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Albrecht Stahmer on the NBA: U of L will start to push back as influential proponents gain support

by Albrecht Stahmer

In Sunday’s Lexington Herald-Leader, sports columnist Mark Story stated, “Louisville government leaders have spoken more positively about the idea (of luring an NBA franchise to the city) than at any time in my memory.”

Eric Crawford of WDRB.com offered up similar sentiments last month, “If you follow sports in this city, you no doubt remember the past NBA flirtations. It’s hard not to think of them when the NBA is mentioned now – which is quite often, and probably more by government officials and city leadership than at any time in the past.”

The NBA’s impact on Oklahoma City, according to insiders on Greater Louisville Inc.’s October 21-23 GLIDE trip to that city, permeated almost every discussion with their Oklahoman civic counterparts.

It’s a hot topic in City Hall, but it’s not just government officials talking about it.

Both the traditional print media and new digital media have given the issue noticeable print and bytes, respectively, including Insider Louisville.com. 

Crawford and his running mate Rick Bozich devoted the third agenda item of their Monday Morning Meeting post last week to the topic of the NBA to Louisville.

New Courier-Journal columnist Tim Sullivan has penned three recent columns on the topic. And Joe Arnold of WHAS 11 has been all over this story for the past three months.

On sports talk radio, Bob Valvano of ESPN 680 Louisville has been pounding the drum of this story on his Bob Valvano Show, and there has been no more a vocal local promoter of the NBA to Louisville than fellow ESPN 680er Nick Evans on his Sunday Morning Hangover show.

Full disclosure:  Evans is also an administrator of the Bring the NBA to Louisville Facebook page and founder of the StraitPinkie.com sports blog and its sister site, NBA2Lou.com.

Why is this chatter suddenly so loud?

Because of a series of independent yet indirectly related events that have coalesced into significant public discussion on the idea of an NBA team sharing the KFC Yum! Center with U of L.

On one front, the latest push germinated amongst some attendees at a May 14 cocktail party sponsored by the Louisville Sports Commission to honor Louisville and Kentucky’s greatest athletes. The party, organized by Steve Higdon, a Louisville Sports Commission board member/ex-GLI President/local power broker, brought together the state’s living sports legends for a night of celebration.

Amongst a small group of attendees engaged in cocktail party conversation, Louisville native and former NFL great Will Wolford raised an interesting question: All these years after the Kentucky Colonels left, why doesn’t Louisville have an NBA team?

The group included Butch Beard, Junior Bridgeman, Pink Gardner, Artis Gilmore, Darrell Griffith, Dan Issel, J. Bruce Miller and Mike Pratt, among others.

By the end of the discussion, many amongst this group had decided that the time was now for Louisville to make another serious push to land a professional basketball team. From there, work quietly started amongst these folks to gauge the business community’s interest.

Meanwhile over on Facebook, the grassroots segment of the movement, activity on and interest in the Bring the NBA to Louisville Facebook page had quieted down dramatically after the NBA lockout before last season.

The page had been a second iteration of the original Bring the Sacramento Kings page started by five Louisvillians (Phil Caballeros, Zack Doyle, Josh Gumm, Aaron Kreigh Hooper and Neal Turpin) in November 2010 when the arena troubles between Sacramento and the Kings became national news.

On March 24, Phil Baker, a Seneca High and UofL graduate and a Master’s student at IUS, became an administrator of both Facebook pages.  (Full disclosure — I am also one of the nine administrators.)

Since Baker, took over daily management of the site, he has been a tornado of energy and enthusiasm and the number of likes has more than doubled on the Bring the NBA to Louisville page and the combined reach of both pages has approached 40,000 people on some days, with followers from more than 30 countries.

In August, he was joined by Manual High and UK graduate Stephen Hill, a Internet marketer living in Lexington who has helped expand the Facebook campaign, created a Change.org petition and integrated a Twitter strategy into the Bring the NBA to Louisville social media campaign.

Chatter started to really pick up on May 29 when Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the arena bonds to junk status.  More bad news has since followed about the state of the arena’s finances.

