Despite popularity, KFC Yum! Center remains magnet for controversy

More than a little confusing some of the recent activities related to the management of the KFC Yum! Center, possibly suggesting that the community should be bracing for some unsettling news about the sparkling home of University of Louisville basketball.

First the revelation a week ago that Governor Steve Beshear wants Harold Workman fired as chief executive officer of the State Fair Board, which manages the Center. Workman, who has held the position since 1993, has generally been held in high esteem for his management of Fair Board facilities. Never a hint of mismanagement until recently, even though the losses of UofL basketball and Kentucky Kingdom were taking a toll on the Exposition Center.

Then the surprising announcement Monday that the Fair Board had fired Ted Nicholson, the general manager of the KFC Yum! Center. No reason given for the firing, the news coming as a surprise to Jim Host, the chairman of the Louisville Arena Authority. Just a few months ago, Host was describing Nicholson as the perfect individual for the position. On Tuesday, the Fair Board actually requested that Nicholson be reinstated.

None of this makes any sense and no explanations appear to be forthcoming. The only consistent thread is that the arena has been controversial from the beginning and that Jerry Abramson has been been involved in one way or another. That, and Workman was never a public target during Beshear’s first four years in office.

The KFC Yum! Center wouldn’t exist had Workman not proposed a new arena to replace Freedom Hall seven years ago. That was what finally shook then-Mayor Abramson out of his lethargy, kickstarting serious discussions of a downtown arena for UofL. Jim Ramsey and Tom Jurich wanted the arena at the Fairgrounds or on campus. There were reportedly shouting matches behind closed doors at Belknap Campus between Abramson and university officials. And we know who won that battle.

Then there was the controversy over whether to build it on the Louisville Water Company (LWC) site in the center city or on the riverfront site, which was opposed by Humana founder David Jones and Papa John’s John Schnatter, openly rejecting Abramson’s choice, arguing that the LWC site was more feasible. They were joined by House Speaker Larry Clark, from Louisville, a long-time obstructionist when it comes to UofL projects. However, Senate Chairman David Williams miraculously supported the riverfront site and was instrumental in removing the final Frankfort obstacle.

The most plausible explanation for the current personnel controversies is that Abramson is using his new leverage as Lieutenant Governor to settle some old scores. While Abramson has always been good at garnering votes, he was never popular with many business owners or city employees.

The new arena has made possible new attendance records for both UofL men’s and women’s basketball games. This, plus all the sold-out big name concerts, has generated new levels of activity downtown. However, anticipated revenues from the special taxing district are falling short of expectations. We’re also awaiting word on whether the arena was able to deliver on Jim Host’s projection of $500,000 to $1.2 million in profit during the arena’s first full year of operation.

A financial report should be forthcoming soon. We wouldn’t be surprised if the connections behind the personnel controversies become less vague. A setting up of fall guys has begun for some reason.

Jim Host sighting at Louisville Tip-Off

Slipping in almost unnoticed among the 1,400 fans attending the University of Louisville basketball Tip-Off Luncheon Thursday was Jim Host, the mastermind behind the design and construction of the KFC Yum! Center, a facility Rick Pitino calls the finest basketball arena in the world.

Host tackled the project at a time when the world’s economy was tanking badly, guiding his baby through a troubled bond market and numerous political barricades, never taking no for an answer. He brought creativite approaches and borrowed some of the best ideas from existing facilities to provide a remarkable monument to U of L basketball in the heart of the state’s largest city.

What was surprising during the luncheon was that Jim Host didn’t receive any recognition on a day when Pitino was dropping names by the dozens during a 40-minute monologue.

Then it occurs to one that maybe Host didn’t want any recognition.  Maybe the former University of Kentucky basketball and baseball player was there as a fan. Or on another mission.

The former publisher and media executive has extensive ties throughout collegiate athletics. Possibly he’s helping Tom Jurich on another project, like navigating the complexities of conference realignment. The man has connections, he’s obviously a genius, and he loves tackling difficult challenges.

Just maybe. We also know his name has been on TJ’s speed dial list for a while.

Ulmer Works Arena On Golf Course

Jim Host deservedly gets the lion’s share of credit for the construction of the University of Louisville’s brand new KFC Yum Center basketball home. But Dan Ulmer, former chairman of the old Citizens Fidelity Bank & Trust Company, played a key role in obtaining the $13.5 million naming rights.

Ulmer, a co-owner of the Louisville Bats Triple A baseball franchise and a member of the Louisville Arena Authority, owns a house in Florida located near Yum executive David Novak’s vacation home. The two often ran into each other on a golf course, and the arena was a topic of frequent discussion.

Louisville was apparently fortunate in obtaining the naming rights at a time when corporate naming rights deals have been drying up. Such glamorous venues as the new Dallas Cowboys stadium and the New Meadowlands facility in New Jersey are without corporate sponsorships. includes a good in-depth story on the Yum negotiations here.

Duke Possible Opening Foe In Louisville Arena

The observer likes the sound of that, Louisville vs. Duke on the marquee at the opening game of U of L’s new 22,000-seat downtown arena.

Two of college basketball’s premier programs.

Center stage. Prime time.

Best basketball facility in the nation.

Rick Pitino let the news slip during his weekly radio show, indicating that it could be the first of a three-game series with Duke. A second game possibly at Madison Square Garden, and the third on Duke’s home court in Durham.

Think maybe Jim Host, chairman of the Louisville Arena Authority, might be playing a key role in this transaction? He’s a former University of Kentucky basketball and baseball player, former UK play-by-play announcer, and owner of a sports communications empire.

How ironic is Host’s involvement anyway? He’s involved in everything involving the arena.

Louisville Arena By Night

Arena7209The lights are on  at the construction site of the new downtown arena, which will serve as the new home of the University of Louisville basketball team. The opening will be Nov. 1, 2010, a mere 486 days away. President James Ramsey awarded the U of L Presidential  Medal to Chairman Jim Host and board members of the Louisville Arena Authority this week. Here’s a link to the arena web cam.