UK, WKU agree to four-game football series

ccosby@herald-leader.comJuly 30, 2009 

NASHVILLE — Nashville has become sort of a home away from home for the Kentucky football program over the past few years, with UK winning the 2006 and 2007 Music City Bowls at LP Field.

And the Wildcats will continue to make themselves at home in the Music City in the coming years. UK and Western Kentucky officially announced a four-year deal on a football series Wednesday, with the Hilltoppers coming to Commonwealth Stadium in 2010 and 2012 and the two teams playing at Nashville's LP Field in 2011 and 2013.

The game will serve as the season opener for both teams when it's played in Nashville while Western will visit UK on Sept. 11, 2010, and Sept. 15, 2012.

All parties involved in Wednesday's news conference — UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and head coach Rich Brooks along with Western Kentucky Athletics Director Wood Selig and head coach David Elson — repeatedly said how much the series "made sense" both financially and logistically.

Western Kentucky, in its first year as an official member of the Football Bowl Subdivision, will get an even split of the tickets for the games at LP Field, which seats 68,798. The deal also provides Western with a pair of showcase games to build its fan base and entice the 10,000 or so alumni that reside in Nashville to jump on the bandwagon.

"This is a home run," Selig said. "To be able to get a Kentucky right off the bat in our transition, it couldn't be scripted any better."

For Kentucky, it alleviates concerns about filling part of its non-conference schedule for the next four years. With many BCS programs looking to have an eight-home game schedule, 'guarantee' games, in which an opponent travels to another venue without that school having to go the opposing venue in return, are now at a premium.

Barnhart said the marketplace on guarantee games has risen from around the $200,000-300,000 mark when he first arrived at UK in 2002 to the near-$1 million mark now.

Barnhart has acknowledged difficulties in trying to fill the non-conference slate the past couple of years, and it was Western who was willing to step in last year when Kentucky was still searching to fill the final opening on its 2008 schedule.

Since Western helped UK out in a pinch, Barnhart was willing to negotiate with Selig on a series between the two schools.

Western has played at Florida, Georgia and Auburn in recent years and is scheduled to open the 2009 season at Tennessee. But Selig said he wants to gradually move away from the guarantee games as his program continues to grow, and added that Western has also lined up home-and-home series with Army, Navy and South Florida.

"Right now we're on everyone's speed dial because we're the newcomers to I-A and we still have our training wheels on, so they're hoping to knock on our door and line us up," Selig said. "But that's why this Kentucky series is so important for us, because technically it is a home-and-home series."

UK will pay Western $500,000 for both of its trips to Lexington and will also split the ticket revenue for the two games in Nashville. Throw in the fact that it's a short, inexpensive trip, and Barnhart said UK would come out better in a four-game series with Western than they would overpaying for a one-year guarantee.

"In these economic times, you have to do what's best to grow your program financially," he said. "When you look at the cost of games and travel nowadays, if you can regionalize your schedule, it helps."

Selig said the benefits of playing a series with UK outweigh any potential revenue that could have been lost with a one-year guarantee. Selig said Western will find a way to incorporate the two games in Nashville into its season-ticket package.

"We could have certainly earned more than $500,000 on a one-time deal, but that's not what we were after with Kentucky," Selig said. "It's immensely better for the long-term future of our program. This game really allows us to platform and grow our future fan base."

UK defeated Western 41-3 last year in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. And while the Hilltopper program has lofty visions down the road, Brooks said the potential reward outweighs any risks.

"A lot of people would say we have more to lose scheduling a series like this, but I think again when you look at trying to build a program, which they're trying to do and we're trying to too, you try to accommodate your fans, you try to keep the money flowing through the program as much as you possibly can, and this is a chance to do both of those things," Brooks said.

The Wildcats are opening the 2009 season in similar fashion with a neutral site game against Miami (Ohio) University at Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium.

"My interaction with the players is that they're excited about the opportunity (to play in Paul Brown Stadium)," Brooks said. "It's really different than anything Kentucky's done in a long time. And there are players on the team who have played (at LP Field) and remember it with fond memories."

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