Mark Story: Can UK get Cats fans to start filling Commonwealth Stadium again?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 12, 2013 


An announced crowd of 54,846 watched Kentucky defeat Miami (Ohio) last Saturday. While larger than any crowd that saw a Kentucky home game in the team's 2-10 season last year, it was still the seventh least-attended first game in Commonwealth Stadium's 41-season history.


Since Commonwealth Stadium was expanded starting with the 1999 season, Kentucky has announced crowds in excess of 70,000 to see the Wildcats play football 24 times. Exactly one-fourth of those 70,000-plus crowds showed up to see the Cats face Louisville. No other UK foe has attracted a crowd in excess of 70,000 more often.

So with the No. 7 Cardinals coming to town Saturday it was a bit surprising that, as of mid-afternoon Thursday, a graphic on the website showed at least some tickets available for UK-U of L in most sections of Commonwealth Stadium's upper levels and in both end zones.

Kentucky football publicist Tony Neely said Thursday that tickets remained for Saturday's 20th modern renewal of the Governor's Cup rivalry, but declined to say how many. He said UK's policy now is not to release the number for available tickets before game day.

After the off-season euphoria ginned up by the early recruiting success of new Kentucky coach Mark Stoops as well as the estimated 50,831 fans who showed up for UK's spring football game, I thought demand for tickets in 2013 in Commonwealth would be strong.

Yet, off the evidence so far, the picture seems mixed at best.

Glass half full: The announced crowd of 54,846 for UK's home opener against Miami (Ohio) last Saturday was larger than for any Kentucky home game in the 2-10 slog that was 2012.

Glass half empty: That still made the 2013 Wildcats football home opener the seventh least-attended first game in the 41-season history of Commonwealth Stadium.

Glass half full: UK announced before the Miami game that its season ticket sales, 40,028 at that time, were up over last year's 38,475.

Glass half empty: The Kentucky season ticket number is still nowhere close to where it was as recently as 2009 — 56,440.

Last week (before the Miami game) I asked UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart if he was satisfied with the degree to which UK football backers had "returned to the fold" after many opted out on what became Joker Phillips' final season as top Cat in 2012.

"I think the fans are coming back," Barnhart said. "The season tickets (sales) are up significantly, which is great, but we've got to continue to grow that. It's our responsibility to continue to grow that."

The obvious answer to explain the decline in UK football attendance in recent years is that the win/loss records produced by Phillips' three teams went from 6-7 to 5-7 to 2-10.

Yet historically, after unpopular head coaches depart, the UK football fan base has always returned en masse to fill Commonwealth.

In 1996, there was not a crowd of more than 34,000 for any of Bill Curry's final three games as UK head man. The next season, Kentucky drew at least 57,000 (near capacity in a pre-expansion stadium) for every one of Hal Mumme's home games.

Part of what is different now, Barnhart thinks, is the impact that high-definition television and the vast expansion in the number of college games on TV has had.

"That big-screen television at home and the comfort and ability to sit at home and watch (has had a big effect)," Barnhart said.

"Now, obviously, the product you are putting on the field (is important, too). We can control a little bit of that one. The other, we've got to get a fan experience people want to come out and be a part of."

When, like UK's, your fan base is statewide, a bad economy and high gas prices can make decisions to come to Lexington from far-flung parts of the commonwealth for football more difficult.

With its price structure for individual game tickets, UK tried to create financial incentives to buy season tickets. For arch-rival Louisville, the cost for one single-game ticket is a steep $81.

For a family of four, that would be $324 to attend one football game — and that's without gas, parking and food costs.

Finally, after getting teased with a taste of success during Kentucky's five-year bowl streak (2006-10), did then seeing the Cats program "slip back" the past two seasons push some of the longer-suffering elements of the UK fan base past a tipping point?

What I do know is that, until very recently, Kentucky football coaches did not have to implore Cats fans to turn out to root against Louisville.

"I would expect us to have a full house," Stoops said Monday. "I would anticipate there will be no tickets by the end of the week. Our fans have not disappointed us yet. So, sure, I'll throw out a challenge to get them there. We need them there."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: Twitter: @markcstory. Blog:

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