NHL to Louisville? Republican council members, arena authority chair discuss plausibility of pro hockey at Yum! Center

KFC Yum! Center

While rumors or dreams of a National Basketball Association franchise or new expansion team moving into Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center have persisted for years, members of the Metro Council Republican Caucus recently discussed the potential for a team from another professional sports league moving to the city — the National Hockey League.

While the odds a franchise from either league moving to Louisville in the near future likely remains a long shot, some observers say that the newly amended lease between the University of Louisville Athletic Association and the arena that is expected to be finalized this summer brings the potential of more flexibility for scheduling non-UofL events at the arena, which would at least make such a move by a pro franchise more plausible.

In the Republican caucus meeting last Thursday, Councilman Scott Reed, R-16, advocated for the feasibility of an NHL team filling up the Yum! Center, saying that if pro hockey teams can be successful in southern cities like Nashville and Miami, one could also do so in Louisville. That opinion received pushback by several caucus members, particularly Councilman James Peden, R-23, who asserted that Louisville was either too small of a market, did not have enough Fortune 500 companies, or did not have enough hockey fans to successfully support a franchise.

“I can just see an NHL team wanting to come here a lot more than an NBA team, because they’re probably a little more flexible with their dates than an NBA team would be, as far as competing with UofL,” said Reed. “And I’ve been to games and it’s a great experience … It draws in Miami when it’s 80 degrees. I mean, come on.”

Peden said if any NHL team was even remotely interested, they would first fully study the market to see if there was enough support to make the move financially feasible, but thought “it’s a standard of living issue more so than anything else” that would probably exclude Louisville from the field.

However, because UofL has been forced to renegotiate its Yum! Center lease — contributing more revenue annually to prevent the arena’s default and freeing up dates for outside of the UofL basketball season — caucus chairman Kevin Kramer noted that “the bottom line is this new negotiation makes this conversation much more possible than it would have been just three weeks ago.”

Scott C. Cox — the chairman of the Louisville Arena Authority, which is responsible for managing the debt payments of the Yum! Center — told IL that he appreciated the “creative thinking” within the GOP caucus of Metro Council about the potential of pro hockey, as “we want to book as many dates as we can and we have an open mind about anything like that.” Though he said that he had not heard about any talks between the city and NHL or NBA teams, he added that “if any team is interested in relocating and they call, that’s great.”

If an NHL franchise or league officials did consider Louisville, Cox also noted that Dennis Petrullo — the general manager of the Yum! Center over the past five years — was the general manager of Scottrade Center in St. Louis for a decade, where the Blues of the NHL share space with the University of St. Louis basketball team. Cox added that this experience means Petrullo is not only very familiar with hockey, but “has worked in arenas where hockey has co-existed with other sports.”

As for whether there are enough NHL fans in Louisville to support the team and fill the Yum! Center, Cox noted that his son lives in Nashville and is a big fan of the NHL’s Predators franchise, where the fans “fill up the arena every game. It surprised me that that far in the South there were that many hockey fans, but I guess there are. It’s a fun sport, obviously.”

Cox said that while there was talk when UofL athletics first signed its Yum! Center of explicitly excluding a hockey rink under the main floor of the arena — citing incidents in which condensation caused a basketball court above it to become dangerously slippery — his understanding from talking to Petrullo is that those issues don’t exist anymore.

While Yum! Center spokeswoman Deanna Southerling said that the arena has never hosted a hockey game, she noted that Disney on Ice has returned to KFC Yum! Center every year since 2012 and “has never had any trouble getting the ice ready” — despite the fact that “the promoter has to construct their own ice rink inside the building and provide all of the infrastructure to do that.”

Metro Council takes up ordinance amending city’s arena payments

Cox is set to speak to the Metro Council Budget Committee on Thursday, when members will take up a new ordinance to amend the city’s annual financial commitment to the arena authority.

Taking his chairmanship last year, Cox led the effort for all of the arena’s stakeholders  — UofL, Metro Government and state government — to pitch in extra money toward the arena’s debt payments to refinance the Yum! Center’s construction bond debt and avoid a near-certain default in 2020. The Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation in this year’s session to extend the life of the arena’s tax increment financing district, and two weeks ago the boards of the university and its athletics department agreed to the terms of an amended contract in which UofL would pay an additional $2.42 million annually.

The final step in this process before the arena authority can move forward on refinancing its bond debt is the city agreeing to increase its minimum annual payments to the arena, which is laid out in the new ordinance sponsored by Metro Council President David Yates, D-25, and budget committee chairwoman Marianne Butler, D-15.

In December, some council members initially balked at the specifics of an ordinance that would have increased the city’s minimum payments to the arena by roughly $80 million in total over the next 22 years. Originally, the city had agreed to a minimum annual payment to the arena between $6.5 million to $7.2 million through 2039, but had ended up paying the maximum of about $10 million each year due to the arena’s poorly performing TIF district making such extra revenue necessary. The draft of last year’s ordinance would have locked the city into those maximum payments through 2039, no matter how much revenue was coming into the arena or how easily it was able to meet its debt payments.

The new ordinance that will be in the budget committee on Thursday also locks the city into a $10.8 million payment to the arena for each year until the bonds are paid off or 2054. While the city’s price tag would grow to a staggering sum of nearly $400 million if 2054 was the last date of payment, the ordinance notes that the TIF legislation passed by the state legislature this year requires the arena authority to use all excess revenue to pay back the bond debt as quickly as possible, and the city’s obligations end once this debt is fully paid off.

Cox and the ordinance’s sponsors are expected to explain the ordinance in more detail at the budget committee meeting, which begins at 5 p.m. on Thursday. If the ordinance is passed by the full council, it must be signed by Mayor Greg Fischer, whose administration has been one of the parties negotiating behind the scenes since last year to reach a compromise to prevent the default of the arena.