U of L’s new arena, and new schedule

News on the U of L basketball front today. The new schedule is out and, for the first time, did not have to be drawn up to accommodate tractor pulls or trade shows.

The schedule is heavy on home games, but given the team coming back — picked to finish 10th in the Big East by Athlon — and the need for arena revenue, you can see why. And anyway, you get a new house like this one, you want to spend some time in it. (More on the arena in a bit).

U of L is traveling to Western Kentucky, a praiseworthy move. Not an easy game, but a game that’s good for both programs to play.

With the Big East schedule, just a thought or two. The Cardinals don’t go to Syracuse or Pittsburgh (a shame, because those are two of the best hoops trips), and they won’t face St. John’s on the road, a team that is senior-laden and likely to be better than people expect. They also avoid a trip to Marquette. Doesn’t mean the conference schedule is easy. It never is.

The downside is less exposure on ESPN’s Big Monday. The Cards have only one of those appearances. But something tells me exposure is the least of their worries this year. I’m not buying the most dire of predictions for this team, by the way. But more on that as the season approaches.

Now, let’s talk about the arena.

KFC Yum! Center thoughts

I toured the arena yesterday for the first time, prepared to be critical and mindful that it surely couldn’t be on the level of Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis or a couple of the other nicer facilities I’ve seen.

But I’ve got to say, I’ve never been in a nicer basketball arena. The sight lines are good. The small touches are impressive. The behind-the-scenes amenities for players, coaches and visiting entertainers are first-class.

[Make sure to check out Rick Bozich’s video from our tour yesterday.]

The entry plaza is the largest for any basketball arena in the nation. It is ready made for playing host to NCAA Tournament events and conference tournaments. One room away from the team’s locker room a door opens onto a full practice court replica of court out in the arena.

If anything, there are too many fan options in the way of sports bars and dining spots and gathering areas. It wasn’t hard to envision fans heading out to the in-arena bars if a game gets out of hand.

Of course, the big news regarding the arena lately was word that tax revenues have come up far short of what was expected in the past year. That spurred a round of speculation of what it would mean for the city.

And that spurred an ESPN blog item that several wrote to me about today. Several U of L fans thought it was suggesting that there was some question over whether Cardinal fans would fill the arena or not. While the post was suggestive, it never suggested that Cardinal fans weren’t a sure thing. It just said they had better be.

For the record, the new arena may face financial difficulties. But it won’t be because U of L men’s basketball is underperforming at the turnstiles. U of L has been ranked in the top five nationally in attendance for 25 years, and top 4 in most of those. And some of those were losing seasons. It only figures to move up.

Looking at the arena, I kept finding it hard to believe that this arena is home to a college team. It’s an NBA arena, legitimately, in every aspect. And I still think that in order to be the true economic driver to the city that people want it to be, an NBA team needs to be in there. But that’s not going to happen given the current agreement with U of L.

So we’ll see if a college team and as many concerts as the arena can draw are enough to generate sufficient downtown business and subsequent tax revenue to pay the debt and principal on the thing.

I don’t know how people afford sports tickets anymore. A lot of times, we in the sports media forget that side of things. We don’t pay to get in, and we don’t think about the cost of a single game, much less season tickets, much less tickets that have been jacked up because of new facilities or just because athletic departments can. I still don’t like how many fans, many of them longtime fans, have been priced out of attending games.

So there are legitimate concerns. But I don’t care what your view of the arena, or the debate which brought it about, has been, when you walk through the door of the place, you’re going to say, “Wow.”

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