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Mark Coomes: An informed opinion is hard to find in increasingly bitter NBA vs. U of L civil war

by Mark Coomes

Is this where the NBA-to-Louisville debate is headed?

Kentucky journalists hold this truth to be self-evident:

Sports fans are fiercely monogamous, and nothing makes them madder than a scribe who practices free love. If you praise the Wildcats today and the Cardinals tomorrow, neither side will respect you in the morning.

You ideological tramp.

A comparable strain of simpleminded dualism is starting to inform the NBA-to-Louisville debate. You’re either for it or against it. You’re not allowed to simply inspect it. To collect data, hear competing arguments and then draw conclusions.

In general, the pro-NBA crowd argues that importing pro basketball is an unadulterated good. The other side sees it as unvarnished evil.

Guess what? It can’t be both.

The truth, per usual, lies somewhere in the middle.

The pro-NBA faction has reason to be cautious. They know that this community, spoiled by the region’s rich history of collegiate success, is unlikely to support a bad basketball team. And nobody can guarantee a winner.

Ask the Los Angeles Lakers. They stink this year, despite a gargantuan payroll and a roster studded with three, maybe four, Hall of Famers. Age, injuries, bad draft picks and bad chemistry can torpedo any team at any time.

There’s also a chance that Louisville could be plundered by carpetbaggers.

The moguls of professional sport are an increasingly nomadic breed, forever searching for greener pastures. At least 11 of the NBA’s 30 franchises have relocated since 1960. Four have changed cities in the last 12 years.

Even if an NBA team moved to Louisville and stayed for 20 years, there’s no guarantee that it would make the KFC Yum! Center self-supporting.

The arena was financed by a $348 million bond issue; total costs could exceed $500 million if payments are stretched over 30 years. Even Fannie Mae gets the vapors over a mortgage like that.

Financial incentives are required to compel NBA owners to relocate. A sweetheart lease could deprive the Yum! Center of a revenue stream useful for meeting its debt obligations. State and local taxpayers would have to help, either through direct subsidies or indirect support from the Tax Increment Funding district.

Either way, if an NBA team moved to town, taxpayers would have to help less. This is a good thing.

However, it’s not good enough for the anti-NBA crowd, many of whom are guilty of committing the Age of Reason’s most grievous sin:

Contempt prior to investigation.

Louisville can’t afford an NBA team, they say – though they rarely know much about actual NBA ticket costs.

The average seat for the Memphis Grizzlies, who own the NBA’s third-best record this year, costs $22. You can get into the nosebleed section for $5.

The New Orleans Hornets are selling five-game packages for $50. Ten bucks will buy a first-hand look at the world champion Miami Heat playing the Indiana Pacers next month.

Yahoo! Sports reports that StubHub recently sold tickets to games in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Charlotte and Sacramento for $0.10 to $1.

The best basketball players on the planet – live, in person – are yours for a dollar or a dime.

“The adage that the cost of attending a game is too steep, in some cases, doesn’t apply anymore,” Jay Hart wrote last month.

Lower-arena tickets for mid-market teams generally range from $50 to $150. The cost of luxury suites vary widely. None come cheap.

Some fear those prices are too dear for the Louisville market.

I’ve got a friend who’s in good with U of L’s athletics administration, and he says the Cardinals had to scratch and claw to sell all of their football and basketball suites. He says this proves that the community is tapped out and that NBA suites would go begging.

But would they?

It’s important to remember that not everyone in these parts is a U of L fan. An NBA team can tap markets (and wallets) that are immune to red-feathered charms.

A 2005 Courier-Journal readership survey found that in Jefferson County the ratio of U of L fans to UK fans is about 1.7 to 1. Outside of Jefferson County? Big Blue outnumbers red roughly 9 to 1.

Former Cats’ Pause publisher Oscar Combs says Lexington banks and other central Kentucky businesses would buy prime seats for the NBA for the same reason they shell out for Reds and Bengals games. Customers dig first-class freebies.

Maybe the suites could be sold after all. Maybe Louisville really can afford a pro basketball team. Hmmm.

Painted into a new corner, the nattering nabobs of NBA negativism respond thusly:

Who cares if we can afford a team? We don’t want one.

“I never talk to anybody who says they’re dying to have an NBA team here,” a smart, well-connected fellow told me the other day. “Nobody.”

That might be true. But anecdotal evidence is unreliable. And it’s often dead wrong.

Classic example: Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan predicted Mitt Romney would win the presidential election, though he trailed in most polls.

“We’re too busy looking at data on paper,” Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter opined.

Noonan’s data?

“All the vibrations are right,” she wrote. “(People are waiting to see Romney) for hours in the cold. …

“And then there’s the thing with the yard signs. In Florida a few weeks ago I saw Romney signs, not Obama ones. From Ohio I hear the same. From tony Northwest Washington, D.C., I hear the same.”

I hear Galileo rolling over in his grave, mourning the glib demise of Scientific Method.

Seems Noonan was stricken with reverse Thomas Dolby disease. She blinded herself with unscience.

Hearsay, yard signs and shivering crowds are not data. Nor is the patter of barstool pals who don’t care for the NBA.

Which is not to say that the barstool chatter isn’t accurate. But this is 2012, not 1412. We have tools for reliably measuring public opinion. Let’s use them.

This is a big decision. Why make up our minds before seeing the evidence? And for heaven’s sake, let’s collect our evidence like Nate Silver, not Peggy Noonan.

