John Clay: Does UK really need a new arena?

Teams make venues, not reverse

jclay@herald-leader.comApril 16, 2011 

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Kentucky played Louisville in Rupp Arena on Jan. 2, 2010, but where will future games in the rivalry be played? A task force will look at options.

JONATHAN PALMER

Let's see now, Butler has played in the last two NCAA Tournament finals. So surely the Bulldogs are playing in a modern, state-of-the-art, suite-filled showplace.

Well, no. Hinkle Fieldhouse, capacity 10,000, was built in 1928.

OK, so VCU was the surprise guest in this year's Final Four. Surely the Rams receive the required revenue boost from a mammoth arena filled with monstrous video boards and anything-you-could-want concession stands.

Well, no. The Stuart C. Siegel Center seats 7,500 for men's hoops.

Duke won its fourth national title in 2010, yet plays in Cameron Indoor Stadium, which opened in 1940.

Somehow Kansas won the 2009 national championship despite playing in Allen Fieldhouse, dedicated in 1955.

Point being, Kentucky can talk all it wants about needing a "gold-standard" venue for its college basketball program, but the fact of the matter is the building in which a team plays has little to do with the team's success.

The venue doesn't make the team, as much as the team makes the venue.

And Kentucky basketball already boasts a perfectly viable venue in Rupp Arena, the 23,000-seat building that since its opening in 1976 has become the mecca for the Big Blue Nation.

There's nothing physically wrong with Rupp. It's just not the brand-spanking-new KFC Yum Center that the city of Louisville unveiled last fall just off the Ohio River, and which serves as home for the U of L basketball team.

That's why Lexington Mayor Jim Gray recently appointed a 45-member task force to study the future of Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center Complex.

UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart recently told the group, "The facility our players compete in, and our fans go to, must be the gold standard. It can be nothing ... less than that. I think on that we all can agree."

That depends. Few would relate "gold standard" to Allen Fieldhouse. It is the exact opposite of modern. Yet the place is soaked with history and success. In fact, the demand for Kansas basketball tickets prompted a scandal that is sending some former athletic department employees to jail. It wasn't for selling tickets at a lower price.

After Maryland won the national basketball title in 2002, it moved out of Cole Field House and into the new Comcast Center. The Terrapins haven't come close to a Final Four since. In fact, they have missed the NCAA Tournament four times, including this past season.

Cameron Indoor Stadium didn't have air conditioning before 2002. Yet Sports Illustrated ranked it the sport's fourth-best venue in the 20th century.

Rupp Arena has not a single luxury box or a "Bourbon Room," yet players named Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, Michael Gilchrist and Kyle Wiltjer have signed on to play there next season. It's John Calipari's third consecutive No. 1 recruiting class, by the way.

Sure, a new arena would boost UK's economy. But considering the school has the nation's highest paid basketball coach, the nation's largest basketball recruiting budget, and an athletic director who just received a $125,000 annual raise, the athletic department's economy is apparently doing just fine — or at least better than most other university departments, which are dealing with cutbacks.

In fact, in an ironic twist, the task force studying the possibility of a new multi-million facility isn't quite sure where it will find the $350,000 needed to do its work. And its creator, the mayor, just this week announced sweeping layoffs in city government, and said he would suspend his own pay for six months.

Maybe that's the "gold" in "gold standard" that should concern the city most. As for the basketball team, new arena or old arena, it'll be just fine. It's not the venue that makes the team, after all. It's the team that makes the venue.

Reach John Clay at 859-231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com. Follow him on twitter at @johnclayiv.

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