Mark Story: Why the griping over UK's plan to shrink Commonwealth Stadium is misplaced

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 7, 2013 

The amount of agitation over the fact Kentucky is downsizing Commonwealth Stadium from a capacity of 67,606 to some 61,000 in 2015 as part of a $110 million remodeling project continues to fascinate me.

Over its last 23 home football games, UK has drawn in excess of 62,000 fans five times.

In the just-concluded 2013 season, the percentage of seats filled in Commonwealth was 88. That was the lowest such mark in the Southeastern Conference.

Yet at least judging by what has come into my email inbox since UK announced its plans for a smaller and improved football facility, some Kentucky backers are fuming over the pending loss of the same seats that no one has been using on a consistent basis since 2009.

Some of the recent decline in attendance at UK football games should probably be laid off on temporary factors. The horrid product UK has had on the field while going 2-10 in both 2012 and '13 and a national economy that has seemed soft since late 2008 are at the top of that list.

However, it is also possible that more permanent forces are at work. We live in an age when every meaningful college football game is on TV. When the televisions in many homes are high definition with giant screens. And when there is a whole world of digital entertainment options always a click away on one's phone, tablet and/or computer.

UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart is betting that smaller crowds at big-time sports events are the 21st century's "new normal."

NFL team owners, for one, seem to read the future in the same way. Of the 31 NFL stadiums (the Giants and Jets share), 18 have seating capacities of less than 70,000.

It is true that in the football-mad Southeastern Conference, the prevailing football ethos always seems to be bigger is best.

While overall attendance at FBS college football games was down some 3 percent nationally at mid-season, the average crowd size in SEC stadiums actually rose from 75,444 in 2012 to 76,193 over the whole of 2013.

At least five SEC schools, Texas A&M (82,589 to 102,500), LSU (92,542 to 100,000), Arkansas (72,000 to 80,000), Missouri (71,009 to 77,000) and Mississippi State (55,082 to 61,337), are now in the process of enlarging their stadiums.

When those expansions are complete, the league will have four schools with stadiums that seat 100,000 or more and eight with capacities above 80,000.

Yet, rather than showing that UK is moving in the wrong direction, what those figures demonstrate is that Kentucky was never going to be able to build and fill a stadium large enough to look impressive in an SEC context.

Where UK has an opening to create its own positive niche is to have the most modern and nicest football stadium in the league. That should be the goal of the $110 million UK is about to invest in Commonwealth.

There are certainly things that can go wrong with UK's stadium plan.

The "New Commonwealth" will add 28 more luxury suites (to the existing 40). There will be club and loge-level seating added, along with mezzanine and field-level club areas. If Kentucky cannot sell this new premium seating, it undermines the financial rationale for the project.

As part of the renovation, Kentucky plans to "re-ticket" the entire stadium. That's a process with ample potential to produce hard feelings. From the outside, there seemed to be a fair number of feathers ruffled at Louisville over seat selection during the basketball move from Freedom Hall to the KFC Yum Center.

We'll see if the UK Athletics administration has the public relations finesse needed to manage the "re-ticketing" here.

The oldest axiom in the business of sports is you want more public demand for tickets than there are tickets available to the public.

In the 21st century, a modern, nicer, smaller Commonwealth Stadium is far better for the Kentucky football program than the larger, antiseptic, less-than-fully filled venue we now know.

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

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