Louisville is the NBA’s perpetual bridesmaid. The decades-long dance between the basketball-crazed city and the world’s preeminent basketball league began in the mid-1970s. The ABA’s Kentucky Colonels, one of the league’s most decorated and financially successful franchises, were poised to make the jump into the NBA when the two leagues merged, but owner John Y. Brown decided to cash out by selling star players to other franchises and accepting a $3 million buyout to fold his team. Decades later, Louisville had the then-Vancouver Grizzlies in hand in 2001. “We fumbled on the one-yard line,” Steve Higdon, chairman of NBA2LOU, tells CBS Sports. A combination of local politics and the inability to raise funds for a new arena killed the deal, and the Grizzlies landed in Memphis. A year later, Rick Pitino and the University of Louisville exerted their own influence to keep the then-Charlotte Hornets out of Kentucky. Toss in a failed bid at the Houston Rockets, and the home of the 1975 ABA champions had grown sick of losing out on professional basketball.
Whether Kentuckians would throw their dollars behind a professional basketball team remains to be seen, but they already devote a fair bit of time to the NBA. Louisville routinely draws strong television ratings, particularly when it comes to the NBA Draft. It led all cities with a 5.3 rating on the 2017 NBA Draft, per Sports Media Watch, and that devotion to the game is something Issel still sees regularly. “To this day, I have people in their 50s and 60s that come up to me and say ‘We really loved the Colonels. My dad used to take me to all of the games,'” he recalls. Nostalgia, in itself, does not support a billion-dollar enterprise, but it doesn’t hurt in a region with a fairly low population. Only New Orleans and Memphis are smaller among NBA markets, but neither came with the sort of built-in market share that a Kentucky basketball team would have based purely on history.
Louisville had the then-Vancouver Grizzlies in hand in 2001. “We fumbled on the one-yard line,” Steve Higdon, chairman of NBA2LOU, tells CBS Sports. A combination of local politics and the inability to raise funds for a new arena killed the deal, and the Grizzlies landed in Memphis. A year later, Rick Pitino and the University of Louisville exerted their own influence to keep the then-Charlotte Hornets out of Kentucky. Toss in a failed bid at the Houston Rockets, and the home of the 1975 ABA champions had grown sick of losing out on professional basketball.
The KFC Yum! Center now sits on the Louisville waterfront with all of the bells and whistles of a typical NBA arena, but no professional tenant. The trouble, as former Colonels legend and current NBA2LOU president Dan Issel explains, was a lack of interest on the NBA’s part. “As we got into it, we found out that expansion really wasn’t anything, it wasn’t as inevitable as everybody felt,” Issel said. “In fact, I called the commissioner and he said ‘Dan I really appreciate it, but I’m not even taking any meetings on expansion.'” This has been the NBA’s official stance for over a decade. The league has not expanded since welcoming the Charlotte Bobcats in 2004, giving it an even 30 teams.
As COVID-19 takes its toll on professional sports, as money grows tight and certainty scarce, the possibility of NBA expansion or relocation becomes increasingly plausible. “The quickest way for the owners to make up any shortfall in revenue is expansion,” said Dan Issel, president of NBA2LOU. “Those expansion fees would be sizable and they don’t have to split that with the players.”
That the situation is fluid “is more true now than it’s been in decades,” says J. Bruce Miller, Louisville’s long-time NBA point man. Granted, Louisville still looks like a long shot. The University of Louisville continues to control the most significant revenue streams at the KFC Yum Center and is poorly positioned to start making concessions to an NBA owner amid layoffs and budget cuts. Meanwhile, modern arenas in Vegas and Kansas City are unencumbered by leases that could cause conflict with an NBA tenant.
So long as there is more money to be made in another market, though, rumors will persist. In addition to the Grizzlies, the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs have all been subject to recent relocation speculation. “There might be some teams looking at moving,” Dan Issel said. “All I know is that the people that I’ve talked to who have had knowledge of those situations have promised me that I’ll get a call when it’s appropriate.”