When Kentucky unveiled its plans for renovations at Commonwealth Stadium in 2013, the goal was to give the aging football venue a new personality.
As long as he’d been the athletics director, Mitch Barnhart never felt as though the massive structure had much of a Southeastern Conference stadium feel to it.
A $126 million renovation that included premium seating and new luxury suites on the south side of the stadium has changed the way Barnhart — and many others — view Commonwealth Stadium.
“We’ve got an SEC feel to what we’re doing,” the athletics director told the Herald-Leader recently. “The greatest compliments you can get are from the opponents coming into our stadium. The ones who have been in there before, and the ones who have come back, have all said, ‘Wow. What a magic change. It really is a really special place.’”
Getting that magical, “SEC feel” came at a price, with Barnhart estimating that Kentucky has injected more than $180 million into the football program in the last few years. But it also has come with a payoff for the athletic department.
How much money did the newest, fanciest parts of Commonwealth Stadium bring in last season? Who leases those suites atop Commonwealth Stadium?
And what exactly does the sweet, new suite life include?
Click here to see a listing of all the Commonwealth Stadium suite-holders.
According to records released to the Herald-Leader by UK Athletics, the 67 suites along with the new premium seating sections such as the ones found on the loge and mezzanine levels generated more than $7.3 million last season.
All the luxury suites are occupied for the upcoming football season, and there is a waiting list for them, school officials said. They project that all of the VIP seats combined will bring in more than $7.36 million for the upcoming football season, but those figures could change based on “single-game sales and changing ticket-holder situations.”
Kentucky’s 67 suites alone brought in nearly $3.5 million last season. For comparison’s sake, the 59 suites at Louisville’s Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium brought in roughly $2.6 million last year, according to records released to the Herald-Leader by that university.
Those in real estate know it’s about “location, location, location,” and it’s no different with the new sideline suites at Kentucky.
It’s all about location with a view.
The panoramic pictures of the field from Joe Craft’s suite high above the 50-yard line to the sights from Barnhart’s athletics director suite in the corner closest to the student section and the new UK football practice facility are phenomenal.
Each suite has 16 (or more if the suite is a double or triple) plush chairs that make taking in the game a little more comfy.
The views inside the plush pads aren’t so bad, either.
$120,000The most expensive suite in Commonwealth Stadium.
The new sideline suites, which are a part of the massive structure on the south side of the stadium, have rich cabinetry with white countertops that include built-in hot pads to keep food warm, sinks, specialty refrigerators and more. Many of the suites have finishes such as reclaimed barnwood that also can be found in the lounges and common areas that join the premium areas of the stadium.
Multiple television sets hang on the walls, and inhabitants can keep an eye on UK’s game and most other games in the country simultaneously.
A shared attendant helps serve a standard menu for each suite with an appetizer, main course, two sides and a dessert. Hot dogs and hamburgers also are available. Non-alcoholic drinks come standard, and drinks of the alcohol sort can be ordered through Aramark in advance of each game.
In the older suites behind the end zones, longtime lessors have made minor alterations over the years such as a change in paint color, different countertops and new televisions. (Those upgrades become UK’s property after leases expire, according to the terms of the deal.)
The new sideline suites have a much stricter policy for modifications. Suite owners can hang wall decorations, but changing paint colors or adding televisions is prohibited.
One way new suite owners can be creative is in the nameplate outside the door to their suite. For instance, women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell has a suite named “Blue Rose” in honor of daughters Presley Blue and Saylor Rose.
The wait list for the suites is based on K-Fund rankings, so when a suite becomes available, the individual on the wait list with the highest ranking is offered the opportunity to lease it. To get into a standard sideline suite, there is a $60,000 K-Fund donation per season. That number doesn’t include the 16 tickets per suite per game or the five parking passes attached to the suite.
Most recently, suite 408 (four from the end closest to Nicholasville Road) opened up and was snagged by Marty Preston of Lexington.
When he gets to the stadium for the season opener on Sept. 3, right next door will be former Cats quarterback Tim Couch.