(Easy now. Don’t go shouting about another brand of bias. This has nothing to do with politics. It’s about objective math vs. subjective “vibrations.” Ms. Noonan is a fine writer with many sensible things to say. Her Romney prediction wasn’t one of them, and she admitted it.)

If nothing else, the 2012 election left rational Americans with a greater, if grudging, respect for empirical research. It’s here that we point out that the “Nobody Wants an NBA Team” crowd is contradicting a piece of empirical evidence called history.

In their final ABA season, 1975-76, the Kentucky Colonels’ attendance ranked sixth in all of pro basketball, NBA included.

It wasn’t lack of support that cost the Colonels a shot at the NBA. It was owner John Y. Brown’s lack of cash and the Chicago Bulls’ lack of kindness.

The Bulls owned the NBA rights to Colonels center Artis Gilmore, a six-time ABA All-Star, and knew the surest way to land Gilmore was to force the Colonels to fold. According to Terry Pluto’s definitive oral history, “Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association,” Chicago blocked the Colonels from joining the merger.

On to the money angle.

Before the Colonels’ last season, Brown sold the rights to star forward Dan Issel and guard Ted McClain for $650,000. That spring, the NBA paid Brown $3 million to liquidate his team.

And that was that.

It’s a complicated story that belies any attempt to cast Brown as a greedy villain. But the man who made his fortune as a ground-floor investor in Kentucky Fried Chicken made a regrettable play here.

According to Forbes magazine, the four ABA franchises that merged with the NBA – Denver, Indiana, New Jersey and San Antonio – are today worth an average $343 million apiece.

That’s about what it cost to build Louisville’s new arena, which is named after KFC. What comes around goes around, it seems.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results, but if Louisville was capable of ranking among pro basketball attendance leaders in 1976, why wouldn’t it produce solid crowds in 2016?

And why must NBA success come at U of L’s expense? The Colonels and Cardinals both thrived at Freedom Hall in the 1970s – and there are an extra 400,000 potential fans to draw from these days.

Population in the Louisville Metropolitan Service Area has grown 47 percent since the Colonels folded, from roughly 887,000 in 1976 to 1.3 million in 2010, census data show.

The population also has grown more cosmopolitan, with major corporations such as Humana, Yum! Brands, Kindred Healthcare, UPS and Brown-Forman attracting white-collar professionals accustomed to big-city amenities.

Like professional sports.

I’m not saying the NBA is a silver bullet guaranteed to thwart a looming financial crisis. But the idea deserves serious thought and a data-driven review.

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but his not his own facts. Right now, the nattering nabobs use talking points that traffic more in supposition than science.

The recently released Cambridge Economic Research study uses some facts to argue that an NBA team won’t benefit Louisville at all. The paper merits a fair reading. But it badly misrepresented peer-reviewed research that ranked Louisville as the best city for NBA expansion or relocation.

“It makes me question the validity of the entire study,” said University of California-Berkeley economist Dan Rascher, co-author of the NBA Expansion Viability Study that the Cambridge report cites.

The Cambridge report was disseminated by an outfit called BoxcarPR. Their credibility was undermined by a rep who told Fortune magazine that bringing an NBA team to Louisville “could endanger the best college sports town in America.”

That dubious claim was laughed out of town several years ago. Trotting it back out only makes you wonder what other hogwash the Boxcar rhetoric might contain.

This is no time to for either side to launch disinformation campaigns.

NBA proponents must resist the temptation to overstate a new team’s potential economic impact. And listen, guys, you have a civic duty to keep the sharpies from playing your homies for suckers. Shrewd owners have become frighteningly adept at using pro sports to transfer public wealth into private hands.

NBA opponents need to open their eyes and minds.

Maybe, just maybe, a well-managed, reasonably priced pro basketball product is a perfect fit for this hoops-loving town.

Maybe it’s time to admit that, like it or not, most folks around here don’t give a rip about seeing Peyton Siva or Taylor Swift. And that maybe, just maybe, it’s unjust and selfish to stick your neighbors with a $500 million playground construction bill.

Maybe history can repeat itself. Maybe the Cards and Colonels can happily coexist again.

Maybe U of L fans shouldn’t worry so darn much. This NBA thing is turning too many Cardinals into Chicken Little. Tom Jurich is a clever guy who sees the big picture. Trust him to protect your school’s interests – and the larger community’s too.

U of L’s recent quantum leap into the ACC was a victory for everyone. What’s good for U of L is good for Louisville as a whole, I wrote.

That goes both ways.

Many who oppose the NBA are the same people who castigated others for opposing the KFC Yum! Center. You lack faith and vision! they cried.

The sneaker is on the other foot. Now who’s faithless and blind?

It’s time to stop dealing in presumptions and assumptions. It’s time to roll up the sleeves, peel away the bias and get down to dealing with facts.

This might take a while.

Don’t expect the facts to reveal a clear-cut decision.

An informed one will have to do.

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  • Andrew Noland

    you seem very passionate about this mark and i hope it works out for you one way or the other.

  • Andrew Noland

    you seem very passionate about this mark and i hope it works out for you one way or the other.

  • http://twitter.com/mark_coomes Mark Coomes

    Thanks, Andrew. I just hope it works out for taxpayers. I like the arena, but it wasn’t pitched as a public works project. It’s turning into one. Not good. It serves too small a portion of the populace to warrant the whopping bill that’s coming due.

  • Mark Coomes

    Thanks, Andrew. I just hope it works out for taxpayers. I like the arena, but it wasn’t pitched as a public works project. It’s turning into one. Not good. It serves too small a portion of the populace to warrant the whopping bill that’s coming due.