Perched like a giant flying saucer resting on two parking garages, Market Square Arena was perhaps an aptly styled venue for Elvis Presley’s final public performance (June 26, 1977). Built in 1974 and host to a wide variety of sporting and cultural events of local and national importance, the arena helped Indianapolis establish itself as a major city. With 19,000 seats, it was the fifth largest stadium in the United States when built and became the home of the Indiana Pacers basketball team and the Indianapolis Racers hockey team. For twenty-five years the concrete and steel structure literally spanned Market Street, with New Jersey and Alabama streets to the west and east, until it was replaced by a more elaborate field house and was demolished with a loud explosion in 2001.
A Key to Urban Revitalization
In 1969, Mayor Richard Lugar (1968-76) proposed a sports stadium to help revitalize the drab image of the city that by the 1960s had become known as “Naptown” and “India-no-place.” Indianapolis's professional basketball team had been playing far north of the downtown, at the State Fairgrounds, and developers proposed a new arena even closer the city’s wealthier, northern suburbs. Lugar saw construction of the new arena as key for urban revival efforts--downtown. Arising out of a public-private partnership between the city and real estate developers, Market Square Arena and the Indiana Convention Center became anchor projects of the early 1970s. One hundred-fifty feet from floor to ceiling with a clear span diameter of 364 feet, Market Square Arena later became associated with city leaders’ efforts in the 1980s to anoint Indianapolis as a sports capital.
Rise of the Pacers
Two professional sports teams needed a new home in the early 1970s. The Indiana Pacers had been playing in the American Basketball Association (ABA) at the State Fairgrounds Coliseum (now the Pepsi Coliseum) since 1967. And in 1974, Indianapolis was awarded a franchise in the World Hockey Association and formed the Racers. In Market Square Arena, both teams immediately led their leagues in attendance in the mid-1970s. But challenges came when the Pacers had financial troubles while transitioning from the ABA to the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1976 and when the Racers folded in 1978, soon after the team’s owner sold 17-year-old rookie and top player Wayne Gretzky to the Edmonton Oilers. In their 1982-83 season the low-performing Pacers hit the bottom of the NBA franchise by attracting only 4,800 fans per game, yet in 1992-93 they drew a franchise record of 12,949. The improving Pacers helped make the arena “one of the most respected sporting-special events buildings in the nation,” according to the Indianapolis News.
Sports and Much More
Meanwhile, the arena fulfilled many other roles in the community. In 1975 the Indiana High School Athletic Association Boys’ Basketball Tournament moved from Hinkle Fieldhouse to the arena; the girls IHSAA Girls’ Basketball Tournament moved there in 1980. Michael Jordan launched his comeback in 1995 at the arena, and numerous entertainment and cultural events, such as Christian revivals and other religious conventions took place there.
Nevertheless, by the late 1990s its inability to accommodate expansion in the form of new skyboxes ensured its demise. It was replaced by Conseco Fieldhouse (now Bankers Life Fieldhouse) in 1999. Empty, dilapidated, unused, but not unloved, the stadium was imploded in twelve seconds on July 8, 2001.