Among major sports venues, four decades is an eternity. So this year’s 40th anniversary of Rupp Arena is more than a celebration of a storied basketball palace and a popular site for concerts, high school graduations and monster truck shows.
What is remarkable is that Rupp Arena is still here at all.
Consider the fate of other arenas of its era: Indianapolis’ Market Square Arena was demolished after 27 years. Atlanta’s Omni Coliseum was imploded after 25 years. The Charlotte Coliseum bit the dust after only 19 years.
“I’ve got neckties and underwear 19 years old,” said Bill Owen, who for 16 years has been president and CEO of Lexington Center Corp., which manages Rupp Arena, the attached Lexington Convention Center and the nearby Lexington Opera House.
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Thanks in part to a series of upgrades since 2000, Rupp Arena has remained vital. Owen hopes that $15 million in technology improvements now underway will keep Rupp in the game for many years to come.
More about that later. First, let’s celebrate a remarkable run.
Rupp Arena, which from the outside has always had the charm of a big-box store, will never be accused of architectural greatness. But it was designed to be a workhorse, not a show horse, and it has done the work.
When University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp retired in 1972 after a legendary 42-year run, the Wildcats were playing in 12,000-seat Memorial Coliseum. There were many more fans than seats, but UK President Otis Singletary showed little interest in a new arena. Business and civic leaders took up the cause, forming a public-private corporation with big ambitions and a tight budget.
Their goal was to build the nation’s biggest and best college basketball arena, with 23,500 seats. They also wanted a convention center, a downtown shopping mall and an arts venue in the circa 1886 Opera House. And they weren’t deterred by the fact that a historic neighborhood stood where they wanted to put a parking lot.
The project has been a remarkable success. Last year, events at the Lexington Center-Rupp Arena complex attracted 1.2 million people, generated $19.8 million in revenue and had an estimated economic impact of $80 million.
Since the inaugural 1976-1977 season, the Wildcats men’s team has had a 546-64 record in Rupp. They have won 202 of their past 229 home games and are enjoying a 37-game winning streak. With a 90 percent winning margin at home, the team has been undefeated in 13 of 40 seasons at Rupp.
Rarely has the house not been packed. The Wildcats have led the nation in average home attendance in 17 of the past 20 seasons, with an average attendance last season of 23,362.
The Lexington Center Corp. staff estimates that those basketball fans over the past 40 years have consumed 1.5 million hot dogs, 1.5 million boxes of popcorn and about 4.42 million soft drinks from the concession stands.
The highest attendance for a Rupp Arena event was in 2009, when 112,600 tickets were issued for the Kentucky High School Athletic Association’s Sweet Sixteen boys’ basketball tournament, which Rupp has hosted for 33 years. The Harlem Globetrotters have performed there 30 times. World Wide Wrestling Entertainment, aka WWE, has 38 appearances at Rupp.
The arena has been a popular concert venue from the beginning, hosting The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Whitney Houston, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Billy Joel, Conway Twitty (a dozen times) and Garth Brooks, whose four concerts in 2014 sold a record 70,500 tickets. The highest-grossing single concert was last July, when an Eagles concert raked in $1.9 million.
But the most famous Rupp Arena concert never happened. More than 20,000 tickets were sold for Elvis Presley’s concert on Aug. 27, 1977, but he died a week before the show. Many fans kept the tickets as souvenirs.
Rupp is nothing if not versatile. Its 24 senior managers, who have a combined 500 years of experience, can quickly turn the basketball floor into a concert stage, an ice show rink, a three-ring circus or a monster truck mud pit.
A big reason Rupp has thrived as its contemporaries were replaced is a series of 21st-century improvements. That began with new lower-arena seats, expanded women’s restrooms, new concession stands and video replay boards in the corners.
“Technology and digital media have had a huge impact,” Owen said. “What you expect to experience as an attendee of an event has really changed over the last 30 or 40 years and continues to change.”
Rupp is now in the midst of a $15 million technology upgrade. The “Big Bertha” scoreboard in the center is being replaced with a new video display. Three types of arena lighting are being swapped out for an energy-efficient LED system.
Rupp is getting a new sound system, and the rigging grid on the ceiling is being bolstered to meet increasing demands of performers, whose concerts now include laser shows and indoor fireworks.
The last piece of the upgrade is high-density Wi-Fi, which will make it easier for fans to stream video and use social media at events. All of the upgrades are supposed to be finished before UK’s first home game, Oct. 14.
A 2012 proposal to expand and beautify Rupp Arena while creating a new convention center was put on hold. But design work recently began on a $250 million renovation and expansion of the convention center. Construction should begin in the spring.
How that design will affect Rupp is undecided, said Owen, who is delaying retirement to oversee the project. One thing he would like to do is make Rupp more visible as part of streetscape improvements around Lexington Center.
One long-sought improvement is replacing the upper-level bleachers with chair-back seats. But that poses a problem: the extra floor space required would reduce seating capacity for basketball from 23,600 to about 19,000.
“Every time the topic comes up, you get people who are unhappy with the idea of reducing capacity,” Owen said. “Arenas anymore for sporting events in particular have become giant television studios with a live audience, and how big a live audience must you have?”
One uncertainty facing Rupp Arena is whether UK’s basketball team will continue to call it home. The university’s contract expires at the end of the 2017-2018 season. No contract talks are underway.
Some UK boosters would like to have an on-campus basketball arena with luxury suites and other amenities for big spenders. For average fans, the renovated Rupp Arena should have everything they will want and need, Owen said. And it will continue to be called Rupp Arena.
“As the university has consistently stated, our goal is to play basketball in downtown Lexington for a long time to come,” UK spokesman Jay Blanton said. “To that end, we look forward to continued negotiations with our partners at the Lexington Convention Center on a lease to continue playing at Rupp that serves everyone’s best interests.”
Owen thinks Rupp’s latest improvements will give it many more years of useful life, although he declined to predict how many. He is sure of this: “From a video and technology aspect, there’s not going to be a finer, more contemporary arena in the country.”