Market Review: Group woos NBA, a slam dunk for the economy

Louisville FC settles into stadium; parks take center stage during pandemic

By Jonathan Miller

SPORTS & RECREATION

nba2lou
NBA2LOU: The Louisville Basketball Investment and Support Group, led by basketball legend Dan Issel, funds and promotes the idea of luring an NBA expansion team to Louisville.

For more than two years now, a group of Louisville investors have been knock, knock, knocking on the NBA’s door. The league is on record saying that it is not expanding at this time, but at some point it would be inevitable.

Like a basketball arcing high in the air in slow motion toward the basket, the question remains: Will Louisville land an NBA expansion team? It’s not an easy question to answer. In basketball terms, you could say the city has a shot, but it’s not a slam dunk and it might be more like a half-court heave.

Dan Issel
Dan Issel

There’s good news though. Taking that shot is former University of Kentucky legend and NBA great Dan Issel, who helped lead the last pro basketball team in Kentucky to a championship. Issel, who scored more than 14,000 points in a nine-year NBA career, is the all-time leading scorer in UK men’s basketball history, averaging more than 30 points a game all three years he played varsity. Issel was also among the scoring leaders of the old Kentucky Colonels that won the ABA (American Basketball Association) Championship in 1975.

Issel, 71, was named president of the Louisville Basketball Investment and Support Group LLC, two years ago. The group’s purpose is to fund and promote the idea of luring an NBA expansion team to the commonwealth.

The Derby City faces many challenges trying to land an NBA franchise, the biggest being that according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, the league is not looking to expand any time soon. In a May 2019 article on NBCSports.com, Silver was asked about the possibility of the NBA expanding to 32 teams. It currently has 30.

“My answer is…it’s the same as it’s been for other U.S. cities that have expressed interest, and that is that we are just not in expansion mode at the time,” Silver said.

Silver left this bread crumb, however, when he added, “I’m sure inevitably at some point we’ll turn back to expansion, but it’s not on the agenda at this time.”

The cities that get mentioned the most when discussing NBA expansion are Seattle and Las Vegas. Even Mexico and Canada are garnering attention for possible NBA expansion, the thinking being to go global like baseball and football are considering.

But back here in Louisville, the city is touting that it has a lot to offer the NBA and it appears to make a strong case.

Issel is convinced that the NBA could work in Louisville because the city, region and the entire state has a long history with basketball and an enduring love for the sport at all levels. And Louisville, a vibrant city that is in expansion mode itself, has a history of hosting professional sports (Kentucky Derby, multiple PGA Championships, a Ryder Cup) and big-time music events (Forecastle, Bourbon & Beyond and Louder Than Life). The Derby City appears poised to become a pro sports town like Indianapolis and Nashville.


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Getting an NBA team would be a huge boost to the region’s economy, Issel said.

“It would bring a number of high-paying jobs to the city. Not just the players, but coaches, front office staff and all the support people it takes to run a franchise,” he said. “Also, there would be a minimum of 41 dates that visiting players and coaches would be spending in Louisville. Many states tax those players and coaches for the percentage of income they earn while visiting. It would also be a boon to the local economy because of the business 41 dates would bring to the bars, restaurants and hotels. In addition, the commonwealth would begin to attract new businesses and manufacturers because we would now be a major league state.”

Louisville FC moves into new stadium

For 15 months, Louisville City FC President Brad Estes, Coach John Hackworth, the team and its fans watched as the team’s dream of having its own stadium came to fruition. But just days after Estes and Hackworth received the keys to the Lynn Family Stadium in Butchertown, the COVID-19 pandemic put a wrinkle in their plans.

market review coverThe new $65 million stadium, with 11,700 permanent seats and capacity for 14,000 fans, was set to be ready for LouCity’s United Soccer League Championship home opener on April 11. That game was postponed, but the team’s excitement about having a new home wasn’t.

“Watching this stadium come to life – from the initial drawings to the steel skeleton to the final product – has been a thrilling experience for me and for the tens of thousands of fans who have been waiting patiently for a place to call our own,” Estes said.

