Greater comfort is coming for some Kentucky fans who sit on bleachers in the upper level of Rupp Arena for home games. UK announced Friday that it plans to replace bleachers along both sidelines with chair-back seating in time for the 2019-20 season.
Some UK fans will also have the chance to meet and greet, plus sip adult beverages in three new clubs planned to be built on the west side of Rupp Arena. Except for construction of the clubs beginning in July, fans will not notice any change to Rupp Arena during the upcoming 2018-19 season.
The added comfort will come at a cost. All fans with upper-level seats — including those behind the baselines where bleachers will remain — will be required to go through the so-called “seat selection process,” UK officials said.
All season ticket holders in the upper level will have the chance to choose specific chair-back seat locations or remain in bleachers behind the baselines, UK officials said. The order of selection will be based on a point system designed to reward loyalty and total dollar contributions to the K Fund. Those with the most points will get first chances to choose seat locations.
Where chair-back seating will replace bleachers are sections 228 through 238 behind the team benches and sections 211 through 217 on the sideline opposite the team benches, UK officials said.
There will be no change for fans with seats in the lower level of Rupp Arena, UK officials said.
The added comfort could bruise the pride of some UK fans.
UK officials estimated that the change from bleachers to chair-back seats in the upper level will reduce Rupp Arena’s current listed capacity of 23,000 to about 20,500. That will drop Rupp Arena from the second- to sixth-largest capacity for a college home-court. Larger capacities will be at Syracuse (35,446), Louisville (22,000), North Carolina (21,750), Tennessee (21,678) and Georgetown (20,600).
The small capacity could spell the end of Kentucky’s dominance in home attendance. In 42 seasons in Rupp Arena, Kentucky has led the nation in attendance 28 times. That includes 20 of the last 23 seasons.
If Rupp Arena’s capacity had been 20,500, Kentucky would have led the nation in attendance only six times in that span, and only twice since 1983 (2007-08 and 2001-02).
UK officials said they put a greater priority on enhancing the game experience for fans over leading the nation in attendance.
However, UK officials acknowledged that they were mindful that putting chair-back seats behind the baselines would have further reduced Rupp Arena’s capacity. Therefore, the bleachers will remain in those sections.
Student seating in the lower level, including the E-Rupp-tion Zone, will not be affected, UK officials said. However, tickets for students in the upper level will be based on supply and demand, they said.
Presently, UK sets aside about 4,300 tickets for students, officials said. There are about 17,400 season-ticket holders. About 1,000 are reserved for players, recruiting, sponsors and other university needs.
As for the new clubs, the first two are expected to be ready for the 2019-20 season, UK officials said. Access to the clubs will be based on donations to the K Fund, officials said. UK plans to open the third club in time for the 2020-21 season.
The three clubs will be west of Rupp Arena and underneath a new exhibit hall. The clubs will be accessed from the main concourse and a planned parking garage.
An entry fee cost for access to the clubs has not yet been set, UK officials said. Nor has a decision been made about whether club admittance will be sold on a game-by-game or annual or multi-seasonal basis. While confirming alcohol sales, UK officials said no other decisions about what else will be offered in the clubs had been finalized.
A fourth and largest club will be in a revamped space currently on the first-level food court area of the Civic Center Shops. This fourth club is for UK’s use only and not open to the public.
UK officials estimated the capacity of the clubs to be about 3,000 to 4,000. The clubs will be in use before and after games, plus during halftime. Patrons can also stay in the clubs during games.
Construction on the clubs will begin in July, UK officials said. But no changes will be made inside Rupp Arena this coming season. The change from bleacher to chair-back seats is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2019, UK officials said.
Revenue from the clubs will help offset the higher payment UK must make to the Lexington Center Corp., as part of a new lease agreement originally announced in December 2016, and formalized this year.
UK had been paying close to $1 million a year to use Rupp Arena in the lease agreement that expired after this past season. Under the new agreement, which makes Rupp Arena UK’s home court through 2033, Kentucky agreed to pay $1.9 million annually.
Bill Owen, the president and CEO of Lexington Center Corp., said the new lease agreement calls for $3 million to pay for the new chair-back seating and $12 million for the new clubs.
To gain greater insight in changing from bleacher to chair-back seating, Owen traveled to arenas in Atlanta and Cincinnati. New technology reduces the time and expense associated with such a change, Owen said. The new technology allows the arena to convert to chair-back seats without changing the concrete risers, but still gives the arena the additional space that is needed for chair-back seating, Owen said. It also means fewer seats will be lost.
As part of the new lease agreement, UK expects to gain multi-media rights in Rupp Arena. This will lead to more prominent exposure for UK’s corporate sponsors and less visibility for competing companies that had previous agreements with Lexington Center Corp., officials said.
The new lease agreement also grants UK the naming rights to Rupp Arena and the overall upgrade to the Lexington Convention Center. If UK sells the naming rights, it is required to pay LCC $750,000.
UK officials said there will be no change to the name Rupp Arena. The naming rights will apply to the overall complex that includes the Lexington Convention Center.
Herald-Leader Staff Writer Beth Musgrave contributed to this article.