If you live in Louisville, this is the time of year when it hurts your pride a little bit just to pick up the sports page. The cities that are your natural rivals--cities that used to rank right alongside you in size, image and self-confidence--are winning priceless national publicity on the professional football field.

The team that Nashville lured to town a few years ago is going to the playoffs again. The Indianapolis Colts haven't had much of a season, but somehow they seem to turn up on national TV just about every week.

Louisville, on the other hand, has nothing. No NFL franchise, no big-time presence in any sport at all. It has a football stadium named after a pizza parlor. If you have an ounce of civic pride, the whole thing is enough to make you feel--well, minor league.

What do Nashville and Indianapolis have that the metropolis of the Bluegrass State doesn't have? Actually, there is one thing. They have consolidated city-county governments.

No doubt that strikes you as a wholly irrelevant coincidence. If there are two elements in modern civic life that would seem unrelated, they are municipal administration and performance on the football field. But let's look at some Census numbers.

Forty years ago, Louisville was the 31st largest city in America. It was twice as populous as Nashville, and right up there in competition with Indianapolis, which ranked 26th. Today, everything is reversed. Louisville has slipped all the way to 65th place. It is half the size of Nashville, and barely a third as big as Indianapolis.

There are complex economic factors at work here. Although it is technically a Southern city, Louisville never really participated in the booming Sun Belt growth spurt of recent decades. It has suffered from its dependence on heavy industry and its image as a rather quarrelsome labor town.

But those aren't the main reasons Louisville's population has fallen so far behind its competitors. The main reason is simply that the other two consolidated. Nashville merged with its surrounding county in 1963, and nearly tripled its population overnight. Indianapolis shot up from 26th place to 11th when its Unigov merger plan was approved in 1970. And those rankings have remained relatively constant in the years since.

It's not that the other two metro areas have been growth magnets, exactly. Nashville and surrounding Davidson County have barely grown at all. Indianapolis and surrounding Marion County actually have fewer residents today than they did in 1970. It's just that consolidation has made them look a lot healthier--not only to the Census but also to the corporations and sports franchises casting about for places to locate.

You might argue that this shouldn't matter. There's plenty of good data out there on metropolitan areas and their economic vitality. Why should any location consultant care whether the people are living inside the city limits or outside, under the mayor or under the separate jurisdiction of the county commission?

Well, maybe it shouldn't matter, but it does. The economic development establishment pays attention to urban population figures. When a city consolidates, and the numbers shoot up, corporations and consultants start treating it like somebody who's just finished a body-building course. They're not sure where all that extra heft came from, but they find it difficult to ignore. "Whoa!" they say. "You've really bulked up since we saw you last."

If you were Louisville, and you saw all this happening, you'd probably have an idea what to do. So would I. And so did they. This past November 7, residents of both the city and surrounding Jefferson County voted decisively to merge, effective two years from now. The full implications of this decision won't be known for years to come, but one of them will be instantaneous. On January 1, 2003, Louisville will no longer be America's 65th largest city. It will move all the way up to No. 23.

Now it may seem to you that in telling the story this way, I am trivializing the highly complex issues of regionalism and metropolitan government. There are, of course, many reasons for urban consolidation besides the desire to look more attractive on the economic development market. There are the efficiencies that result from ending the duplication of services between the city and county administration. There is the chance to equalize educational opportunity in diverse parts of the metro area. There is the logic of phasing out tiny and antiquated suburban governments that can't provide decent services.

These are the arguments that have been used in behalf of nearly every consolidation drive in the country in the past 30 years. They are, for the most part, sound arguments. They also have one thing in common: The logic doesn't register with voters. No major American city has consolidated since Indianapolis in 1970, and that decision came from the state legislature, not the electorate. Until the Louisville referendum passed, the last effort to succeed by public vote in a big city was the one in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1968. Since then, there has been a whole string of failures.

While proponents of consolidation often seem bewildered by these results, they probably shouldn't be. When voters in most places are told that merging city and county government will create efficiencies and save them tax dollars, they are invariably suspicious. As they should be. Consolidation may eventually lead to the streamlining of bureaucracy and the rationalization of services, but in the short run it frequently involves transition costs that push the budget up, not down. Advantages of scale that lie years down the road may make sense, but they rarely win referendums.

That's especially true when the one immediate and dramatic effect of consolidation is the erosion of historic identity that communities in any metropolitan area consider precious. Almost any city-county merger is a threat to residents of aging country villages that have evolved awkwardly into suburbs and suddenly confront the prospect of losing their mayor, their police force, their fire department and their very political existence. It is a threat to inner-city minority neighborhoods that have acquired some clout within the existing municipal regime but fear that they will simply be ignored by a larger and more conservative city-county administration. In the face of those very real concerns, the prospect of a more efficient water department a decade hence isn't likely to be very persuasive.

What's interesting about Louisville's successful merger drive is that its supporters didn't make the usual mistakes in selling it. They made those the last two times, in 1982 and '83, when carefully crafted consolidation proposals were defeated. In those campaigns, the sponsors laid out in exhaustive detail all the services that would be merged under the new combined administration, and all the savings that would result. They touted the benefits of a combined police department, for example, and thus frightened police officers from virtually every jurisdiction in the county into opposing the merger to protect their jobs

This time, the pro-consolidation forces avoided such troublesome issues, drawing up a plan that essentially said that the city and county would unite, that there would be a countywide mayor and council, and that it would be up to them to make the sensitive decisions on merging services and eliminating bureaucracy.

Critics called the strategy evasive and complained that they were being asked to accept a pig in a poke. But it turned out to be a brilliant move. By playing down specifics, the advocates of consolidation were able to emphasize their one genuinely effective political argument: that only a combined, united, bulked-up "Greater Louisville" could win back the prestige and major-league status that had eroded away.

Supporters of the plan ran TV ads pointing out not only that Louisville had sunk to 65th place in population among America's cities, but that it was in danger of falling behind Lexington as the largest city even within the state. The TV campaign featured Jerry Abramson, Louisville's voluble and charismatic former mayor, talking of his vision for the city and why consolidation was necessary to achieve it. He called the upcoming vote "the most important of my life," insisted that the future of the next generation depended on it and proclaimed that "the time to unite has come."

And the voters responded. The day after consolidation passed by a margin of 54 to 46 percent, supporters unrolled a banner at their headquarters welcoming visitors to "Greater Louisville, America's Newest Top 25 City."

Support for regionalism runs in cycles in this country. After the high-profile successes in Nashville, Indianapolis and Jacksonville a generation ago, the momentum was reversed by equally high-profile defeats elsewhere.

Now, however, the tide seems to be turning again. On the day that Louisville voted to consolidate, Albuquerque voters took preliminary steps to do the same thing, empowering a task force to draft a new charter merging the governments of that city and surrounding Bernalillo County. Meanwhile, in the opposite corner of the country, in Erie County, New York, County Executive Joel Giambra has declared that his first priority is establishing a new regional government incorporating the county and its dominant city, Buffalo.

In the next couple of years, there are bound to be more efforts of this kind, as struggling older cities look for ways to regain their economic health. Although consolidation isn't the answer for all of them, it's an option that belongs on the table. The idea can be sold-- Louisville just proved that. But it can't be sold with a green eyeshade. It has to be sold with a dream.