BLAKE SEBRING: Fort Wayne is no longer a basketball city

Despite having exciting players such as Walt Lemon Jr., the Mad Ants have struggled to draw consistent crowds this season. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)

Throughout our history, this area has produced amazing basketball talent, but it’s questionable whether Fort Wayne is a basketball city any more.

It doesn’t have anything to do with the current players, but the overall interest level. Judging by the attendance this year and at various recent games, Fort Wayne doesn’t seem to care about basketball unless it’s on the television.

Looking at photos of recent Mad Ants, Fort Wayne (IPFW), local college and high school games, not many fans care, and especially casual fans who aren’t directly related to the players. A half-filled gym would mark a significant achievement for some local teams because the crowds have been pathetic.

There could be various reasons for this, including pathetic marketing and depending solely on the media to provide free advertising. How can IPFW have done nothing over two years to capitalize on wins over IU? Based on their efforts, the Mad Ants probably deserve more fans than they get, but can’t seem to consistently entice them.

The problem is, the attendance at these basketball games has been bad for a while, maybe as long as 10 years. Part of the situation is that Fort Wayne fans don’t necessarily care for Fort Wayne teams. They’ll never give up or change their allegiances to Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame in college hoops, and Fort Wayne hasn’t been interested in the NBA since the Pistons left, or rather, since before the Pistons left in 1957. Remember, basketball was why the Memorial Coliseum was built.

One of the biggest problems with the debate about the IHSAA moving to class basketball 20 years ago is that most of the complaining seemed to come from folks who had not been to a game in a few decades. They were remembering the way things used to be in the distant past and not the reality of the way things actually were. That was at a time when the coliseum still hosted two sectionals and couldn’t draw 1,500 fans for doubleheader title games.

Every March there are complaints about how Fort Wayne doesn’t get to host a sectional or regional tournament. Partly that’s because the high school gyms aren’t big enough, but also rarely do they need to be any bigger based on the crowds. There may be one or two games a year that draw decent crowds, but not regularly.

There’s a reason the Memorial Coliseum hasn’t hosted a state tournament game in years, and the lack of attendance is why so many citizens questioned the need for a downtown arena. It wasn’t as if the basketball teams already had a large following like the Wizards did before moving downtown and becoming the TinCaps.

Granted, it’s the holiday season and everyone is a little busy and distracted, and the weather stinks, but c’mon, this is still the second-largest city in the state famous for basketball. It’s not like there’s a finite audience. And, if anything, there could be an interesting discussion topic that the media gives too much attention to local basketball based on the attendance figures and general interest.

In other words, the crowds truly should be larger than they are.

In fact, Fort Wayne has become much more of a football town than one that favors basketball. Compare the attendance for fall high school regular-season and playoff games and frankly, there’s no comparison at any class level. But as soon as the basketball season starts, that interest doesn’t transfer over, even though there are plenty of more future Division I players indoors than outdoors.

It’s just amazing that we live in Indiana, the self-titled world’s capital of basketball and no game in the city can draw as many as 2,500 fans (paid attendance, that is). That says a lot more about the fans than it does the players or the cost because there is as much talent in town a there’s ever been. For whatever reason, fans just don’t seem that interested in showing up.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of News-Sentinel.com. Email Blake Sebring at bsebring@news-sentinel.com.

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