The names attached to the leases for the suites at Commonwealth Stadium read like a Who’s Who in the state and stretch across all spectrums, with 23 suites being leased by familiar corporate names such as Pepsi, PNC Bank, Fifth Third Bank, Windstream and Friends of Coal. Another 34 suites are leased by individuals or families, and six others by collectives or groups that went in together on their suite. The final four are free to the UK president, athletics director, head coach and a suite for the visiting athletics director and his or her entourage.
▪ The presidents’ offices at both Kentucky and Louisville have suites at their respective stadiums, with the Cardinals president paying $90,000 for one suite and an additional $45,000 for another per season. Two suites at $45,000 apiece also are leased to the University of Louisville, Advancement, according to the records furnished by the school.
UK President Eli Capilouto, who attends almost every home football game and many other sporting events on campus, has a triple suite with seating for 55 that is furnished to him for free by the university.
“The president’s suite is utilized, more than anything else, for friends of the university — alums, donors, elected officials and policymakers and often guests from the visiting universities as well,” university spokesman Jay Blanton said, noting it’s rare for Capilouto to spend much time in the suite on game day.
He visits other suites and often is spotted in the student section or on the field during games.
“He’s a big fan and played football in high school,” Blanton added. “He doesn’t sit much — at games or anywhere else.”
We’re just so fortunate to be in the position we’re in, we’ve always wanted to try and give back and help pull some weight around here because they’ve done so much for us.
Matthew Mitchell, on why he leases a football suite
▪ Five entities lease suites at both Commonwealth Stadium and Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, including the Bluegrass Hospitality Group, which owns Malone’s restaurant. That company leases suite No. 8 for UK games for $45,000 a season and pays the same for suite No. 17 in Louisville.
Others leading suites in both stadiums include Fifth Third Bank, Pepsi, PNC Bank and LG&E/KU.
The suites at both stadiums are used for “business development and customer entertainment,” explained Terri Wilson, PNC vice president of regional media relations.
“We support both the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville in various ways as they are strong economic drivers in the Lexington and Louisville markets,” Wilson said, noting that the bank also has suites at professional venues for the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago Bears, Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates, to name a few.
Being a statewide entity mandates a suite to cheer on both UK and Louisville, explained Chris Whelan, vice president for communications at LG&E and Kentucky Utilities. It’s one of many ways the power company couples with the major universities in the state (suite No. 14 in Lexington and No. 421 in Louisville).
“It’s a great opportunity to build relationships and foster economic development,” said Whelan, noting that shareholder dollars, not customer dollars, are used for the suites. “We use them for opportunities to help create jobs in Kentucky, bring guests in that might be potential economic development partners.”
▪ Head coaches Mark Stoops (Kentucky) and Bobby Petrino (Louisville) have their own suites at games for use by family, friends, donors and others.
▪ Even basketball coaches take in some football action at both schools, with Rick Pitino leasing suite No. 404 at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium for $45,000 a season. He’s regularly attended home games since he became Cardinals coach in 2001 with family and friends, Louisville athletics spokesman Kenny Klein said of Pitino.
Kentucky’s John Calipari doesn’t lease a suite at Commonwealth Stadium, but he attends games regularly, a team spokesman said. Calipari reportedly is most often a guest in the suite of big-time UK donor Craft, who has the largest and priciest suite at the stadium, paying $120,000 a season with a lease through 2029 on the 50-yard line.
UK women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell and his wife, Jenna, lease suite No. 404 for $60,000 a season.
“Since the day I stepped on campus, I’ve had an absolute love for the football program, and we go to every game,” said Mitchell, who said he was drawn to UK football by then-coach Rich Brooks.
“Rich invested a ton of time in me, a ton of time in my personal development as a coach,” Mitchell said. “When things weren’t great, he’d drive across campus, walk into my office, sit down and talk. I’m in love with Kentucky football. I just love Saturdays in Commonwealth Stadium.”
When recruits are on campus, Mitchell said he’s just as happy — if not more — to sit in the stands with the players.
We’ve got an SEC feel to what we’re doing.
The UK coach said they jumped at the chance to lease a suite (through at least 2017, per the contract) because they think it’s an investment in the athletics department.
“We’re just so fortunate to be in the position we’re in, we’ve always wanted to try and give back and help pull some weight around here because they’ve done so much for us,” he said.
The Mitchell family brings friends and neighbors to the game and also uses the suite to entertain people connected to their charity and other charities they support.