The stadium is the centerpiece of a 40-acre, $200 million mixed-use development adjacent to Louisville’s Waterfront Park near downtown. It joins the 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center and 65,000-seat Cardinal Stadium as the city’s third first-class sports/entertainment facility.

In late June, LouCity was approved by Gov. Andy Beshear’s office to welcome fans to its new stadium. The plan calls for temperature screenings, mandatory face coverings and proper physical distancing, and allows for 50% capacity – 7,652 fans. The championship game, postponed to July 11, is the first scheduled event. (Editor’s note: This publication was printed in early July 2020.)

“In what’s been a challenging year, we’re excited to be able to open our stadium in front of supporters who have been with us from the beginning,” Estes said.

Why Louisville?

The Louisville Basketball Investment and Support Group’s purpose is to fund and promote the idea of luring an NBA expansion team to the commonwealth. Basketball legend Dan Issel, president of the group, says Louisville is the perfect location for an NBA expansion team.

“Among the many things we will present to the NBA is a beautiful downtown arena in the KFC Yum! Center. (Louisville has) a revitalized downtown with many first-class hotels and restaurants. And a remodeled convention center,” Issel said. “There is strong corporate support from the health care industry, bourbon companies, etc. And no competition from the other three major league sports teams. And the strong passion Kentuckians have for basketball.”

The NBA 2 Lou initiative has a website, nba2lou.com, and can be found on Facebook (@nba2lou), Twitter (@nba2lou), Instagram (nba2lou) and LinkedIn (nba2lou).

Large sporting events choose Louisville

The Louisville Sports Commission (LSC) works to boost the area’s economic vitality through sports tourism and the travel market sector.

“If you have had any involvement in travel team sports or traveled to another city to run in a marathon or watch a ball game, that is the industry that defines us,” Karl F. Schmitt Jr., LSC president/CEO, told The Lane Report in March 2020. “The dollars brought to town through just the sporting events, efforts and partnerships that the commission has in this community is somewhere north of $800 million over 20 years.”

LSC owns three running races: the Louisville Pure Tap 5k; the Norton Sports Health 10k; and the Urban Bourbon Half Marathon. It also owns the Paul Hornung Award, the college football award, which this year went to the University of Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden. LSC also owns Louisville Corporate Games, a community-wide event that brings together employees from Louisville-area businesses and organizations for a day of friendly competition and employee camaraderie.

It also owns and operates the Live in Lou Cross-Country Classic, the largest college cross-country meet in America.

LSC created an esports event called The ACE eSports Championships, which was scheduled for April but was postponed to October. ACE is the first-of-its-kind, student-focused esports event ever held in the region where both collegiate and high school players will face off at a live esports competition. Students compete in “League of Legends,” “Super Smash Brothers Ultimate” and “Fortnite” for sponsored prizing.

Two of the largest girls travel volleyball events in the country are run by LSC, each of which will lay down over 120 volleyball courts. It was announced in May that USA Volleyball selected Louisville to host the 2021 USA Volleyball National Championship.

“Louisville was an excellent host city for the 2013 Open Nationals,” said USA Volleyball Director of Events Kristy Cox. “Louisville has an oasis of activities and sites to visit, and the Kentucky Exposition Center will help provide many lasting memories on the courts.”

LSC also hosts three of the largest girls travel basketball events as well as the largest indoor archery tournament in the world, bringing in youth and middle school/ high school archers from all over the United States.

“We host a lot of cycling, a lot of BMX and other cycling disciplines,” Schmitt said. “Cycling, basketball, volleyball and archery have been our core. We have also hosted a lot of fencing events, although we don’t have any here on an annual basis.”

UofL Sports

The much-anticipated second season of Louisville Cardinals football coach Scott Satterfield (8-5 record in 2019) will begin at home against North Carolina State and will be played Wednesday, Sept. 2, moving from the previously scheduled Sept. 3 date.

