Mark Story: It seems few will miss Freedom Hall 'home game'

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 13, 2012 

It is the University of Kentucky, after all.

Not the University of Lexington.

Not the University of Central Kentucky.

Which is why my position on Kentucky playing "home" basketball games in Louisville and Cincinnati (for fans in Northern Kentucky) or even in Nashville (for southern and western Kentucky) has long been "do it."

It seems only right for Kentucky's "state school" to get some games of its most popular athletics team close to fans in as many parts of the state as is feasible.

Yet when UK released its 2012-13 non-conference men's hoops schedule earlier this week, there was no "home game" in Louisville for the first time in 54 years.

This season, Kentucky's only appearance in our state's largest city in 2012-13 will be as the visitor in the KFC Yum Center when the Cats face the Louisville Cardinals Dec. 29.

Yet what was interesting about a schedule with no UK "home game" in Jefferson County was the reaction. As best as I could tell, there really wasn't much of one.

Even as one who has long advocated for Kentucky playing "out in the state" games, it seems reasonable to say that UK's tradition of taking a "home" game to Louisville every year might be a good thing that has run its course.

Kentucky hasn't sold out a (non-U of L) game in Freedom Hall since 2004-'05. Not coincidentally, that was the last time UK faced Indiana in Louisville back when that series was being played on neutral courts with tickets split 50-50 between the schools.

Since that game, the only (non-U of L) contest that UK has played in Freedom Hall that drew more than 15,500 fans came in 2010-11, a matchup with Notre Dame that attracted 17,404.

Otherwise, the UK "home games" in Louisville since 2005-'06 have been against: Iona, Chattanooga, UAB, Appalachian State, North Carolina Asheville and, this past season, Arkansas-Little Rock.

Those games have drawn: 13,794; 11,641; 14,241; 10,173; 15,368; and 14.747.

Those numbers aren't exactly up to the gold standard of college basketball.

In fairness to the Kentucky fan base in and around Jefferson County, it is a fact that the attendance for UK games in Louisville went in steep decline when the quality of opposition Kentucky secured for the games took a free fall.

Before last season's UK game with Arkansas-Little Rock in Freedom Hall, John Calipari all but called out the UK fan base in Jefferson County.

"People have to come and make (playing in Louisville) something we want to do," Calipari said at the time.

Calipari expressed little sympathy for those complaining about the quality of opposition UK was facing in Jefferson County.

"Get us UCLA in there," he said then, mocking the complaint. "Little Rock at home, there'd be 24,000 there."

(Now, the cream puff games in Rupp Arena are part of the season-ticket package. UK fans in and around The Ville had been asked to pay for games with meager foes with no subsequent marquee matchups with Florida or U of L or North Carolina to balance things out.)

The fact that Kentucky played two NCAA Tournament games in the KFC Yum Center last season and is apt to play in that venue again in future tourneys may also lessen the demand for UK "home games" in Jefferson County moving forward.

It's all a far cry from the 1970s and '80s when the annual Kentucky basketball appearance in Louisville was a genuine event.

In the 1974-75 season alone — before Rupp Arena opened and when playing in Freedom Hall was more lucrative for UK than home games in Memorial Coliseum — Kentucky played and beat North Carolina, Kansas and Notre Dame all in Louisville.

Well into the 1980s, the open practice UK had before its Louisville appearances would fill up Freedom Hall, too.

But that was a very different world in terms of fan experience. That was before every UK basketball game was televised. It was a world without 24-hour sports talk radio, Internet message boards or social media.

Back then, the Wildcats coming to The Ville was the only chance many Kentucky fans without season tickets in Lexington had to get close to the Cats.

Now, there are seemingly infinite ways to feel personally connected to UK basketball.

So the thrill of paying expensive ticket prices to see Kentucky pummel Directional U or Cupcake State every year in an aging Freedom Hall may just be gone.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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