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Why Louisville Isn't Ready for an NBA Team
August 1, 2012KentuckySports.co
The talk is back. If you were born and raised in Louisville like I was, hearing about Louisville going after an NBA team is nothing new to you. When I was a kid, the push came from Dan Johnson, then Alderman and current City Councilman. He was pushing for a new arena on the old Water Company land years before the University of Louisville made it cool. Back then, he had a small backing of support, but most people just thought he was crazy. He and others proposed a huge arena downtown built solely for the purpose of courting an NBA team, not for University of Louisville use. Back in those days, Freedom Hall was going to stay the main venue for the Cardinals.
Keep in mind that back when these talks started about 20 years ago, downtown Louisville was nothing except a place to work. At 6 PM, everything shut down. There was no 4th Street Live, no Waterfront Park, and certainly no Tumbleweed on the River. And although the Galleria had a really great candy store that actually sold candy cigarettes (my favorite) far after it was politically correct to do so, it wasn’t exactly the best formula for courting an NBA team.
The talks come up every couple of years and change a little each time it floods the local headlines. If you Google “Louisville NBA team,” you’ll find articles from various years proposing different strategies of getting the NBA to take a chance on Louisville. Does Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer’s statement on Monday that “If we have the opportunity, I will pursue it [an NBA team] with full force,” actually have any substance behind it? I’ll believe it when I see it.
Don’t get me wrong; I think Louisville getting an NBA team would be phenomenal. I just don’t think it’s ever going to happen, at least not now. I’m not convinced it will ever even get out of the discussion and study stages. Right now, Louisville is simply not an NBA city. Louisville is certainly a better city since Dan Johnson started throwing out his ideas. It’s on its way, though. Downtown is now alive (I won’t say “thriving” because it’s not, but it’s better) and they now have the new, fancy arena they needed on a gorgeous well-placed Waterfront site.
Well, the University of Louisville has an arena, at least. Their arena, which they don’t even pay to use and receive 80% of suite revenue from, has a contract that gives them scheduling priority of the venue, which is great for the University but terrible for the arena’s pocketbook. If that stuck, there would be absolutely no way an NBA team could play there. The Yum! Center has proven to bring in big names and big money concerts, but they can’t schedule any of these revenue-building events during basketball season without getting Louisville’s basketball dates first. This strategy is financially running the arena into the ground by keeping the arena from being little but a University of Louisville Campus facility.
For more interesting information, read these articles I found outlining the too-good-to-be-true-but-most-certainly-is deal the University of Louisville has with the Yum! Center and just how closely related the University of Louisville Athletic Association Board and the Arena Authority are. Here and here.
And then there’s Freedom Hall. There is a better chance of UL football re-hiring Steve Kragthorpe than an NBA team calling Freedom Hall home. The arena is small and in bad shape. It will at the very least require an entire rehabbing, but for an NBA team, they would need to build an entirely new and much bigger arena. With the financial disaster that the Yum! Center is proving to be, it’s doubtful that the City of Louisville is going to be willing to foot the bill for yet another gigantic arena, keeping in mind that the city is also trying to build two desperately needed new bridges.
But let’s say it somehow works out like a fairy tale and an NBA team actually comes to Louisville. Will people go? There’s no debating that Louisvillians love basketball, but I’m not sure that passion for the sport in general will translate to ticket sales for a professional team in particular. I’d like to think that Louisville isn’t a glorified college town, but go right back up to those articles I linked about who is running the Yum! Center, and it sure looks like the University of Louisville is in charge. I’m not convinced that lifelong fans of the Louisville Cardinals will invest in tickets for both teams, let alone the times when they will have to choose between going to see one or the other.
The city of Louisville and its citizens are struggling financially. As much revenue as an NBA franchise would bring, it’s going to take a lot of investment from the city to seduce the League, and then there will require a lot of investment from citizens and fans to keep them here. Louisville is not a rich city and it has been hit hard by the recession. Louisville is a great city with fun things to do, and if you love college sports, it’s paradise. But what about this city looks like a great investment right now? Financially, there isn’t much. Unfortunately, Louisville is a city drowning in the debt of its largest investments and the looming debt of the projects it keeps having to postpone to pay for their mismanagement.
And let’s face it: when it comes down to it, the NBA is going to invest in a city that they see as profitable. Louisville isn’t putting their best foot forward.
Again, it’s not that I don’t want to see an NBA team in Louisville. If it happened, I’d be the biggest Louisville Hornets fan out there. But after years of fruitless talk, I’ll believe it when I see it.