▪ The only company with a longer lease than Craft is JMI, which owns athletics and campus multimedia rights. JMI also pays $120,000 a season for suite No. 400, which seats 32. It has that spot through at least 2030.
JMI also leases suites 504, 506, 508, 510 and 512 at $60,000 each per season through the end of this year.
▪ At least two suite-holders upgraded to the new sideline suites when the facility was finished last season, including the Webb Company, which moved from suite 22 at $45,000 a season to suite No. 418 at $60,000 a year in the new section. The Webb brothers hold that lease through 2017. Longtime Kentucky supporters Wendell and Vickie Bell previously leased suite 34 for $41,580 and moved up to suite 422 for $60,000 through at least 2017.
If having a luxurious party atmosphere during the game isn’t enough and you want the fun to start before kickoff, Kentucky offers a similarly luxurious option now with its tailgate rentals, The 1865 Club.
Each climate-controlled unit has a kitchen, a full-size refrigerator, a bathroom and four televisions with room for 30 fans.
There are standard menu options and catered options available as well. The party chalets can be rented by the game ($6,000-$8,000) or for the season ($50,000).
No formal leases have been signed yet for The 1865 Club, which was unveiled in April, but a school official said they expect to sign a couple of agreements in the next week or so.
▪ While many of the amenities and money-making prospects are similar for both the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville in football, the Cardinals far outgain the Cats in cash made off luxury suites thanks to the KFC/Yum Center.
The 75 suites at the Louisville basketball venue bring in more than $6.2 million a year, according to records released to the Herald-Leader. The suites at the downtown center lease for between $75,000 and $125,000 a season.
The athletics director, head coach and Arena Authority have free suites in the venue, per their contracts, and Papa John’s USA Inc., pays a reduced $45,000 a season.
Who owns a suite at Louisville’s Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium
How much each suite-holder pays per season (listed with suite number):
503 President’s Office
413 Michael L. Seale
5 Arlo Steel Corporation
1 Robert F. Ferreri, Naveen K. Devabhaktuni, Jeff Groves, Surrender Sandella, Janet Sharber
3 Charles Osborn III, Gobel Newsome
4 Alison Shirley, William Gaunt
6 J&L Marketing, Shawn McDonald, Gant Hill & Associates LLC, Jordan P. Yocum
7 Univ. of Louisville Advancement
8 Univ. of Louisville Advancement
9 Kinglan Sports, LLC
10 William Hart
11 Mike Edlin
12 US WorldMeds LLC
13 Peritus Public Relations
14 Mark Lynn
15 Caldwell Tanks Inc.
16 Dennis Crum, Abel Construction/ Bill Abel Jr.
17 Malone’s of Lexington LLC
18 Exit Solutions Inc. DBA, Dealer Car Search
19 Kenmark Optical Co.
20 King Coporate Group LLC
21 President’s Office
22 High Power Technical Services
23 Cunningham, Gault & Marsh LLC
24 Cardcore Brothers LLC
25 President’s office
26 High Power Technical Services
27 Alpha Mechanical Services Inc.
28 Bruce Perkins
29 Neil Huffman Corporate Office
30 ARC Property Investment LLC
31 FieldTurf USA Inc.
32 Stites & Harbison PLLC
33 Jewish Hospital & KentuckyOne Health
401 Todd Asset Management
402 Accuserv Equipment & Supply
403 Clear Channel Broadcasting Inc. (WHAS)
404 Rick Pitino
406 Rice Investment Holding LLC
407 Thornton’s Inc.
408 Pattco LLC
409 Pepsi Beverage Co.
410 Humana Inc.
411 Flynn Brothers Contracting
414 Anheuser-Busch LLC
416 Fifth Third Bank
417 Neil MacDonald
418 Yum Restaurants Services Group. Inc.
419 TGM Properties
420 Balls to the Wall LLC
421 Frost Brown Todd LLC and LG&A/KU Energy LLC
422 Mortenson Family Dental, Jeff Owen, Maneesh Mohan, LLC, Garry Meeks
501 Louisville Sports Properties
502 Laura L. Frazier
405 PNC Bank
412 Papa John’s International Inc.
423 Bobby Petrino