The attempt to modernize Rupp Arena has been almost painful to watch.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray has struggled to pin down financing for the proposal to renovate Rupp and build a new downtown convention center.
While Gray and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear have pushed hard for the Rupp project, University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto, clearly, is not on board. That was apparent from the cutting tone of the letter Capilouto sent to the head of the board that runs Rupp Arena that harshly critiqued the city's efforts and priorities.
Watching the difficulty Lexington has encountered getting a significant Rupp Arena upgrade off the drawing board made me curious about the arena situations for other elite men's college basketball programs.
There are essentially six programs — North Carolina, Duke, Louisville, Indiana, Kansas and UCLA — that I consider "benchmarks" for Kentucky. Interestingly, of those six, five have executed a substantial upgrade of their basketball arenas since 2010 or are in serious discussions to do so now.
A renovation of iconic Cameron Indoor Stadium is proposed to get under way by 2015. The plan is to build a new, two-story lobby entrance onto the on-campus arena. The second floor of that addition is to include a special-access club space for hospitality.
Famous for its intimate setting, Cameron Indoor's court and seating arrangements (capacity will remain 9,314) will not be impacted. A $250 million capital fund-raising campaign being conducted for the entire Duke athletics department would be the source of funding.
On Dec. 19 of last year, Indianapolis philanthropist Cindy Simon Skjodt donated $40 million to help renovate Assembly Hall by 2016.
Planned are a new entry way and atrium on the south lobby of the venue, which opened in 1971. Box-style luxury seating will be added above the south baseline bleachers. New rest rooms will be built and existing rest rooms and concession stands remodeled. A state-of-the-art video scoreboard will be installed.
The existing seating configuration (capacity 17,472) will not be altered.
Venerable Allen Fieldhouse (capacity 16,300) is not presently slated for renovation. A $3.5 million upgrade in 2013 created new and larger rest rooms, new concession stands and more accessible entry ways.
Kansas, however, is making other capital investments in its basketball program. KU just broke ground on an $18 million building adjacent to Allen Fieldhouse that will house James Naismith's original "Rules for Basket Ball" plus new training tables for its men's and women's hoops programs. Earlier this year, Kansas received a lead gift for a new $17.5 million housing complex where both the Jayhawks men's and women's basketball players — as well as 34 non-athlete students — will live.
U of L moved into a new $238 million downtown civic arena before the 2010-11 season. The 22,000-seat KFC Yum Center features all chair-back seating and WiFi within the arena bowl. It is also replete with revenue producing elements, including 71 luxury suites.
While the posh Louisville arena has met with enthusiastic reviews for its amenities, the tax-increment financing that was supposed to play a big role in paying for the Yum Center flopped, leading to fears that Kentucky tax payers could end up taking a bath on the project.
In November of last year, UNC Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham said the school was having serious discussions about major renovations of the Dean E. Smith Center. An aim would be to add "revenue generators" such as luxury suites, club seating or both to the 21,750-seat arena, Cunningham said. If that proved cost prohibitive, the UNC AD said North Carolina would look at replacing the Dean Dome by building a new arena.
Whatever it decides, Cunningham has said North Carolina will seek to finance its arena upgrade with a combination of private fundraising and athletics department revenue, not tax money.
After a $136 million renovation financed by private donations and corporate sponsorship money, Pauley Pavilion was "re-opened" for the 2012-13 season. The 30-month project raised capacity of the arena from 12,800 to 13,800. The number of rest rooms was increased by 154 percent. New LED ribbon boards were added. A 300-person, members-only Pavilion Club was opened.
What does all this arena upgrading at elite basketball schools tell us?
1.) Projects to build/renovate sports venues tend to be popular only if tax money is not involved. In cases of civic-owned facilities such as Rupp Arena, however, is it feasible to do any significant upgrading without tax dollars?
2.) In five years, if almost all of Kentucky's basketball peers are playing in arenas that offer more modern amenities than the Wildcats are, will UK regret not doing more to help Gray secure financing for the Rupp Arena renovation plan?