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The Catch-22 for Louisville Athletics

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Duke v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

As the old saying goes, don’t ever bite the hand that feeds you.

But what if that hand has poor attendance, doesn’t cheer relentlessly for UofL, refuses to yell at officials who deserve it, and more often than not sells their ticket to a highest bidder?

I am not sure if the one’s reading this were part of the 10-14,000 Cardinal Fans who resurrected Louisville Men’s Basketball during the NIT, but if you are, thank you. As my father said who started attending games in the mid 70’s: “that was the most fun I’ve had at a UofL game in years…it felt like Freedom Hall”. The last time the Yum! Center felt that way and sounded like that was perhaps 2014 at Russ Smith’s senior night. True love, support, and just plain ol’ fanaticism had finally returned and oh what a joy it was.

Was that three game stretch simply lightning in a bottle or can newly appointed Director of Athletics Vince Tyra find a way to keep the good times rolling?

No one can deny the legacy and success of Tom Jurich’s tenure at Louisville. Of all his achievements, the negotiations and ability to create and build the Yum! Center in Downtown Louisville was an unparalleled success. Compare Louisville in 2008 to what it has become today, more specifically the areas in and around downtown, and remind yourself that none of that is possible without the Yum! Center. No Omni, no Whiskey Row, no continued NuLu development and investment, no Paristown Pointe, no new soccer stadium, no new convention center, no redevelopment of 4th Street Live, and no explosion of Louisville as a restaurant destination. No, no, no, and no to just about every positive economic success of the last decade. Thank you Tom.

However, as great as the Yum! Center is, the price tag for such an endeavor wasn’t cheap and some still argue the arena should have never been built. Mr. Jurich and his athletic department found itself in a Catch-22 that still cannot be solved today. In order to keep the lights on at the Yum! while simultaneously launching Louisville Men’s Basketball to the top of the charts in terms of revenues, UofL had to sell its soul. Large donations, massively increased season ticket packages, and corporate worship became the centerpiece of Cardinal Basketball. Lifelong fans and supporters with lower to middle class incomes could no longer afford to join in the fun and or wisely chose to spend their hard earned money on UofL when it mattered most.

The decision to focus solely on deep pockets and the adoption of the mission statement “all that matters is money” allowed UofL to continue to progress rapidly across its athletic department. The campus and academic portions of the University flourished as well. From the Yum! Center’s opening during the 2010/2011 season through 2014/2015, the negatives of UofL’s operations were largely hidden due to the success on the court. Even neutral or opposing fans want to be a part of success and no one was abandoning ship during a four year stretch that saw two Big East Championships, an American Athletic Conference Championship, one final four, one national championship, an elite eight, joining the ACC, and an overall record of 123-30.

Then came Katina.

The revelations of the prostitution scandal rocked the basketball program and the flaws in Tom’s master plan started to creep into view. A few more empty seats, a few less sponsorships, and hot takes flying in from all directions. It wasn’t until President Ramsey and Tom Jurich banned the team from postseason play while also agreeing to fully cooperate with the NCAA/hand over every piece of evidence of wrongdoing that the once sturdy foundation of UofL Athletics began to crumble. Pitino and men’s basketball survived the 2016/2017 season, but the pay to play bombshell that ended Pitino and Jurich’s careers at UofL was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.

Donors abandoned ship faster than the first class passengers of the Titanic. Suites were vacated, season ticket holders cancelled their pledges and received refunds, and the curtain was finally lifted on UofL’s sad, but necessary worship of the dollar bill.

Attendance dropped to levels unseen in decades and the thousands of empty seats in the lower level for every home game was mind numbingly depressing. What happened? Can Louisville Basketball ever recover?

With Vince Tyra’s hiring of Chris Mack, a new era of positivity and belief has begun at the University of Louisville and the men’s basketball program will certainly recover and return to its former glory. The one question remains: how do we solve the never-ending Catch-22? UofL Athletics needs money to make money, but it is time for at least some of the program to be returned to the true and loyal supporters. There can be a coexistence between the true fan and the necessary donor.

My suggestions for the future are as follows:

1. Take full inventory of all current season ticket holders. Any corporate season ticket holder can only have a maximum of four seats in the lower level. Make a certain section the corporate section so it is easier to know who owns the tickets that are going unused.

2. Incentivize individuals/families to return to the lower level with long term donation plans similar to country clubs whereby only a certain amount is due up front and required donations can be spread out up to 10 years (or longer).

a. Create affordable packages for young professionals/young families

3. Incentivize season ticket holders to donate up front by discounting actual ticket costs/locking in ticket rates for set amount of years.

4. Implement 33% student discounts/alumni discounts at the Yum! Center concessions with valid student id or alumni card.

5. Implement a smart ticket system so the University can track which seats/tickets are not being used for each and every game.

a. Put together a list of possible “penalties” the University can enforce for season ticket holders whose tickets go unused more than 10-20% of the season.

b. If a lower level seat ticket has not been scanned beginning the second tv timeout of a game, that ticket is invalidated.

c. Allow upper level ticket holders to move to lower level at halftime

i. They will receive notifications via smart phone on which seats they should occupy based on which tickets were not scanned.

6. Offer suite rentals if a suite is going unused.

7. Similar to cell phone plans, allow individuals/families to group together to purchase lower level season ticket packages. Each responsible for its portion of the package, each with their own CAF account.

8. Send season ticket holders a reminder of local charities/youth groups to donate their tickets to the week before each game if their tickets are going to be unused.

9. I could go on forever.

No one has all the answers, but it is time to start somewhere. Louisville Men’s Basketball must be returned to its fans. If you want to know why, go back and watch the NIT games on mute. Not only will you be amazed how great the arena looks when the seats are filled, but even the mute button cannot drown out the passion and support that was showcased during those three nights. Down 20 points to Mississippi State in the second half and still the crowd was on its feet attempting to will the Cardinals to victory.

Louisville is back and the time to recapture the magic has arrived. The University of Louisville has always belonged to the community and to its fans. Mr. Tyra, it is now your task to meet us in the middle.

Let’s Go UofL !!