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Mark Coomes: The pink elephant in the NBA-to-Louisville debate is the white elephant downtown

by Mark Coomes

The pink elephant in our room is the white elephant downtown.

We need to take off the blindfolds and the rose-colored glasses.

This is no time for backbiting or catfighting. We need to talk about this like adults.

Only 22,000 of us make regular use of the joint, but the KFC Yum! Center is a source of near-unanimous civic pride. It’s a first-class edifice in a second-rung town, and it implies a community that aims to do some climbing – provided our pride and joy doesn’t weigh us down.

The $348 million Yum! Center is losing money. As it was in the beginning, is now … and ever shall be?

We don’t have a full-blown albino on our hands just yet, but relentless red ink is bleaching the costly pachyderm’s skin.

We can’t afford to let that happen.

The numbers are complicated; we’ll delve into them another day. For now, just know Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government must soon cough up $9.8 million to help the arena make its mortgage for 2012.

That’s just the beginning. If the arena doesn’t start generating more revenue, the city will be billed $9.8 million each and every year until 2018 – at which point the tab could soar to $20 million.

This is not a wealthy city. It can’t afford to subsidize a playpen.

The vast majority of Jefferson County’s 740,000 citizens have no means or desire to see a pop music concert or a University of Louisville game. It’s not right to make them pay in perpetuity for an edifice that doesn’t make them any safer, any smarter or any healthier.

So what are we going to do?

Are we going to let a major asset become a liability? Or are we going to push our city’s leaders to make the Yum! Center financially viable?

Most folks are glad that the Yum! Center was built. It’s a triumph of can-do spirit in what’s too often a can’t-do town. But our stately pleasure-dome vowed to be self-supporting. It’s barely been open two years, and it’s on the dole already.

The worry is that it will stay there. That the civic sow will be forced to suckle another underachieving offspring. And that the offspring won’t try its level best to get off the teat.

There’s no easy way to wean this little piggy. Some say luring an NBA team is the answer. Some say it’s not.

An article published Tuesday on Forbes magazine’s website, “Why Louisville Should Top the List for an NBA Team,” looked at both sides of the issue but argued in favor of returning pro basketball to its old Kentucky home. Darren Heitner, a professor of sports agency management at Indiana University, says Louisville is the best place for an NBA team to relocate.

It’s an opinion shared by Daniel Rascher, a California economics professor who co-authored a 2004 study that identified the most viable American markets for NBA expansion.

The dissenting view comes from an outfit called BoxcarPR, whose funding is unclear but whose opinion isn’t. It recently issued a Cambridge Economic Research study that says Louisville-area residents lack the means to support an NBA team. What’s more, the report says, an NBA team would cost the city far more money than it would bring.

With Seattle, Kansas City, Virginia Beach, Va., and other cities eager to recruit an NBA team, any owner willing to relocate will have plenty of leverage with which to demand tax breaks, favorable lease terms and other concessions.

Some say the Yum! Center already gave away the farm in order to land U of L as an anchor tenant. How much farm is there left to give away?

And what concessions might the Cardinals demand for sharing their new nest? Should they risk sharing it at all? The NBA is no Tweety Bird; it’s a pterodactyl.

There are no easy answers. And there will be no easy negotiations if an NBA team ever gets serious about moving here. But the NBA option deserves a long, hard look – with fresh eyes and open minds.

The process starts with admitting that a Yum! Center where U of L is the only consistent tenant is probably doomed to fail.

NCAA rules limit the number of games a basketball team can play. There simply aren’t many more dates that U of L can book.

Team Jurich is pulling its weight, but it can’t tow the entire project into the black. It really shouldn’t have to. But the Yum! Center is a conundrum. It’s not a U of L arena, but it’s patronized almost exclusively by U of L fans.

Before we force the entire community foot the bill for the Yum! Center, let’s acknowledge that half the community has little reason to ever darken its doors.

Let’s acknowledge that this is a serious (and potentially insurmountable) problem.

At least half of all sports fans in the Louisville MSA are University of Kentucky loyalists. Unless those folks are goo-goo for Lady Gaga or bonkers for The Boss, the Yum! Center has little chance of luring them in the door.

That goes for IU fans too.

Common sense and absent dollars say the Yum! Center has a seriously flawed business model. It not only ignores thousands of potential customers in its own backyard, but millions who live elsewhere in this state and across the river.

Since the Yum! Center is primarily a basketball arena – and since the Cats and Hoosiers already have arenas of their own – the Yum! Center seems unlikely to succeed without offering a basketball product that appeals to more than U of L fans.

That product is spelled N-B-A.

Well, isn’t it?

What are the other options? Speak now or forever hold your peace. Because the tipping point is upon us.

The first bill for $9.8 million comes due in a few months. More seem sure to follow.

The Yum! Center is slowly sinking in red ink. Taxpayers who didn’t vote to build the place – and who, in many cases, have no compelling reason to go there – face a bill that could rocket north of $300 million.

That’s real money.

Even a Dumbo can see that.

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