Packing them in

Rupp attendance records nearing capacity

amead@herald-leader.comJanuary 23, 2010 

  • Record Rupp crowds

    Crowd Date Opponent Score

    24,479 — Jan. 2, 2010 Louisville W, 71-62

    24,468 — Dec. 5, 2009 UNC W, 68-66

    24,465 — Feb. 10, 2007 Florida L, 64-61

    24,459 — Feb. 4, 2003 Florida W, 70-55

    24,432 — Dec. 17, 2005 Louisville W, 73-61

    24,411 — Feb. 28, 2009 LSU L, 70-73

    24,394 — Feb. 21, 2009 Tenn. W, 77-58

    24,386 — Jan. 5, 2008 Louisville L, 89-75

    24,371 — Feb. 23, 2008 Arkansas W, 63-58

    24,367 — Jan. 9, 2005 Kansas L, 65-59

    24,355 — Feb. 10, 2009 Florida W, 68-65

    24,354 — Dec. 21, 2009 Drexel W, 88-44

    24,342 — Jan. 9, 2010 Georgia W, 76-68

  • By the numbers

    ■ University of Kentucky home basketball games at Rupp Arena have led the nation for average attendance in 13 of the last 14 seasons.

    ■ This season, 10 of the largest 13 crowds to watch a college basketball game anywhere have been at Rupp. The Jan. 2 game against Louisville was No. 3 in the nation.

    ■ Average attendance for UK home games over the past 33 years: 23,069.

    ■ Highest average season in Rupp Arena history: 24,025 (1990-91).

    ■ Average attendance so far this season: 24,047.

Two record-breaking crowds already this season.

The chance for more in the offing because the next four home games, starting with Saturday's contest against Arkansas, are already sold out.

An 18-0 record that is attracting more than the usual fanatical interest.

We pose these questions:

How many basketball fans can Rupp Arena hold?

Should it have been named Rubberena for its ability to stretch to accommodate ever-larger crowds?

Let's start at the beginning:

On a cold, wet November night more than 33 years ago, a wide-eyed crowd filled the spanking new Rupp Arena to see the University of Kentucky Wildcats play for the first time on their new court.

The place was packed to the highest upper-arena row, the view from which was described as "like watching ants playing with a grain of brown sugar."

The 23,266 people in attendance Nov. 27, 1976, were the most ever to watch a basketball game in Kentucky.

Joe B. Hall, who coached his team to a victory over Wisconsin that night, remembered it earlier this week as "mind-boggling" and "overwhelming."

"We had had standing-room-only crowds in Memorial Coliseum, but that wouldn't have exceeded 12,000 or 13,000," Hall said. "Then to go to Rupp and double that from one year to the next, it was shocking."

Hall also was in Rupp earlier this month, when a record crowd watched the Cats put away the University of Louisville Cardinals.

The total for that Jan. 2 game was 24,479, an increase of more than 1,200 over the opening-night crowd in 1976.

The first record in the current season was the Dec. 5 victory over North Carolina, which drew 24,468.

Those are only the latest of more than a dozen record crowds over the years.

Which brings up another question: Since Kentucky basketball has a zillion fans in virtually every basketball season, shouldn't Rupp have reached its limit decades ago?

After all, the girth of the average Cat fan, like that of the average American, hasn't gotten any smaller since the '70s, but the stuffed-to-the-rafters arena keeps squeezing in a few more.

It turns out that several factors are behind the ever-increasing totals.

Bill Owen, the CEO of Lexington Center Corp., which operates Rupp, said the count includes more than fans who shuffle in wearing Wildcat blue and clutching a ticket.

If fact, he said, the North Carolina game on Dec. 5 was the first time that more than 23,000 tickets were scanned at the turnstiles. The scanned number: 23,075.

The rest of the record-breaking number was made up by players, coaches, cheerleaders, the media, security, people working concession stands — in other words, everyone in the building.

(No one actually counts the people at concession stands at every game, Owen said, but their attendance is pretty reliable because it's their job to be there.)

There also have been physical changes that affected capacity.

Starting in the Coach Rick Pitino era, for example, an extra row of chairs was set up behind the players.

An expansion and renovation that took place from 2001 to 2004 made even more changes.

The most noticeable: 464 seats were taken away near the floor on one end of the court, making room for the noisy "E-Rupp-tion Zone" student section.

UK says that section now holds 650 students and 100 pep band members. Without seats, they all stand up.

Seats were added at the vomitories, as the floor entrances in the corners of the arena are called. And some media seats were moved from the floor to a new area attached to the bottom of the upper arena.

The vacated courtside media seats were replaced by seats for well-heeled fans who pay large sums of money that goes to athletic scholarships.

The bottom line on seats for fans is a shocker. There are fewer now, Owen said, that there were in 1976.

Then: 23,116.

Now: 23,101.

(Those totals don't include the E-Rupp-tion Zone or the courtside scholarship seats.)

Another variable that impacts crowd size is interest from media and NBA scouts, said DeWayne Peevy, UK's assistant athletics director for media relations. Those people have credentials instead of tickets.

"The credential requests are through the roof this year" as the Cats pile up victories, Peevy said.

Earlier this week, he said he was dealing with more requests than he had credentials. That meant, he said, that some people would be working in back rooms with no view of the game and that some TV people would have to work from their trucks in the parking lot. Some might be told no, you can't come.

Rupp's largest crowds usually are for basketball games, but Owen said a few concerts have attracted more people.

He mentioned a Kenny Rogers concert in which Rogers played on a small stage in the middle of the floor, with fans on the floor on all sides as well as in the lower and upper arenas. There were 24,300 seats for that concert, Owen said. There might have been as many as 26,000 people in the building.

The Rupp crowds have passed muster with Lexington and UK fire marshals, said Battalion Chief Marshall Griggs of the Lexington fire department.

The building has sprinklers, Griggs said, and its staff is trained in dealing with emergencies. Under current fire codes, he said, Rupp could safely get 31,000 people out in a hurry if a problem arose.

So, how many basketball fans can Rupp hold? Can the Louisville record of 24,479 be topped?

The consensus: Not by much, if any.

"I think that maxes us out unless you go to a standing-room-only situation, and you can't do that without affecting ingress and egress and fire exits and things like that," Owen said.

"I don't know where another person could go," Peevy said. "The numbers were through the roof."

Reach Andy Mead at (859) 231-3319 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3319.

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