Benner/Sports and Opinion and Tourism & Hospitality and Sports Business

BENNER: Louisville scores a point in Indy catch-up game

November 20, 2010

Indianapolis always has been an interesting benchmark for Louisville.

And vice versa.

Forty years ago, both were basically known as one-event towns. Indy had the Indianapolis 500. Louisville had the Kentucky Derby. America took notice of these national bookends to the month of May, then quickly returned to ignoring both cities.

True, Louisville did have Freedom Hall, which hosted six NCAA Final Fours. But those occurred long before the Final Four became an iconic national event.

Both cities did attempt to make incursions into professional sports by establishing franchises in the late, great American Basketball Association. And, no surprise, considering the passion for hoops shared in both locales, the Indiana Pacers and Kentucky Colonels became the ABA’s flagship franchises. Indeed, I would suggest the I-65 rivalry between the two was as intense as any two pro teams had at the time.

But as the ABA—and the Colonels—folded and the Pacers were absorbed into the National Basketball Association, the cities also set off in different directions. Well, allow me to put it another way: Indy embarked in a different direction, while Louisville stayed put.

Indianapolis, which had opened Market Square Arena in 1974 as the catalyst to downtown revitalization, seized upon a sports strategy to reshape and redefine the city. In addition to sustaining the Pacers and attracting the Colts, Indy also made inroads in attracting the kinds of NCAA events Louisville previously had hosted, namely Final Fours. It began in 1980 with the Final Four at MSA (ironically, won by Coach Denny Crum’s University of Louisville Cardinals) and then with subsequent Final Fours at the Hoosier/RCA Dome and now Lucas Oil Stadium.

Indy not only became the basketball destination Louisville once was, but the sports strategy positioned Indianapolis as more than a one-event town while spurring a massive downtown revitalization.

Slowly, however, the Ohio River city has been attempting to catch up. It opened a splendid, riverfront minor-league ballpark for its Triple-A Louisville Bats. It developed an entertainment/nightlife area called “Fourth Street Live.”

And then, last month, came the opening of the $238 million, 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center, right by the river and smack in the middle of downtown. The arena will be home to the University of Louisville basketball teams but also—the city hopes—serve as a catalyst for downtown development.

Sound familiar?

It’s a gem of an arena, and I was treated to a personal tour before Louisville’s game with Butler University Nov. 16 by none other than Jim Host, who served as chairman of the arena building authority. Host, ironically, is a University of Kentucky graduate (he lettered in baseball) who endured no small amount of grief from fellow alumni wondering how he could lead the charge in building an arena that would benefit the rival Cardinals.

Host’s answer was simple: “I’m doing it for the Commonwealth.”

Host visited every arena built in the United States in the last 15 years, trying to incorporate the best design features of those in the KFC Yum! Center (and just so you know, $13 million is what it costs to put a goofy, fast-food corporate name on a building).

In particular, he wanted to surpass what many consider the best arena in the country: Conseco Fieldhouse.

In some ways, he did. The Louisville arena has not only more seats (if more is better), but more lower-bowl seating, better back-of-the-house space and more gathering areas for fans (both the high-dollar types and the commoners), including a couple of stunning areas with glass windows overlooking the river. It also copied Conseco’s entry pavilion though, for some strange reason, ticket windows are on the outside (not good on a rainy, cold night).

Again, it’s a tremendous venue. On opening night, those in attendance were bursting with pride.

But in all of its state-of-the-art glitz, it lacks Conseco’s charm and intimacy.

With its retro style, Conseco speaks to our love of basketball in general and Indiana basketball in particular. Louisville’s arena speaks to its love of the Cardinals (it includes a university basketball hall of fame) and, oh yeah, fast food and bourbon.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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