Forty-five days before the season's first football game, we the media were treated to a tour of the new-and-improved Commonwealth Stadium on Wednesday.
Overall impression: Lot of work left to do.
"If I said, 'Boy, there's not much work to do' you'd all think I was nuts, more than I am," said Russ Pear, UK's senior associate athletics director in charge of facilities, thus the manager of the $120 million project. "There's a lot of work to do. But the commitment is there to get it done, to get it ready."
Once completed, the new CWS will be impressive. Pear mentioned the stadium will have a different "personality" and he's right. There are lots of new suites, new levels, a recruiting room, chair-back seats, wider concourses, limestone brick façade, a new turf field. Things look fresh, new, modern.
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What's more interesting is why Kentucky decided to renovate in the first place. Sure, Commonwealth Stadium was in need of an update. But the trend around the SEC has been to expand stadiums, to meet the increasing demand for tickets. Kentucky bucked the trend. AD Mitch Barnhart rejected expansion in favor of renovation. In fact, there will be fewer seats at CWS. The goal: Fewer seats, more amenities.
It's a smart play. The "build it and they will come" mentality is a thing of the past. There's too much competition, especially from television.
Each Saturday features a treasure trove of (better) games on your 60-inch screen at home where you can sit in the comfort of your living room and see more of what's going on than the fan in the stands and not be gouged by concession prices.
The hardest draw these days is young people. The Wall Street Journal published a story last week about the sharp decline (7.1 percent since 2009) in student attendance at football games. Major colleges have spent millions of dollars to improve wireless and cell-phone service inside the stadium only to find out that studies show the students just aren't that interested in going.
It's a sign of the times. Usually a new football coach gooses attendance at an SEC school. Interest picked up at UK when Mark Stoops arrived in Lexington, but his first 2013 home game, against Miami (Ohio), drew just 54,846, way below stadium capacity. Home games against Alabama State, Missouri and Tennessee all drew less than 56,000.
Last season, even with UK improving to 5-7, CWS had four crowds of less than 60,000.
Millennials want events. They'll go see UK-Alabama. That's an event. They won't go see UK-Alabama State, not in a tired old stadium with crowded concourses and bad food. There are too many other things to do, too many other ways to spend your entertainment dollar.
No longer can an athletic program take the fan for granted — not at today's ticket prices. Your restrooms better be clean. Your seats better be comfortable. Your concourses better be wide. Your concession stands better offer a variety of choices. Your video board better be (a) huge and (b) high-def.
And your product on the field better be good. The idea of the fan heading down to the stadium just to support good old State U. has become an antiquated notion, especially among a student body that in most places has seen its seats shifted farther and farther away from the center of the action. Your team had better win, or at least be competitive.
That falls under Stoops' job description, of course. Once all the work is done, Commonwealth Stadium will be a facility people will want to come and see, but it won't take long for the newness to wear off. The new-and-improved CWS should help Stoops on the recruiting front, and that's always been what it's all about. In the end, it still comes down to results.