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Sun March 3, 2013

Seattle Times Columnist Jerry Brewer: 'The NBA Could Work in Louisville'

Credit NBA/Creative Commons

The question of whether Louisville could and should have an NBA team has entered a quieter phase since the Sacramento Kings began talks of relocating to Seattle. Though it's no done deal, as a Sacramento group is also trying to keep the franchise in place.

Either way, at this juncture no NBA team appears up for grabs—though history dictates that that's likely to change in the next several years

Louisville officials said the city was never truly pursuing the Kings. The city isn't at that point yet, they said. Greater Louisville Inc. is updating a past study on the NBA and Louisville, and that's where things currently stand on the issue, said Chris Poynter, spokesman for Mayor Greg Fischer.

Despite the apparent lack of an available NBA team, the questions will linger—as they have for years—as to whether Louisville ought to get into the professional basketball game.

This led me to Jerry Brewer. Brewer is a sports columnist for The Seattle Times, where he's seen the aftermath of an NBA team uprooting for another city (the SuperSonic to Oklahoma City) and is now watching discussions of an NBA team potentially uprooting to Seattle. Brewer is also a Kentucky native and a former sports columnist for The Courier-Journal, giving him deep knowledge of the sports scene in Louisville.

Brewer recently took a few minutes to answer a few questions about the impact of the NBA's departure and apparent return to Seattle—and the potential impacts of the NBA in Louisville.

Seattle was willing to let the Supersonics leave town for Oklahoma City. What changed in the city's mood to where it would choose to pursue another team and build a new facility?

The loss of the Sonics was all about a fight for a new arena. Howard Schultz became frustrated because the city wouldn't build him a new arena, and he sold the team to Clay Bennett's group of Oklahoma investors. From that point, it was only a matter of time before the team left. The city didn't want to lose the Sonics; it just didn't want to throw public money into the construction of another sports stadium, not after doing it for the Mariners and Seahawks recently. What's changed? The fact that an investor, Chris Hansen, has put together a group that is willing to pay nearly 60 percent of the cost of the construction of a new arena. It's a favorable deal for the city.

What has Seattle been missing in the years since the SuperSonics left? What does losing a pro team do to a city?

There is an entertainment void, for sure. You feel it every winter. From the time football season ends until, say, March Madness, it's as if sports are on vacation. There's not a lot to get excited about. And the area of town where the Sonics used to play, Lower Queen Anne, is a black hole for businesses that once thrived. It's sad to see what has become of that area, which is an important part of town for the city. It's where the Space Needle is.

Should the Kings move go through as planned, how receptive do you think Seattle will be to the new team?

I think Seattle is ready to have the NBA back. There are wounds to heal, however. According to Scarborough Research's surveys in 2011 and 2012, only 4.1 percent of the Seattle-Tacoma metro area expressed "very high" interest in the NBA. That's a 53 percent decline from 2005, which was the Sonics' last playoff season. The Sonics left in 2008, and from 2000-2007, the city averaged a 7.5 percent "very high" interest level, according to Scarborough, which is comparable to most NBA cities. So, there is work to be done to get the level of interest in the Sonics back to where it used to be. If a team returns and provides a good product, those numbers will rise. We've already seen a boost in enthusiasm during this process.

You've covered sports in Louisville before—how do you think an NBA team would fit in this city? Would fans support it?

I've always believed the NBA could work in Louisville. I'm even more bullish about it now that there's a sparkling new arena. The NBA team would have to complement the University of Louisville, which has so much pull and doesn't want to compete for customers. That's a challenge. And college basketball fans would have to embrace the differences of the two games. College hoops is a game of movement. The NBA is a game of spacing and winning one-on-one matchups. So, the NBA can seem more boring at times—until you watch it live and learn to appreciate the incredible athleticism and talent of the players. But Louisville has the money and the potential for a good fan base to make the NBA work.

How realistic do you think it is that an NBA team would ever come to Louisville?

I won't consider it realistic until a potential owner steps forward who is adamant about having a team in the city. Ultimately, it's not about the city. It's about the rich person who wants a team in a certain city. If there is someone with the passion and ability to bring the NBA to Louisville in a manner that is favorable to the city and UofL, then it can happen.

The big picture question—for Louisville, Seattle or where ever, what does an NBA team do that's beneficial?

That's the age-old question. Some economists will argue that a pro sports franchise can bring up to $180 million a year to a city. Others say $0. It's all about how you think people use their discretionary entertainment dollar. In terms of international branding, having an NBA team brings your city to a higher level of recognition. It increases your entertainment options by providing 41 home dates featuring the best basketball players on the planet. The NBA actually brings an enormous community benefit, and the league is serious about that mission.