“Save The Pacers” Telethon

pacers telethon newspaper header

75years_blackred1070 Helps Team Avoid Moving From Indy

 

Gary Todd, 1070-WIBC radio morning man, Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut and Chet Coppock, TV sportscaster show the ticket chart during the "Save the Pacers" Telethon in July 1977. (IndyStar File Photo)

Gary Todd, 1070-WIBC radio morning man, Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut and Chet Coppock, TV sportscaster show the ticket chart during the “Save the Pacers” Telethon in July 1977. (IndyStar File Photo)

AM-1070 has long been a station focused on helping the Central Indiana community, including fundraising exposure for countless service & charitable organizations through the years.

One of the most important to the fate of downtown Indy happened in 1977: the “Save The Pacers” Telethon.

Yes, hard to believe today, but the local pro basketball team was on the verge of leaving town!

After a wildly successful decade in the American Basketball Association – that included 3 league championships and attendance records – the Indiana Pacers paid a steep price to become an NBA team: a $3.2 million dollar entry fee and a four year ban from sharing in TV revenues.

By the summer of ’77, the team’s credit card was not being paid off, front office employees went six weeks without paychecks, and most of the players accepted a delay in being paid. The team was almost financially insolvent.

The Pacers announced that unless season-ticket sales reached 8,000 by July 5, the club would be sold to someone who might take the franchise elsewhere after only two years in the sparkling new Market Square Arena. According to newspaper reports, by the end of June, the team had only a little more than 5,700 season tickets sold.

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An Indianapolis Star newspaper clipping announcing the Telethon.

So the broadcast stations who carried the games, WTTV-4 on television and 1070-WIBC on radio, offered to help with a telethon to keep the team in Indiana. All of the money raised was to be placed in an escrow account and be returned if the pledge total fell short of the goal.

The “Save The Pacers Telethon” began on the night of July 3, 1977 in the 500 Ballroom of the Indiana Convention Center. 1070-WIBC morning host Gary Todd was one of the event’s emcee. He and others updates audiences on call-in-pledge and season ticket purchase totals in between recorded messages by Hoosier celebrities, entertainment from local music groups who performed at no charge, and pep talks from Hall of Fame coach & broadcaster Bobby “Slick” Leonard and his wife Nancy. Volunteers, front office employees, and even some players like All-Star Billy Knight manned the telephones to take pledges from callers. Arby’s donated food for the workers.

It was truly a grassroots movement. Beyond phone pledges to buy season tickets, there were countless calls to make cash donations – mostly modest amounts in the $10 to $20 range. And many more people brought small increments of cash in person – totaling over $30,000 according to reports. Some were children offering their piggy banks, or empty coffee cans full after going door-to-door collecting donations from neighbors. All cash collected would be used to purchase tickets to be given to local charities.

With just ten remaining minutes before going off the air, Nancy Leonard happily and tearfully announced that season ticket sales had topped 8,000. The Pacers were to remain in Indianapolis.

A few years later, the Pacers and NBA got on more solid financial footing. The league expanded and got a better national TV contract with the team now able to get their fair revenue share of it.

The Pacers became the cornerstone of downtown Indy’s revitalization. It’s no exaggeration to say that without the “Save The Pacers Telethon,” there’d eventually have been no Colts or any other NFL team, nor many of the amenities people so often marvel at when visiting our city.

Video of the “Save the Pacers” Telethon in 1977.