team is fine where it is, on the north side of a town that has sprawled in that direction. But the project didn’t need to clear public referendum. All it needed was a city council vote. It passed 6-3, thanks in large part, Freier said, to a stream of about 40 local business leaders, including bank presidents and CEOs, who came to speak for three minutes each in support of it.

“To get 40 people who are heads of major companies to come to a meeting like that — I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it,” Freier said. “I’ve visited something like 60 minor league stadiums now, and seen all different kinds of markets. Some get great support. There is nothing like this.”

The city’s minor league teams, including the
Wizards, make room for sponsors big and small.

Pistons lured away

When the Pistons were a YMCA team, Zollner wanted them to be an industrial league team. When they were an industrial league team, he wanted them to be a pro team. So it should come as no surprise that when they were a pro team, he wanted them to compete among the best of the pro teams. The lure of playing in the big cities was too enticing to ignore.

Bennett and Podoloff spent three hours working through the concept the night of that first meeting. The following morning, they met with Zollner in his office at the piston factory. Zollner agreed to jump from the NBL to the BAA, so long as the other three teams went with him.

“Fred was thinking we were getting in the big leagues with the big boys,” Bennett said. “That was what he wanted.”

A year later, Podoloff invited more NBL teams into the league, in large part to fend off lawsuits from those who initially were shut out, but also to end the fight for star players. He knew that some of the franchises that took him up on it would lack the resources to get off the ground, and that others might be able to start, but couldn’t stay.

The result was a 17-team league that, beginning on Aug. 3, 1949, would call itself the NBA. Bennett joined Brown, Irish and Syracuse general manager Leo Ferris on the executive committee.

“I think it means a tremendous amount to our community to be the people that got all that together,” Bennett said. “It’s big league. I don’t think there are a lot of people around the country that know about it.”

Raising the roof

On the day before construction crews began a five-hour span of work that would bring Fort Wayne’s old barn of a coliseum into the 21st century, the building’s manager called Nutter to say he wanted to use a few of the suites at the baseball stadium, which is on the same parcel of property, across the parking lot. He planned to throw a party.

The renovation that expanded Memorial Coliseum from 8,000 seats for hockey and 10,000 for basketball to 10,500 for hockey and 13,000 for basketball, and also added 24 suites, stands as a stroke of engineering genius. On Aug. 2, 2002, construction crews used hydraulics to raise the arena’s 1,200-ton steel roof 41 feet, 10 inches, and insert 16 concrete columns for support. The new space would create room for a suite level that would generate the revenue and amenities of a modern facility for about $35 million, a massive savings when compared with the upward of $100 million that a new arena would have cost.

Komets fans came to watch the work, and tailgate.

“I think it says that we’re progressive enough to understand there’s benefit in change, but that we want to do it on our terms,” Sproat said. “If we can spend $35 million and have as good a facility as any in the country, why would we want to go spend $150 million?”

The renovated coliseum has been good for the Komets. Short of polling, there may be no better way to diagnose the sports pecking order of a place than to keep an eye on the rear windows during rush hour on a major drag. In Fort Wayne, you’ll see Komets logos more than any other, even more than Colts.

“Hockey is probably the last thing you’d think of in Indiana,” said Michael Franke, a Fort Wayne native who bought the team along with his four brothers for $300,000 in 1990 and now serves as team president. “But we’ve made this team the community team. This team belongs to Fort Wayne, Ind. Not to the Frankes. It belongs to the people in this area who have been loyal to this team for generations. That’s what it’s all about here.”

The team is profitable, with annual revenue of about $3 million, which puts it at the top in a league where most franchises bring in $1.7 million to $2.2 million, Sproat said. Tire-kickers have offered close to $4 million, he said, but the Franke family has no interest in selling.

The numbers would be far higher were the team not on the short end of a lease that limits it to revenue from ticket sales and advertising on the ice and the boards. The landlord keeps all revenue from concessions, parking and suites, which lease for about $30,000 annually, and even from tickets to the suites.

The only concession the Frankes got in the lease they signed in conjunction with the renovation was date protection. When the building does its schedule each year, the Komets pick first. Since they share it with a college basketball team, arena football team, the usual array of concerts and family shows, and now an NBA D-League team, that’s worth a lot.

When he ran the CBA team, Sproat watched the way the hockey team packed people in and scratched his head. Now, he wonders how basketball will make it playing on the dates that no one else wants. He says he’s rooting for them, but, still, he wonders.

“No disrespect, because it’s a great ownership group and it’s got the NBA behind it, but I wouldn’t want to trade places with them,” Sproat said. “We’re that MasterCard commercial in Fort Wayne — the one thing that’s priceless. And that doesn’t have anything to do with me or my partners or anything we do. It has to do with 56 years of being in the same town with these people, through three generations, living and dying with them when a factory closed or opened, and when International Harvester shut down.

“That’s the fabric of it. We’re the priceless in this town.”

A place in history

On Sept. 6, during enshrinement weekend, the Basketball Hall of Fame will unveil an exhibit that will stretch about 12 feet, recounting the story of the NBA in Fort Wayne. Bennett said he has lobbied for it for six years.

Two years ago, he sent a letter to NBA Commissioner David Stern, explaining that he had a story to tell, one that would preserve a crucial piece of the league’s history. Stern wrote back. He sent a camera crew to spend three days in Fort Wayne, and five hours interviewing Bennett.

“These are the facts and this is the history,” Bennett said. “Fort Wayne is where you should start if you’re talking about the birth of the NBA.”

And the NBA is where you should start if you’re talking about Fort Wayne, proud home to minor league sports.

You see, losing the Pistons to Detroit, as Fort Wayne did at the close of the 1957 season, did not sour people on their town’s teams and games. They embraced the Komets, who played a somewhat foreign sport in the 10,000-seat arena that they built for the Pistons five years earlier, but rarely filled.

When Zollner announced that the Pistons were leaving, he explained that the city simply was too small to support a major league sport.

And here is where you learn so much about the people of this big little town.

They didn’t roast him. They toasted him. After all, Zollner wasn’t moving the piston plant that employed many of them, or the fast-pitch softball team that they so loved. He would continue to fund a knothole club for their children, and summer swim programs, with free bus rides for those who needed them.

“We couldn’t support the NBA program in Fort Wayne, and I think people realized that,” Bennett said. “Not enough people here, and too many games.”

There are more people today. And far more games.

Minor league games.

“We’re not big league here,” Sproat said.

It wasn’t a confession. It was a profession.

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