Dan Issel no longer draws a paycheck to promote Louisville’s pro basketball possibilities. His contract with NBA2LOU has expired and the Kentucky Legends golf tournament that helped fund his salary has been discontinued, at least temporarily.
After four years of lobbying and no sign of NBA expansion anytime soon, Issel still uses “we” when he speaks of Louisville’s push to land a team, but he senses some “fatigue” in that effort and his cautious optimism has recently given way to resignation .
“We did everything we could possibly do, but we can’t make the NBA expand,” the Hall of Fame hoops star said. “I would say right now we’re just treading water.”
Issel and NBA2LOU board chairman Steve Higdon both said they had found financial backing for an expansion fee expected to exceed $1.5 billion. Louisville attorney J. Bruce Miller, who has been trying to bring a team to town for 45 years, said his independent initiative has elicited interest from three of America’s 25 wealthiest individuals.
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Yet with demand far outstripping the supply of NBA investment opportunities, with no expansion timetable in place and with the anticipated sale of the Portland Trail Blazers unlikely to result in franchise relocation, NBA2LOU has chosen to conserve its energies and its cash until a plausible path presents itself.
“We are still meeting,” Higdon said. “It has slowed down as the expansion talk has slowed down, (but) we are prepared to move as quickly as we need to on a moment’s notice. Everybody is still absolutely passionate about bringing an NBA team here. We are convinced it would not only be successful but transformational for the city. We’re convinced of that.
“We’ve given it a really good fighting shot. The world knows what we want. I think we have to wait our turn at this point and see if we can get lucky.”
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Though non-disclosure agreements prevent local organizers from identifying specific individuals who aspire to bring pro basketball back to Louisville, the line of prospective buyers may be longer than Steph Curry’s range. Among athletes alone, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Patrick Mahomes, Floyd Mayweather, Shaquille O’Neal, Manny Pacquiao, Dwayne Wade and Russell Wilson have all expressed interest in investing in an NBA team.
According to Statista.com, the average NBA franchise produced $269 million in operating income between the 2016-17 and 2020-21 seasons. Without the benefit of expansion fees, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver projected league revenues would reach $10 billion in 2021-22. The NBA has not expanded since the 2004 addition of the then-Charlotte Bobcats.
“Maybe there are people talking who are not at the league office about us potentially expanding after the 2024 season,” Silver said in a press conference preceding last month’s NBA Finals. “We are not discussing that at this time. As I said before, at some point this league will invariably expand, but it’s not at this moment that we are discussing it.
“We’ll be looking at it at some point, but there’s no specific timeline right now.”
When Issel initially contacted Silver on Louisville’s behalf, the commissioner said he would be glad to see him but was not taking any expansion meetings at that time.
“To my knowledge, that has not changed,” Issel said. “I think there are some owners who would like to put $3 or $4 billion (expansion fee) dollars in their pockets right now. And there are other owners who say, ‘Why should we expand because that makes the pie smaller for us in the future?’ If it makes economic sense to the NBA, they’ll expand. If not, you may be looking at as many NBA teams in North America as there’s going to be.”
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Miller said he expects the NBA to expand by a minimum of two teams and as many as four “in the near future.” While Higdon calls Louisville “the best basketball town of any city that doesn’t have a team and maybe any city that does have a team,” he knows his competition is keen.
“The rumor is if there’s an expansion, that Seattle and Las Vegas are shoe-ins,” Higdon said. “I don’t know if that’s true or false, (but) we’re absolutely in the back seat when it comes to geography.
“We know that Las Vegas has transformed professional sports with what’s happened with hockey and the (NFL) Raiders. It’s a great community. Most billionaires who have the ability to purchase a professional sports team and put it wherever they want, they’re crazy if Vegas isn’t at the very top of their list.”
Like Seattle and Las Vegas, Louisville has an NBA-caliber arena. Unlike other potential expansion sites, though, the KFC Yum Center’s primary tenant is a public university with an advantageous long-term lease. Higdon said discussions with former University of Louisville athletic director Vince Tyra and others in the U of L administration indicated “they would work with us and make it happen” in sharp contrast to the school’s stance during the tenures of athletic director Tom Jurich and men’s basketball Coach Rick Pitino.
“We believe now, with Tom Jurich gone, that they would be much more benevolent with having the NBA as a partner,” Higdon said.
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Having previously managed Memphis’ FedEx Forum, where the NBA Grizzlies coexist with the University of Memphis, Yum Center general manager Eric Granger thinks there is common ground to be found at 1 Arena Plaza.
“If the stars aligned, I’m not saying people would say ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ but I think they’d make an honest effort to make it work,” he said.
For now, and perhaps forever, expansion to Louisville is a matter of “if” rather than “when.”
“We’ve played our hand,” Miller said. “Everybody knows. Everybody in the free world knows. There’s no secret about that. We’re waiting on the NBA.”
Tim Sullivan: 502-582-4650, firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @TimSullivan714