Louisville's prospects for an NBA team look a little dimmer after a study released on Tuesday.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Not-so humble brag: The last column I wrote about the NBA and Louisville was longer than the just-released Executive Summary of a Greater Louisville Inc. commissioned PriceWaterhouseCoopers study on the feasibility of the NBA in Louisville.
How do you get into that, "writing studies" racket anyway?
Here's all you need to know about the NBA and Louisville's suitability for it, or lack thereof. Anyone making a blanket statement that it will or won't work is trying to sell you on one or the other. "Could work" or "probably won't," I can accept. But Louisville, to a great degree, is not like many NBA cities, the same way Louisville is not like other cities when it comes to horse racing. Basketball is not entertainment in this city, it is a passion. Likewise the entire state.
In J. Bruce Miller's last serious stab at luring the NBA to town, he was working with a high-dollar foreign investment group interested in the NBA for selling advertising rights to American companies in its home country while selling broadcast rights to its games (and by extension, the NBA) back at home. Perhaps its biggest revenue stream was totally independent of wins, losses or market forces in the city and the league. A model like that could have worked in Louisville. But the lockout hit and the momentum died.
Other situations, like the Sacramento Kings, with a troubled ownership and large obligations that would've had to be paid off even in the event of relocation, likely wouldn't have flown here.
It depends on the team, and the ownership, and what kind of minority local ownership would be allowed to be involved. In short, the question of the NBA in Louisville is not really one that can be addressed in general terms. There are deficiencies in this market that other NBA markets, even small markets don't have. But there are advantages. You can't tell me if the Indiana Pacers, with the same roster and a name change to Kentucky Colonels, were playing in Louisville they wouldn't have been playing to huge crowds all season. In Indianapolis, support has been tepid.
So any study like the one released today is, before the first line, trying to do the impossible. But despite its brevity, what little we saw -- or ever will see -- of the GLI-commissioned study jibed pretty well with common sense, which makes it rare among such studies. It noted that Louisville has widespread and passionate basketball support within this area, a modern arena, a lack of other major pro sports and the ability to market to the broader region. It also noted that Louisville lags behind in some areas -- ranking last among possible expansion cities in households with minimum incomes of $75,000, and in companies with annual sales of at least $5 million.
The study also concluded this -- that competition with the University of Louisville for fan and corporate support would be a challenge to any incoming franchise. From the study: "Feedback from a sample of the corporate market, however, suggests that despite a common desire for a NBA team to serve as a catalyst for community development, there is a general lack of available support for a NBA team, including those local companies who have demonstrated a propensity for such investments; current private suite and premium box holders at the KFC Yum!Center."
Now, by asking those businesses that already have tight relationships with U of L how they would receive the NBA, the study may have prejudiced its outcome. But those businesses, largely, are ones that would have to pony up for the NBA, so it's a fair enough question to ask.
The final two points:
-- "College basketball could serve as a potential constraint should a local NBA team be improperly positioned as a competitive versus complementary or differentiated offering."
-- "A (sic) NBA franchise in Louisville would likely shift existing corporate funds rather than expand the base of support available within the community for sport and entertainment in at least the short-term."
Mayor Greg Fischer made headlines last September when he brought community leaders together to talk about NBA possibilities in the city. At the time, it was newsworthy because the mayor of Louisville was publicly talking about NBA possibilities, and it touched off a rather rigorous round of debate and dueling studies on the city's suitability for the NBA, as well as a study blaming U of L for the current arena funding crisis.
At the time, Fischer told WDRB: "I'm excited to be part of the dialogue, and I continue to believe we should be ready if an opportunity presents itself."
But Tuesday, speaking with reporters, the mayor said of the NBA, "It's never been on the front of the mind of the Mayor's Office. This is something we've spent very little time on. There has been a media hysteria on this as well."
That sound you hear might be the door closing on any kind of public political support for luring the NBA to Louisville.
The bottom line of this study -- and the bottom line of the situation as it stands, with U of L holding the arena lease -- is that an NBA co-tenant in the KFC Yum! Center is impractical, and that no NBA effort is likely to succeed without first protecting U of L or guaranteeing its level of compensation moving forward.
With no NBA team on the horizon, the best use of time at this point is to come up with a way to solidify arena funding under the current scenario. It's a difficult challenge. Studies routinely overstate how much revenue U of L has added as a direct result of the new arena. Even if U of L were to return half of its added revenue, it still wouldn't come close to meeting possible shortfalls in coming years when payments on the arena's debt become more steep. Improving the working relationship with U of L is a start, along with booking more dates in the arena and finding other means for drawing people downtown.
The solution, likely, will include a tax component. But this is the price of downtown development. A great deal has been sacrificed on the altar of "downtown." Millions have been given to Cordish. Other areas -- like the Highlands -- have gone without funds that could've bolstered true local businesses. In some ways, Louisville leaders for years have been trying to create on Fourth Street what already exists a short drive up Broadway to Baxter and Bardstown. It's been an expensive effort. The arena on the waterfront was part of it, built instead of an arena at far less cost beside Freedom Hall on state Fairgrounds property, a site which would've allowed development of a "sports corridor" along Central Avenue, anchored by the state's most iconic site, Churchill Downs, a private company that has spent hundreds of millions to expand.
The question of the NBA in Louisville, even after the latest study, can't truly be answered until a). There's a team that wants to come and b). A workable solution for how it could impact U of L is found.
For now, U of L holds the lease, and the Cards. Grass-roots support for the NBA will continue, but it was dealt a blow. The new reality of the arena challenge in Louisville is the same old reality -- parties are going to have to work together to make sure the thing succeeds.