Then came a biggie from the political front on July 25.

“If we have the opportunity (to land an NBA team), I will pursue it with full force,” Louisville Metro Mayor Greg Fischer said during the Q&A session at a GLI business breakfast. It was the first time he had publicly stated that he supported bringing professional basketball back home to Louisville.

On September 14, as a result of the behind-the-scenes queries about support for bringing the NBA to Louisville, Bridgeman called a brainstorming meeting of civic leaders and business titans in order to establish the next steps necessary to pursue an NBA franchise for Louisville.

Independently, these events had limited impact on the public debate. However when combined together they created a perfect storm of factors that launched the NBA question squarely into the public debate.

So what’s next?

First, look for U of L Director of Athletics Tom Jurich to come out punching, which one might expect in Muhammad Ali’s hometown.

U of L could demand up to $300 million in compensation to break the lease, which in a dream world would enable them to construct an on-campus arena.

Next, expect a market research report, well funded by U of L boosters, to be released in the coming weeks explaining the irreparable harm an NBA franchise would cause University of Louisville athletics, specifically basketball.

In U of L’s eyes, the NBA to Louisville seems to be more than the “pipe dream” that U of L President James Ramsey claimed it to be back in July.

So will that put an end to all this NBA chatter?

No. Not if the business community organizes itself and creates a unified voice of those who support both an NBA franchise in this city and U of L.

To this point, the latest push for the NBA in Louisville has been an example of entropy at its finest, a by-product of the fortuitous timing of a series of random events that makes things appear more organized than they actually are.

The time for relying on luck and timing are over. If Louisville wants an NBA team, there needs to be an organized effort, not hope.  And it needs to start soon.

From 1999 to 2001, when the Houston Rockets, Vancouver Grizzlies and Charlotte Hornets were considering Louisville as a potential location, the owners of all three franchises came away incredibly impressed with the Louisville business community. While Yum! Brands $100 million offer was extraordinarily impressive, perhaps even more impressive was the galvanization and organization of the  small- and mid-sized business community into the Gateway Group, which pledged to buy NBA season tickets, luxury suites and corporate advertising.

If Louisville wants to catch the attention of an NBA franchise considering a move or of the NBA for a future expansion team, the business community needs to organize and make its collective voice heard again, just like it did more than a dozen years ago.

Simultaneously — and most importantly – it needs to engage U of L and assuage any fears that the business community would abandon U of L for the new girl in town were and NBA franchise wind up in Louisville.

As Crawford stated in his September 19 post, Jurich feels as though U of L is about to become the victim of a bait-and-switch. But this is not a bait-and-switch as the baiters and the switchers are different folks.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher and former Louisville Metro Mayor Jerry Abramson are the ones who pushed for the new arena with U of L as the primary tenant.

The Louisville Arena Authority (LAA) was stacked with people with either direct or indirect connections to U of L. There was never any surreptitious bait here. On the contrary, given all of the connections between U of L and the LAA Board, U of L was told exactly where the hook was and how to avoid it.

For a bait-and-switch to occur, the baiters and the switchers need to be the same folks, or at least have some type of relationship to initiate and culminate their nefarious plan. If would be an impossible exercise in logic to argue that the current gubernatorial and mayoral administrations are extensions of the previous ones.

There has never been any long-term vision to build a state-of-the-art downtown arena using U of L as the primary tenant in order to secure financing and then push them out after recruiting an NBA team. This is utterly ridiculous.

U of L has far more influence in this city than J. Bruce Miller, who has been the only consistent public voice over the past dozen years in favor of the NBA in Louisville. There is no Illuminati-like, pro-NBA lobby set out on manipulating U of L basketball in order to bring in the pros.

Current Gov. Steve Beshear and current Mayor Fischer are facing the reality of having a municipal arena with a failing business model on their hands. They are not the back end of a bait-and-switch but rather are trying to figure out how to make the arena work. They have determined that bringing in an NBA team to share the arena is a potential solution.

