Fort Wayne's hot streak in sports may be cooling

Turner Cup champs
News-Sentinel photo by Steve Linsenmayer

Turner Cup champs
Scott Gruhl hoists the Turner Cup after the Fort Wayne Komets won the International Hockey League championship in 1993.
By BLAKE SEBRING, of The News-Sentinel

As the 1990s began, Fort Wayne was almost a professional-sports ghost town. In 1990, the original Fort Wayne Komets left town for Albany, N.Y., the Indiana Kick indoor soccer franchise folded, and attendance at high school and local college sporting events lost the battle to televised state college games. No one worried about getting tickets to a Fort Wayne game the next night, let alone next week. Many organizations tried giving away tickets.

Though minor league sports businesses were thriving almost everywhere else, Fort Wayne's floundered. Community leaders wondered why they should try attracting new sports franchises, when the ones we had were dying. Why would any owner take a chance on Fort Wayne? On paper, the city had perfect demographics, but they did not translate into filled seats.

But then the reborn Komets got hot in the 1991 International Hockey League playoffs. Suddenly pro sports was hot in Fort Wayne.

"If they had put together an organization that was mediocre, and a team that was mediocre, the fans would have responded in a mediocre way," Rich Coffey, then Fury general manager, said in 1991. "They caught people's imagination. They lit the spark and we reaped an awful lot of benefit from that. We took the baton from them and tried to make things special, too. The assumption now is that Fort Wayne is a great place, and we're on a roll."

During the next two seasons the Komets led the IHL in attendance. Their success encouraged the birth of the Continental Basketball Association's Fort Wayne Fury in 1991, and they demolished league season ticket records in their first season. The Memorial Coliseum drew 13.9 percent more people in 1991 than it did in 1990.

The roll continued in 1993 when the Fort Wayne Wizards opened play in the Class A Midwest Baseball League as an affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. The Wizards drew more than 6,000 fans to their first game.

The success snowballed into the formation of the semi-pro River City Rhinos football team, which competes in the Mid-Continental Football League. The team drew about 2,700 fans for its first game.

Sports became such a part of the Fort Wayne scene that in 1994 the city hosted the IHL, CBA and Midwest League all-star games and the men's volleyball NCAA Tournament to help celebrate the city's bicentennial.

The fans were drawn to watch successful teams, as the Komets won the 1993 Turner Cup, going undefeated in 12 playoff games, something that had never been done before in any professional sport. The Fury played for the CBA title in 1997, and the Wizards made the Midwest League playoffs in 1997 and 1998.

But it appears recently that Fort Wayne's roll might be over. The Komets have seen their attendance drop almost 2,000 fans per game and this year dropped from the IHL to the United Hockey League. Attendance figures for the Fury, Wizards and Rhinos have also steadily declined in recent years despite increased promotions.

One athletic team that has been able to maintain success throughout the decade is the IPFW men's volleyball team. After playing host to the 1988 NCAA Tournament at Memorial Coliseum, coach Arnie Ball's Volleydons steadily improved and played in the tournament in 1991, 1992, 1994 and 1999. They'll head into this season ranked No. 2 in the country as one of the favorites to win the national title next May as Fort Wayne hosts the tournament for the third time.

Part of IPFW's program, Lloy Ball, has had plenty of success in his post-college career. Arnie Ball's son was the starting setter on the United States Men's National Team that competed in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He's the captain of the U.S. team that will compete in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

Snider High School's Rod Woodson also continued his outstanding NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens. A perennial all-pro pick, Woodson was named to the NFL's all-time 75th-anniversary roster in 1994.

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