A glowing final attendance number for the Russell Athletic/KHSA Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl championship games would have been as good as any gift that KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett could have received on his 57th birthday.
He got it. By the end of the final game on Sunday afternoon, the 2017 finals had blown past the previous all-time attendance high in recorded history, which goes back to 1984. A total of 52,796 fans ended up watching the six games at Kroger Field this year, the first time Lexington hosted the finals since 1976.
The previous overall attendance record was set in 2010, when 47,759 fans watched the finals at Houchens Industries/L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green.
Single-game attendance records for the Class 3A and Class 5A championships were broken on Friday and Saturday, respectively. The Class A championship had its most heavily-attended game of the six-class era, which began in 2007.
The Class 6A game drew 9,791 fans, its highest attendance since 9,962 watched the 2009 finals in Bowling Green. Every game this weekend saw a marked improvement in its attendance from last season at WKU.
And the thousands who came were pleased with their experience.
“We had a lot of positive comments,” Tackett said. “We will do what we always do internally, which is nitpick it to death, but we couldn’t have asked for a much better first time at a venue.”
Big-event parking is often a nightmare, but Tackett received great feedback from fans and participants.
“We did hear a lot of positives about having so much parking,” he said. “That lot is so big and, y’know, you’re within 100 yards or 200 yards of 3,000 spaces.”
The UK event staff that helped with the games also got rave reviews from fans and the KHSAA.
“We almost put them through an entire season of football games in one weekend,” Tackett said. “They normally have seven, and we played six. We stretched the limits in six individual games.”
Most complaints from fans centered around concessions and restrooms, and those were as much about proximity as availability. Tackett said the KHSAA will re-examine which concession stands should be open to the public next year.
Long lines at the box office were an issue as well.
“People just don’t buy advance tickets anymore,” Tackett said. “They wait until the last second, and that made the lines long. We’ll work with (UK) on that. They are such professionals they solve any problem we have. We’ve just got to see if there’s a better way, and there may not be.”
Another concern of Tackett’s is coaches making less of an effort to come and see all the games. Some schools bought tickets to every game but then had seats go unused for some contests.
“Are they buying them and just gonna come two or three times and the other games they’re gonna go out and get a good steak? I don’t know,” Tackett said. “We’ll see what’s going on.”
How the crowd would be perceived in a venue as large as Kroger Field was something for which the KHSAA was prepared. It did not allow fans to sit in the upper level and limited the end zones to those with accessible-seating needs.
“But that’s still 38 to 40 thousand people,” Tackett said. “We’re not gonna draw that no matter who’s playing. So you do have that empty feeling. One of the real strengths of Western (Kentucky) was the intimacy and how packed it looked.
“At the same time, most of the kids’ concerns were between the goal lines and sidelines, and they raved about it.”
Carl Nathe, the public address announcer for the University of Kentucky’s home football games since 1997, did the P.A. work for this weekend’s high school state championship games at Kroger Field.
The KHSAA gauged Nathe’s interest in being involved but he didn’t know for sure that he’d be working all six games until earlier this week. He was impressed with how the event turned out and said he’d welcome the opportunity to do it again.
“I think UK did a great job of hosting it,” Nathe said. “Fans that I’ve talked to seem to be pleased with it. ... It seems to be a big success.”
Nathe, probably best known for his booming deliveries of “First Down, Kentucky!” and “Touchdown, Kentucky!” when the Wildcats’ offense is on the field, played it straight during the games this weekend.
“You’re kind of being objective for both teams and you want to be respectable to kids and the players,” Nathe said. “I have a little bit more time to put in for just one game when it’s Kentucky.”
He added with a laugh:
“Probably a little bit more easier on the voice cause I was a little more even-tempered I guess.”