LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It’s no secret that the Kentucky Derby Festival Classic basketball game, an all-star event for high school seniors played every spring (except one) in Louisville since 1973 as part of the Kentucky Derby Festival, has fallen on hard times lately.

On Thursday, event organizers announced that the game will not happen in 2018. The official reasons given for the move are declining attendance and increasing financial losses.

But behind those are other factors.

The shoe companies have their own events – the Jordan Brand Classic and McDonald’s All-American games chief among them – and those are the events the elite players are gravitating to, given their national prestige and profile.

The NCAA ruled that all-star games couldn’t be played in an arena that serves as a college team’s regular home court, so the Derby Festival Classic was relegated to Freedom Hall instead of the KFC Yum! Center.

A deal with FoxSports last year notwithstanding, the Derby Festival Classic has struggled to gain national TV traction.

The University of Kentucky’s ties to Nike and the McDonald’s game’s preeminence has led to UK recruits not being available to the Derby Festival game in large numbers, leaving Louisville and Indiana fans to pull the attendance load.

And most recently, and perhaps surprisingly, organizers told WDRB that there has been a reluctance on the part of players to come to a game in the city of Louisville, given two recent scandals that have rocked the U of L men’s basketball program over the past several years.

“The basketball classic is a Derby Festival tradition and it’s hard to remember a time when it wasn’t part of our spring calendar,” Mike Berry, KDF president and CEO said. “This was not a decision we made lightly. It’s our mission to produce events for the entire community and in this case the community was speaking with their feet.”

The Derby Classic has been a major event. It has featured the likes of Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Darrell Griffith, Moses Malone, Penny Hardaway and many others over the years. In the past several years, it still has featured Donovan Mitchell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Eric Bledsoe.

But the difficulty of recruiting players in the current climate, combined with the challenges of sponsorship, funding and doing battle with shoe companies, has made it increasingly difficult for organizers to maintain the event’s profile.

“Every year we evaluate what we do and where we can improve,” Berry said. “. . . We want to produce a basketball event that the community is excited about, especially when we’re putting it in a basketball town.”

It’s not the first time the game has taken a hiatus. There was no Derby Festival Classic in 1983, for similar reasons. Festival officials have already been having discussions over what future form the game might take, should it return. One idea being floated is an all-star game in which players from Kentucky and Indiana taking on prospects from around the nation.

Perhaps the public will have ideas. The game has been an important part of the Louisville basketball fabric. Before recruiting became a national obsession and top high school prospects household names, oversized crowds were showing up in Louisville to cheer them on and get a preview of things to come in the college game.

These days, it seems there’s more interest in following their college decisions than watching them actually play. Perhaps this basketball event is one whose time has come. Or maybe a tweak here and there can provide new life to the old name.

Let’s hope so. The Derby Festival Classic has been a special event. It would be a shame for the city to lose it.

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