Mark Story: Shrinking Commonwealth Stadium is a smart move

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 25, 2013 

The University of Kentucky ethos in major athletics facilities has always been bigger is better.

On the basketball side, Kentucky went from Alumni Gym (2,800 seats) to Memorial Coliseum (11,500) to Rupp Arena (23,000-plus).

UK's football program left the 37,500-seat McLean Stadium for 59,000-capacity Commonwealth Stadium in 1973. In 1999, Kentucky expanded Commonwealth to some 67,000.

Now, as part of the $110 million renovation designed to bring Commonwealth into the 21st century, Mitch Barnhart is betting big that smaller will be better for UK football. When it debuts as a finished product for the season opener in 2015, the "new Commonwealth" will have shrunk to around 61,000 total capacity.

"When you guys kick me out of here and I'm gone, you guys can say that knucklehead downsized our stadium," Barnhart said Monday, minutes after UK had unveiled its plans in the Nutter Field House. "But our thought process was, let's make (Commonwealth Stadium) better. More (good) seats. Bring people closer to the action, create a better environment, make the seats more valuable."

Spending $110 million to downsize one's stadium is not as counter-intuitive as it sounds.

On Saturdays this fall, as one has fired up one's 70-inch, high-definition TV to watch the 137 college football games that are broadcast each week, one has had ample opportunity to see vast expanses of open seats in stadiums belonging to football programs far more successful than Kentucky.

Maybe that will change when (heaven help us, if?) the U.S. economy hits another boom period. But maybe in a world filled with digital distractions, smaller sports crowds are the emerging reality.

The trend in football venues is smaller overall capacity with more "high-end" seating designed to produce revenue streams. The new Commonwealth Stadium will epitomize that philosophy.

UK will dramatically alter the press-box side of Commonwealth. There, Kentucky will add 28 additional luxury suites, club seating, a loge-level VIP seating section as well as mezzanine-level club seating.

Asked what the average fan sitting in average seats was getting in comparison to the well-heeled, Barnhart listed expanded concourses, new restrooms and concession stands and better overall stadium experience.

"That $110 million, you have to find a way to fund it," Barnhart said. "Part of that upgrade in club facilities gives us a chance to do that."

The most appealing part of the new Commonwealth will be the end zone on the Nutter Field House side of the stadium. There, Kentucky will build the long-discussed recruiting room, which will be all-glass with a view of the field.

In that end zone there will also be a new game-day locker room for the Cats and a relocated UK student section. To get to the field, the Wildcats will run through a tunnel through the students.

That sounds cool. However, it also sounds like a good bit of the overall reduction in Commonwealth seating capacity will come out of the student ticket allotment. There's a time when I would have criticized that move on principle. In recent years, however, the Kentucky student section — like those at many colleges around the country — has often been half-filled at best.

Barnhart said UK has been reserving some 9,000 seats a game for Kentucky students. "Even in our good years, the students have never used more than 6,000," Barnhart said. "What we want to do is get (the students) in the most condensed area where they can create environment for us."

One big improvement for fans all around Commonwealth would be if the bleacher seating in much of the stadium could be removed in favor of chair backs. Barnhart said there is a chance some additional chair-back seating could become part of the renovation depending on costs. But to do that around the entire stadium is not feasible, he said.

"If you do that, you lose a lot of capacity, a lot of capacity," Barnhart said. "... I'd guess somewhere around the mid-50,000s."

Instead, UK is reducing to 61,000, and betting on a different vision than SEC schools with cavernous stadiums such as Tennessee (in excess of 102,000), Alabama (almost 102,000) and Texas A&M (will be 109,000 after an expansion in 2015).

"I think smaller and more intimate and making people feel a little closer to the action is where we are going to be the most effective," Barnhart said. "... I think this is the right size for us."

It goes against all UK history, but my guess is that he is right.

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

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