UK unveils plans for smaller, 'more fan friendly' Commonwealth Stadium

jsmith3@herald-leader.comNovember 25, 2013 

Commonwealth Stadium has been missing something for years.

Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart hasn't been able to put his finger on it, it's just a feeling.

"When I drive up from the outside now, it's not what I wanted it to feel like," he said recently in an exclusive interview with a group of reporters from the Herald-Leader, Louisville Courier-Journal and The Associated Press.

Barnhart and other UK officials offered a sneak peek at the new $110 million stadium renovations before unveiling them officially at a large-scale news conference Monday, which included Gov. Steve Beshear, head coach Mark Stoops and other dignitaries.

As the pictures and schematics flashed before him on the big screen, Barnhart was starting to see what he's always wanted in a football stadium at Kentucky.

"Now, as I look at this picture, my first thought is, 'Pretty cool. Pretty cool,'" he said last week.

The word "cool" was used again by Gerardo Prado, the principle architect on the project, which will give the 40-year-old stadium its first major upgrade since expansion in 1999.

"Classy and cool were the exact words used by Mitch and that's what we're trying to strive for here," Prado told the crowd at the Nutter Indoor Training facility Monday. "We don't want to this to look like any other stadium in the Southeastern Conference."

More than anything, the athletic director hopes that the renovations will "change the personality of the stadium, that it's hopefully more intimate, hopefully, it is more fan friendly and that at the end of the day. ... we've got the amenities in place that give it that look and gives us something as we grow into the success of the program, gives us something to build on."

Construction will begin after this season ends and is projected to be complete in time for the start of the 2015 season.

Highlights and amenities will include:

■ A reduced capacity from 67,000 to 61,000. The goal is to create better seats, not more seats, officials said.

"We've got to create an environment that's fun for people to want to come," Barnhart said. "And I think this is the right size for us. And if there's someone else in 15 years that disagrees with what the old guy did, then so be it. But for now, I think this is the right size for Kentucky."

■ The student section, with a reduction of seats as well, will hold between 4,000 and 5,000 students and UK band members and they all will be centrally located in the east end zone. The reduction in seats was based on an average number of student tickets sold in recent seasons, officials said.

In the current setup, students and the band are allotted a combined 10,000 seats. Since 2008, there have never been more than 9,091 student tickets purchased for a single game, according to a Herald-Leader open records request.

In 2012, the largest number of student tickets sold for a single game was 5,755.

Adding to the student-section experience will be the addition of a central tunnel beneath the area, through which the team will run onto the field.

The student section will surround a glass-front recruiting room and an attached patio area unlike anything Barnhart has seen in the nation.

■ The long-coveted recruiting room, which can hold up to 200 people, will have flat screen televisions and other decorative details.

A group has been working with UK on "a total concept for us in terms of the entire stadium, in terms of our graphics and signage, all those other pieces, decorative stuff," Barnhart said.

The recruiting room also can be used as a multi-purpose space for campus meetings, corporate events, even a wedding or two in the off-season.

"You can envision saying, 'We're going to do this for one price to rent the room, and here's for the food and we'll turn the scoreboards on for this (cost),'" Barnhart said. "That's a piece of the deal. Companies want to do that. They want to put their names up in lights."

■ The south side of the stadium will be dramatically different in scope and size, with a press box at the highest level atop another level of 28 suites, then club seating and the loge level of VIP seating. Twenty of the suites will be available for sale, with the remainder for UK's use.

The loge level is a cross between a club seat and a suite with seating for four or six (depending on space) where fans can order food to their seats, which will be possible using multimedia devices on which they can also pull up statistics, updates from other games and replays.

Below that will be a mezzanine-level club area and a field-level club area.

There will be roughly 2,300 seats at the club levels.

Patrons in all of the new premium areas within the stadium will be able to purchase alcoholic beverages, but it has to remain in the premium areas and suites, UK spokesman DeWayne Peevy explained last week. It's a loophole in the current Southeastern Conference rule.

■ Instead of the current "VIP entry" now consisting of chain-link fencing, Kentucky has created a specialty space with decorative touches like reclaimed Kentucky barn wood.

