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Could This Group Finally Bring The NBA To Louisville?

The NBA isn’t adding more teams to the league anytime soon, as far as anyone knows. But a group of Louisville investors wants to be ready to lure a franchise here if the opportunity arises.

With $750,000 in seed money from the likes of former ambassador to Great Britain Matthew Barzun and Brown-Forman Company chairman George Garvin Brown, the Louisville Basketball Investment and Support Group aims to bring pro basketball back to Louisville.

Louisville hasn’t had a professional basketball team since the mid-1970s. That’s when the American Basketball Association folded and the local team, the Kentucky Colonels, failed to make it into the NBA.

Now, a group led by a former pro baller, supported by a man who’s tried to bring a team here for decades and funded by 20 local investors, is giving it another go.

They want to be first in line if the NBA announces plans to expand the league with new teams.

Dan Issell is a former University of Kentucky star who played for the Kentucky Colonels and for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets.

"We think the way to bring a team to Louisville is through expansion, when all of the previous efforts have been to get another team to move here," he said.

Issell is leading the new charge, and said just about everything is different compared to past attempts -- from it being a group effort rather than one man’s quest, to having financial and political support from local leaders.

The investors have committed $750,000 already, with the potential to invest up to $3 million, Issell said. Those funds would go toward getting Louisville in position to attract an NBA team.

"What that investment will do will enable us to get to the point to get a majority owner, to get an arena lease, to get advertisement in place so that if and when the NBA does expand, we have our application complete," Issell said. "And the day they start taking applications we want Louisville’s to be on the top of the pile."

Room For Everyone?

While Issell and his team are optimistic about their efforts, questions remain. They say a potential NBA team could play at the KFC Yum! Center, or at a renovated Freedom Hall. But how would that work with the University of Louisville’s existing agreements at the Yum! Center?

Issell said he thinks there’s room for everyone. But he hasn’t spoken to anyone at the university yet.

"Iron sharpens iron so a successful program at U of L and a successful NBA program could coexist very easily and motivate both entities to be stronger," he said.

All of this planning hinges on the hope that the NBA will add a team in the West, and then have to add one in the East. In Louisville, Issell expects the cost of winning a franchise would be $1.4 billion. His team is courting potential owners inside and outside of Louisville.

"We’re exploring all avenues," he said. That includes a local group that could pull together the funds, a high net worth out-of-town family and a variety of private equity groups, he said. "A billion-four is a big number but we’re finding there are people out there willing to talk to us."

Patrick Rishe runs the sports business program at the Washington University in St. Louis Olin Business School. He said the two most important factors in scoring a professional team are having an owner or ownership group in place, and having a high-quality arena.

He spoke positively of the Yum! Center, but couldn’t come up with any examples of professional and college sports teams sharing a facility long-term.

"Most professional NBA teams, they might let college teams or schools play a couple of games in their facility but I can't think of one off the top of my head that has a flat-out sharing and split of their home arena with a local college," Rishe said.

He said the presence of an NBA team wouldn’t necessarily eat into local financial support for U of L, but that it could have an effect.

Setting Expectations

A Louisville team might perform similarly to those in Indianapolis or Memphis, which have lagged financially at times. Rishe said a team here would likely be in the bottom third of the league in terms of franchise value and revenues. It’s a matter of setting expectations.

"It’s certainly capable and possible of being successful in a mid-size market," he said." "Because of the finances of the league, I don't doubt that a team could at least be profitable in Louisville."

Rishe was less sure that a team in Louisville could replicate the explosive success of some teams in other medium-sized cities. The Oklahoma City Thunder capitalized on massive star power, and multiple championships have boosted the San Antonio Spurs.

"If Louisville gets a team, will they have those kinds of dynamics? If you’re good but not winning championships … then you may have a harder time building that brand affinity," he said.

A professional team could raise Louisville’s profile abroad, said J. Bruce Miller, an attorney who’s led efforts to recruit an NBA team here for decades. He thinks Issell’s reputation with league leaders as well as what he sees as a lack of other teams competing for consumers’ sports entertainment dollars will help Louisville’s pitch. If that day ever comes.

"Our goal is to get ourselves organized to the point that when the league makes the decision, which we believe it will, whenever it does, we’re ready. If we’re not ready, we’ve got no shot," Miller said.

Amina Elahi is LPM's City Editor. Email Amina at aelahi@lpm.org.

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