Sports are a year-round obsession in Kentucky. Even though the state does not have an MLB, NBA or NFL franchise, the Bluegrass State is home to two rabid college fan bases. However, you’ll find diehards of several pro teams across the state — including those of the NWSL’s Racing Louisville, the state’s only major professional team — as well as big fans of the PGA Tour, NASCAR and, of course, horse racing.
The new year starts next week, and when the calendar flips over, there will be several major state sports news stories to watch in 2024, as well as the continuing development of the Kentucky sports betting market. BetKentucky.com has compiled the following list of the biggest we believe will unfold in the next 12 months. These stories are listed in chronological order, but many of these will be making headlines for a significant part of the upcoming year.
Can Kentucky Run to Another NCAA Title?
Fresh off a blowout victory over Louisville, John Calipari’s Wildcats are 9-2 and ranked No. 8 in the latest Associated Press poll. While the Cats did lose to UNC Wilmington earlier this month, they also have wins over a Miami (Fla.) team that was ranked in the Top 10 at the time and North Carolina.
The Wildcats are doing this while getting more than half of their scoring production from freshmen. Fifth-year guard Antonio Reeves leads UK with an 18.3 points per game average, and forward Tre Mitchell, a grad student, is third with a 13.2 average. However, Coach Cal’s highly touted freshman class has contributed a whopping 55.7% of the team’s points.
Expect even more of that from the youngsters as the season progresses. Aaron Bradshaw, a 7-1 forward, just recently began playing after dealing with a foot injury over the summer, and the team is hopeful of getting another big man, 7-2 Zvonimir Ivisic, eligible to play soon.
UK, which won its eighth and most recent title in 2012, currently has odds of +2100 (i.e., a $100 winning wager would return a $2,100 profit) at Fanatics Sportsbook Kentucky to win it all in April. Expect those odds to shorten if Kentucky keeps winning.
However, keep in mind the Cats have had some very talented teams in recent years that have not even made it past the first weekend of the Big Dance, much less to the Final Four. The last time UK made it to the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament was 2015.
What’s Next for Louisville Basketball?
While Kentucky is riding high, in-state archrival Louisville can’t escape the doldrums. After a historically bad 4-28 campaign last season, the Cardinals are just 5-7 this season, and it’s not looking good for second-year coach Kenny Payne to engineer a turnaround with the heart of ACC play looming starting next month.
Many fans hope this is rock bottom for a program that saw the NCAA strip its 2013 national title, among other sanctions. Louisville ranks eighth all-time with 39 NCAA Tournament appearances, but only two have come since 2019.
Payne, an alum who played on the 1986 title team, has been a top the list of college basketball next coach fired odds since last season began disastrously. There had been rumors he could be fired after the UK loss, but Athletics Director Josh Heird told WDRB’s Eric Crawford last week that Payne’s job is safe… for now.
It does look like a move will likely be made at the end of the season, if not sooner. If that happens, or when, the talk will heat up about the next Cardinals coach (Honestly, that talk is already as hot as Kenny Payne’s seat among some UofL fans). One name to remember: Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May, who grew up not far from Louisville in Southern Indiana.
Who Will Win Kentucky Derby 150?
Once the NCAA Tournament ends, the talk moves to the Run for the Roses. Churchill Downs is pulling out all the stops for the milestone Derby event, with more than $200 million in renovations and upgrades at the track, including a new paddock with premium seating that will open in time for Kentucky Derby 150.
While the Fastest Two Minutes In Sports — and the hyper focus on Kentucky Derby odds — is more than four months away, the races to determine the field have already started. Trainer Todd Pletcher has the top two horses on the Road to the Kentucky Derby’s early leaderboard with Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Fierceness and Locked. However, the field will likely be decided by the major races from late February to early April, including the Florida Derby, the Arkansas Derby, the Santa Anita Derby, the Blue Grass Stakes and the Wood Memorial.
Kentucky Derby 150 will take place on May 4.
How Will Valhalla Play for PGA?
Two weeks after the Derby, Louisville will again be in the national spotlight. Valhalla Golf Course will host the PGA Championship for the fourth time since 1996, and a star-studded field of international greats is expected to hit the course for golf’s second major of the year.
Valhalla has been the place for some dramatic Sunday action for its past PGA Championships, but it’s also been the place for some of the lowest scores in the major’s history. Since the PGA moved to stroke play in 1958, Valhalla was the site for two of the six lowest scores to par among tournament winners.
Those, though, were when the major was played in August when Louisville summers are at their hottest and muggiest. Louisville’s weather in May can be many things — warm, mild, cool — and that’s not accounting for the rain that’s likely to hit at some point between May 16-19. How that will affect scores remains to be seen.
In addition, the PGA Championship will be one of the few times when some of the stars from the LIV Tour get a chance to play against their former PGA Tour and European Tour colleagues, which could lead to some interesting pairings.
Will Brohm Keep Cardinals Flying in Year 2?
Although the UofL 2023 football season ended on a down note with three straight losses, including a disappointing 42-28 loss to Southern Cal in the Holiday Bowl, former quarterback Jeff Brohm’s first year as the team’s coach was still considered very successful. The Cardinals were picked to finish eighth in ACC preseason polls, yet Brohm guided them to their first 10-win season since 2013 and their first appearance in a conference championship game. Along the way, Louisville also scored big wins over Notre Dame, Miami and Duke.
The question now is: What’s in store for 2024? Once again, Brohm’s staff is bringing in several talented players from the transfer portal, including former Texas Tech quarterback Tyler Shough. Will he take over the offense, or will the highly recruited Pierce Clarkson, who played sparingly this season, get his chance to shine?
It’ll be a little tougher to repeat a 10-win season, especially since next year’s schedule includes road trips to Notre Dame, Clemson and Kentucky. However, if Brohm can pull that off, Louisville could find itself in consideration for a spot in the 12-team playoff — something that could supercharge Kentucky betting apps.
What Awaits Kentucky Sports Betting?
Kentucky sports betting enjoyed a strong start after its much-anticipated debut in September. Already, the state is about a third of the way to meeting its first-year goal of $23 million in tax revenue, and that’s with Kentucky online sportsbooks reporting essentially just a month of data.
Seven licensees are operating online apps statewide right now: bet365, BetMGM, Caesars, DraftKings, ESPN BET Kentucky, Fanatics and FanDuel. Circa Sports is expected to launch in the near future, and Prime Sports has stated it plans to operate in Kentucky.
Will additional operators seek to enter the state? That’s among the questions we await answers to in 2024 at BetKentucky.com.