NCAA Tournament to bring cash, people and traffic to downtown Lexington

Herald-Leader Staff ReportMarch 18, 2013 

  • NCAA tournament games Thursday at Rupp Arena

    East Regional
    6. Butler vs. 11. Bucknell, 12:40 p.m.
    3. Marquette vs. 14. Davidson, 3:10 p.m.

    Midwest Regional
    1. Louisville vs. N.C. A&T or Liberty, 6:50
    8. Colorado St. vs. 9. Missouri, 9:20

    Ticket information
    Tickets are still available for the games in Rupp Arena on Thursday and Saturday.
    Fans can purchase tickets via www.ncaa.com/mbbtickets, or by calling (877) 622-2849. Fans can also call the Rupp Arena box office at (859) 233-3535.

    Open practices for each team will be held Wednesday in Rupp Arena and admission is free to the public. The practices begin at noon, and a full schedule will be available Monday.

Just because the University of Kentucky has been shut out of the NCAA tournament doesn't mean Lexington won't get some tournament action this week.

Rupp Arena is already hopping: Crews have begun putting down the NCAA basketball floor in place of the Wildcats' court. On Thursday, Rupp will host four games, including the University of Louisville, who will take on either North Carolina A&T or Liberty University on Thursday night.

The next round will be held Saturday at Rupp, with a time to be announced.

Lexington and Rupp have hosted regional games 10 times since 1977, most recently in 2007.

(It's possible that UK fans could see the Cats play in Rupp, if UK advances in the NIT tournament, and one of those games is played Sunday in Rupp.)

Between open practices Wednesday and two sets of games, downtown can expect plenty of people and traffic.

Niki Heichelbech, a spokeswoman for the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, said it's tough to calculate the economic impact this week.

"We know there is an impact, certainly, on the hotel economy," she said, but it's tougher to calculate "the trickle-down effect, to restaurants and bars and shopping centers and gas stations."

Said Heichelbech: "It's more than just the hotel impact. It's all those things we do on a daily basis."

The contract

Most of the revenues from the NCAA tournament go to the NCAA, but it's a big payday for the Lexington Center Corp. and Rupp. Executive Director Bill Owen estimated a crowd of about 50,000 people for all three sessions, including open practices Wednesday, and that could result in $4 million to $5 million in total ticket sales. About 10 percent of that goes to Lexington Center. That doesn't include what they'll make from parking and concessions.

As the host school, UK receives an honorarium that cannot exceed $200,000, sports officials said.

"It's terrific for Lexington and Lexington Center," Owen said. He said that that with the Sweet 16, Comic Con and other events, Lexington Center has hosted 250,000 people in the past 20 days. "I'd like to host the NCAA every year."

Downtown hotels

The hotels closest to Rupp Arena, the Hyatt Regency and the Hilton Lexington/Downtown, have 366 rooms each — yes, they have an identical number of rooms — and both are expected to be full during the NCAA tournament.

Larry Bell, general manager of the Hyatt, which is in the Lexington Center complex alongside Rupp Arena, said the hotel will probably fill up with reservations by Tuesday and will be busy Wednesday and full Thursday through Saturday.

The Hyatt is headquarters for the NCAA and the media.

Hyatt officials are delighted to have the NCAA traffic, Bell said, "but in preparations, it's not all that different from a big UK home game."

Across the street at the Hilton, general manager Marty Rothchild said, the NCAA has already sent paraphernalia including banners and decals to display around the hotel for the teams and fans who will be housed there. The hotel will host Missouri and Marquette. It will be full Wednesday through Friday nights. Rothchild said there might be a few rooms open Saturday night.

Restaurants and bars

Downtown restaurants and bars are expecting big crowds this weekend, especially since many of the universities playing at Rupp are within driving distance of Lexington.

"It's a huge difference since some people can't afford to buy last-minute airline tickets but can certainly afford to drive here," said Renee Jackson, president of the Downtown Lexington Corp. "The best part is they can't drive home between games."

That's not the case for fans of Louisville. Jackson said she hopes they at least stay for a meal.

"As always, everyone will have their best foot forward," she said.

The management of one of the closest eateries to Rupp Arena, deSha's Restaurant & Bar, has already been diving into history for its plans. Employees reviewed the restaurant's records from 2007, the last time NCAA tournament games were at Rupp, bar manager Curtis Smith said.

Staffing is being increased and so, too, is the beer supply.

"We usually order 100 to 200 cases of beer extra," Smith said. "It's fun, and we're looking forward to it."

The restaurant is opening early on game days, Thursday and Saturday, general manager Misty Carlisle said.

Other restaurants, including Paulie's Toasted Barrel — which opened last fall in the space formerly occupied by The Penguin piano bar, across Main Street from the Lexington Center complex — are new to the tournament experience.

"We have no clue," event coordinator Erica Nierzwicki said. "I really don't know what to expect."

The bar has lined up extra staffing and has coordinated with food trucks to be out front for game days, she said.

Blue Grass Airport

With Louisville as the top seed playing in Lexington, Blue Grass Airport is not expected to see strong traffic from visiting fans.

Airport spokeswoman Louise Bowden said she expects that other teams will coordinate charter flights into the airport, and their fans who come will take commercial flights.

It's a stark change from last year, when the airport was swamped because UK won the tournament. For the Final Four semifinal and championship games in New Orleans, about a thousand UK fans departed LEX on charter flights, Bowden said.

"The whole terminal was a sea of blue and white," she said, and the staff made pompons and handed them out.

Only UK's team has chartered a flight so far, for this year's opening-round NIT game Tuesday in Pittsburgh, she said.

Transportation

LexTran isn't planning to run extra buses while NCAA fans are in town, but officials are making sure bus drivers and passengers are aware that there could be detours around Rupp Arena.

"We want to make sure they're prepared for any detours we might have to put in place due to heavy traffic, similar to what we had to do last week for the Sweet 16," LexTran community affairs director Jill Barnett said.

Customer calls to LexTran exceeded 500 on the first day of the Sweet 16, compared to about 300 calls on a typical weekday. Barnett said that was an indication that some buses ran late because of basketball traffic, and that could happen again when NCAA fans arrive.

She said LexTran has dealt with NCAA traffic before and should be prepared.

Public safety

Lexington police will have officers on duty downtown almost around the clock during the NCAA tournament, and they'll be on major streets to keep traffic flowing, spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said.

"We will have officers downtown from 10 a.m. to 3 a.m every day during the tournament, doing a variety of enforcement activities," she said. "Also, we'll have officers specifically doing traffic on the busiest streets leading to and away from Rupp Arena to make sure things flow smoothly during game times and rush hour."

Lexington police used similar procedures during the World Equestrian Games in 2010, Roberts said.

"Our main concerns will be traffic flow, and having a highly visible presence downtown to let people know we're there to keep them safe, and that they can reach us if they have concerns," she said.

Herald-Leader staff writers Linda B. Blackford, Scott Sloan, Cheryl Truman and Jim Warren contributed to this report.

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