It’s a broken record, but a fact:  If the arena bonds are to stay out of default, revenues within the tax increment financing district (TIF) that is the primary revenue source for paying down the arena bonds must increase or money dedicated for other government spending will have to be transferred to make up the shortfall. This is very simple math.

U of L is not the enemy. They play at the KFC Yum! Center under a valid lease negotiated with the publicly-appointed entity, the Louisville Arena Authority, who theoretically had the interests of the city as a whole in mind during negotiations.

Unfortunately, things are not working out as expected. As Mayor Fischer said, “We need more revenue. We need more nights.”

An NBA team could help fill nights and increase revenues.

This city is big enough to host both an NBA team and a successful topnotch NCAA basketball program. It’s been done elsewhere. There is no non-emotional reason why it can’t be done here.

For every James T. Naysayer that says it cannot be done, other folks disagree, including many in the local sports media.

Rick Bozich said last Monday: The chance to see at least 41 more basketball games in an arena that needs to generate more revenue?  Let’s do it.

And let’s do it with the Sacramento Kings. They’re looking for love – and the entire area would pull together to watch DeMarcus Cousins, Chuck Hayes and Francisco Garcia, plus Coach Keith Smart. That’s UK, U of L and IU. Sounds like a marketing dream to me.

From Crawford last Monday:

I’ve always thought an NBA team, if marketed properly and with ownership of the right type, could be successful here. And most important, it could give the city a tie to the rest of the state that has been lacking, and one that could serve as a positive bridge between Louisville and the rest of the commonwealth. So, yes, give me the Kings, but maybe with a new ownership group. And with one big caveat. Any NBA deal has to be done in a manner that engages U of L and protects its interests, “Making U of L a scapegoat for arena shortfalls is … dicey.  Better to start discussions with U of L now and see what it would take to satisfy everybody.”

Story agrees:

“I am reflexively pro-pro basketball in Kentucky. If marketed properly, I believe a pro hoops team in the commonwealth would do well.”  But, “In my view, there will never be NBA basketball in Louisville unless someone finds a way to appease U of L.”

Jurich is about to channel General Sun Tzu and engage in “The Art of War” to protect U of L’s current arrangement, which is completely justifiable given its strong legal position vis-à-vis the lease at the KFC Yum! Center.

Instead of fighting a war with U of L, the business community and political leaders would be wise to consider the tactics of another legendary Chinese military figure, Admiral Zheng He, and his penchant for the art of collaboration and diplomacy.

Otherwise, this could get ugly fast.

If properly engaged, U of L may be willing to re-consider sharing the KFC Yum! Center.

With all that said, Jurich would be wise to be receptive to this engagement should it come. While U of L has a strong legal position, it still remains a state institution that does not hold great sway in Frankfort and a nasty fight could cause some unexpected blowback.

Ultimately, if Louisville wants to land an NBA franchise, it will need to lay on a full-court press that would make Denny Crum proud.

Not having U of L on board would be a critical turnover that it can ill afford to commit.

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  • RyderCup1

    If anyone saw Rachel Platt (WHAS 11) interview with Jurich last nite….his feelings on the NBA subject are palpable. Mayor Fischer should reach out pronto. A big idea: Light rail from Southern Indiana to KFC Yum to …UL Campus…to…UPS. That might negate TJ/UL’s need for an on campus arena. Fund it from a downtown bridge that is not needed.

  • RyderCup1

    If anyone saw Rachel Platt (WHAS 11) interview with Jurich last nite….his feelings on the NBA subject are palpable. Mayor Fischer should reach out pronto. A big idea: Light rail from Southern Indiana to KFC Yum to …UL Campus…to…UPS. That might negate TJ/UL’s need for an on campus arena. Fund it from a downtown bridge that is not needed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/albrecht.stahmer Albrecht Stahmer

    Amen, RyderCup1. Kill multiple birds with a single stone and make the most of the bridge mess.

  • http://www.facebook.com/albrecht.stahmer Albrecht Stahmer

    Amen, RyderCup1. Kill multiple birds with a single stone and make the most of the bridge mess.