Because of the nationwide COVID-19 pandemic, the 146th Kentucky Derby Weekend, originally set for April 30 through May 2 in Louisville, was pushed back to Sept. 3-5 and coincided with Louisville’s opener. Thursday of Derby week has become known as “Thurby,” a highly attended event with a crowd of over 48,000 in 2019. The Kentucky Derby, the longest continually held sporting event in the U.S., often is called “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” Historically it is held the first Saturday in May.

The pandemic cheated the UofL men’s and women’s basketball teams out of a Final Four run last season. There’s no word yet on if the pandemic will affect the 2020-21-basketball season, which is supposed to start in November.

Louisville’s baseball team was pre-season No. 1 in 2020 and the Cards finished the year ranked second in the country (13-4) when the season was canceled in March. The Cards take the field again in February 2021.

Sports and Learning Complex

The Louisville Urban League (LUL) Sports and Learning Complex, a $35 million multisports venue, is being constructed at 30th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard in the Russell neighborhood.

The state-of-the-art center will be a keystone of West Louisville’s changing landscape, LUL says.

The center will include an indoor track and field facility and an outdoor track and learning complex. The vision for the Sports and Learning Complex positions it as the “epicenter” of a multistate track and field community that not only would be a hub for major events but an economic development anchor with an impact of $47 million, expected to create more than 300 jobs.

Fun in the forest

Known as the “City of Parks,” Louisville prides itself on its greenspace. Never was that space more appreciated than in the spring of 2020, when social distancing protocol forced most people to stay home. The Great Outdoors was truly a refuge for those who had cabin fever.

Louisville Waterfront Park is an award-winning park on the banks of the Ohio River and the site of numerous festivals and events.

The city is also home to 17 Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parks. When Olmsted was commissioned to design a park system for Louisville in 1891, he was already acknowledged as the father of American landscape design, famous for his work on Central Park in New York. His greatest achievement was his concept of creating a system of parks connected to tree-lined parkways, instead of freestanding parks as was the common practice. His concept was most fully realized in Louisville, the ultimate park system of his career, and one of only four such Olmsted systems completed in the world.

Louisville Parks and Recreation has nearly 120 parks across the city, in addition to aquatic centers, golf courses and community centers. There’s also the Jefferson Memorial Forest and Natural Areas, located just 15 miles south of downtown Louisville, which has the distinction of being the largest municipal urban forest in the nation. The forest has approximately 6,500 acres of steep slopes covered with mature, second-growth hardwood trees. It spans nearly 10 miles from east to west and is ribboned with scenic trails and small streams. It also has a fishing lake, outdoor recreational facilities, a conference center and a welcome center.

The Parklands of Floyds Fork is a donor-supported public park system totaling nearly 4,000 acres that includes four major parks: Beckley Creek Park, Pope Lick Park, Turkey Run Park and Broad Run Park. Located in eastern and southern Louisville along Floyds Fork Creek, a tributary of the Salt River, all four parks are connected by 19 miles of the Louisville Loop, a scenic park drive. It includes more than 60 miles of new hiking, biking and paddling trails and kayak, paddleboard and bike rentals are offered from April through October.

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  • Good story on the Louisville sports scene, but NBA to Louisville is not happening. Average attendance at NBA games is almost 18,000.

    Louisville doesn’t have enough corporate support, population, or local interest to sell 15,000 tickets to 41 games.

  • Regarding Louisville’s efforts to attract an NBA team, I’d say that between COVID 19 and the numerous protests and their aftermath, Louisville’s downtown area has been dealt a major setback. This is extremely unfortunate because it took years to get all the pieces into place to offer all the great amenities the article above points out. Downtown Louisville has lost numerous businesses and restaurants. Many will never return. Sadly, state and local leadership are preoccupied with the protests. They haven’t given economic restoration any serious thought. The NBA isn’t going anywhere where there isn’t a significant amout of vibrancy which is not evident in Louisville at the moment. Our governor is much more likely to shut everything down again before he opens things back up. If that happens we’re toast. All things considered I’d be surprised if the NBA expanded anywhere but I’d especially be surprised if they located a team here.