The wood is used throughout various levels in a cohesive way. Coupled with Kentucky limestone used at the base of the new rounded façade, Barnhart hopes it adds a "little bit of Kentucky flavor" to the stadium.

"We want to make that feel like Kentucky," Barnhart said.

That sentiment was echoed by UK President Eli Capilouto in his remarks during Monday's news conference.

"This project will represent the elements of the people of the Big Blue Nation, details that will chronicle this facility will live up to its status as the Commonwealth's stadium," he said.

■ Other improvements include swapping the current stadium lights on poles and putting in banks of lights.

Where the current President's Room sits, there will be an expansive space that will be used as a new dining area for the football team and other student athletes near the new full-service kitchen.

"So rather than having to cart food from across campus or other places, we will have the ability to cook on site and a full-service kitchen that allows us to cook the meals right there for our kids, which is a huge change for us," Barnhart explained last week.

Upgrades for everyone

Once construction is underway — some will start less than a week after UK's final home game against Tennessee on Saturday — the major change next season will be the displacement of roughly 2,000 seats from sections 219 through 232, rows 22 through 39.

A member of the Kentucky staff will contact those ticket holders to help them relocate, officials said.

Kentucky will be re-ticketing the entire stadium, although officials said they have not yet determined pricing for tickets or for the premium and suite seating.

"We'll also probably reconfigure the way we do the numbers, new numbering system and everything like that for the stadium itself, which will be a part of this," Barnhart said. "And then, obviously, we'll have a new seating plan."

Roughly 25,000 seats will come with K-Fund donation requirements of $100 or less. Tickets in 2015 will be pricier, Barnhart said, but that will be based on UK's eight-game home schedule for 2015.

UK officials don't want the changes to excite only big-budget donors. They want each person who drives up to the stadium and enters its new doors to be excited.

"One of the more unique pieces of this renovation is the effect it has on every patron in the stadium," UK associate athletic director Jason Schlafer said last week. "Everyone will enjoy wider concourses, new concession stands, new restrooms, so there's an upgraded piece for everyone who attends the game."

Training facility changes to come later

The $110 million figure, originally supposed to cover the stadium and facilities upgrades at the Nutter Training Facility, will go into the stadium only now, Barnhart said.

Other plans seem to be in the works for the training facility, but UK would not confirm those.

"We decided to pour all the resources of the $110 million into the stadium, because it also included the ability for us to get the training table and the infrastructure for the players, medical, recruiting room, multi-purpose room," Barnhart said "We'll address the other pieces to day-to-day facilities as we go. We'll figure that out."

Changes in the cost of steel and other things started to creep up, Barnhart explained, and UK wanted to make sure it wasn't "short-circuiting the stadium and the things we were most concerned about."

Many of the parts that were discussed as possible additions to the training facility are now included in the stadium plan, probably foreshadowing a move of the entire football operations to within or near the stadium in the future.

"His concern clearly right now is just to get the stadium up and running and make it as nice as possible for our players on game day and for recruiting and game-day experience and those kinds of things," Barnhart said of Coach Mark Stoops.

After the unveiling on Monday, Stoops seemed more than pleased with what he saw.

"As a coach you talk about one day at a time, one play at a time, now I want to fast forward and get to that look right now," he said. "That's beautiful."

The head coach hinted last week that he'd have a hand in developing future football plans.

"Hopefully we can do some other additions as we move forward that I'll be very involved with," he said.

When asked if that meant practice facility changes, he said: "Yeah. Or whatever we try to get going for improving our football facilities."

Even before the event started on Monday afternoon, or a construction fence was constructed, UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown, a Kentucky native, was excited about the changes the new Commonwealth Stadium will bring.

"It's a great day. I think it's a great day for the Commonwealth," Brown said. "It's something that's needed for sure. ... It's going to provide another burst of energy in our program. It will be huge to have the unveiling today, and then (winning) Saturday night will be huge going into what's going to be a pivotal next two months in recruiting."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: UKfootball.bloginky.com.

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