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.

Papa John’s Special For Louisville Fans

Hit a half court shot, deliver more than 18,800 free pizzas for University of Louisville basketball fans. That’s exactly what John Schnatter, the founder of Papa John’s Pizza, did at the half of a recent game against Oral Roberts.

The halftime entertainment was being videotaped for a future commercial that should be mandatory on every Papa John’s-sponsored televised basketball game this season.

Schnatter and Papa John’s have been very good to U of L fans, with the football stadium bearing the company’s name. His family also contributed $10 million for the stadium expansion, which will increase seating capacity to more than 56,000 next season.

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The Lady Cards attempt to rebound from two humiliating losses to Southeastern Conference teams at New Hampshire Tuesday evening. Too bad for New Hampshire, its nickname is Wildcats.  See Sonja’s preview here.


Name The Downtown Arena

The chairman of the Louisville Arena Authority reports that the group is closing in on naming rights for the new downtown arena, with three companies currently vying for the honor. Jim Host expressed confidence after Monday’s meeting that the authority can get $40 million over 20 years for the rights.

The parties involved in those negotiations have been a closely guarded secret. This allows for a lot of idle speculation on the part of greatly interested fans. Which company will have its name on the University of Louisville basketball palace, the future crown jewel of college basketball kingdom? On what will be the most prominent feature in the city’s skyline, their identity becoming an integral part of the community’s identity, featured indefinitely in pictorial atlases around the world? A few guesses:

United Parcel Service — The UPS folks love Louisville and especially the University of Louisville for creating tailored educational opportunities for their employees. Executives of the city’s largest employer also say they think the city is the ideal location for its major shipping hub. The company has already indicated that it will make a major contribution to the football stadium expansion, the extent of which has yet to be announced. The only drawback is the company’s corporate color is brown. Much creativity would be required to mesh brown with red and black.

YUM — Yum is the world’s largest restaurant company with nearly 36,000 establishments in 110 countries and territories. The corporate headquarters are based in Louisville. They have good relations with UofL, having already ponied up millions for Rick Pitino’s luxury-laden basketball practice facility on Floyd Street. One would hope, however, that the idea for a Kentucky Fried Chicken Bucket has been put on the back burner and relegated to the trash heap. There should be no confusion about whether this is a Louisville or Kentucky facility. We can live with Yum.

Papa John’s — Yeah, Papa John Schnatter withdrew his money for a downtown arena a while back but he could be having second thoughts. He could probably see the new arena from the location in Jeffersonville where he started his pizza empire as a young entrepreneur in a broom closet. Having the company’s name on the university’s two most prominent athletic facilities would make him one of the community’s most beloved civic leaders. We hear he’s back as the CEO, and he could make a little extra money in one of the world’s largest pizza houses.

Brown-Forman — A better name would be the Owsley Brown Frazier Arena for the former chairman of the company which has invested heavily in the community for decades. Frazier has probably personally donated almost as much as the company has over the years. Companies usually like to promote themselves or their products so he would probably demur.  But if anyone deserves to have their name featured so prominently on the city’s skyline, it is Owsley Brown Frazier.

Which companies do you think are negotiating for the rights? What name would you like to see on the new downtown arena?

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