Never mind how Kentucky’s basketball team plays this coming season. A month before the first dribble, Lexington Center President and CEO Bill Owen predicted “a much better experience” for UK fans at home games in 2019-20.
Lexington Center unveiled Rupp Arena’s new look featuring chair-back seats in portions of the upper level on Tuesday. UK fans can see for themselves at Big Blue Madness on Friday.
“It means more comfort, more leg room,” Owen said of the 5,204 chair-back seats, which are above each sideline (sections 211-217 and 228-234). “It means cup holders. It means a much improved environment, and just speaks to our ability to stretch Rupp Arena’s life cycle.”
And there’s a new dessert. Ice cream! Or as Taylor Cook, the CEO of Taylor Bell’s Ice Cream, put it: “Real ice cream.”
The mention of hand-dip ice cream being available at Rupp Arena concession stands in the 2019-20 season came with an immediate clarification.
“We are not taking away soft serve (ice cream), which I heard is a very sensitive issue,” said Matt Moss, who heads Rupp’s new catering/concession service, Levy Restaurants. “We are only enhancing.”
ESPN commentator Jay Bilas complimenting Rupp’s soft serve ice cream made it something of a symbol of Kentucky basketball supremacy. It will remain available at concession stands.
Cook, a native of Frankfort, began supplying ice cream at UK’s Kroger Field this season. She said she will have eight flavors at two lower-arena spots in Rupp. The flavors range from staples like vanilla and chocolate to Bourbon Blast (chocolate ice cream with brownie, chocolate chips and fudge swirl).
And for the first time since its 1976 opening, Rupp Arena will have an executive chef, Owen said. He is Chris Ross, “who grew up 30 minutes from (Lexington) dreaming about being in Rupp Arena,” Moss said.
Decades on wish list
As for basketball, many fans will be more comfortable in chair-back seats as they watch UK try to make dreams of winning every game come true, Owen said.
Construction on the new seats began June 15 and was completed this week, Owen said. But the change to chair-back seats has a much longer history.
“It’s a fait accompli for me,” said Owen, who said chair-back seats had been “on our wish list” when Rupp Arena underwent a renovation in 1999.
Because more room is needed between rows of chair-back seats than between bleachers, the change decreased Rupp Arena’s capacity, Owen said. Rupp Arena’s capacity for basketball will decrease from 23,489 to 20,545. Capacity for concerts and other events will be 19,000-plus.
“So it’s still a big, big room,” Owen said.
Rupp Arena will go from the second- to the sixth-largest venue for college basketball home games. Schools that have greater capacity are Syracuse (35,446), Louisville (22,000), North Carolina (21,750), Tennessee (21,678) and Georgetown (20,600).
UK expects no change in revenue generated by tickets sales.
“We will accomplish this through strategic pricing and by selling a greater percentage of upper-level inventory as season tickets,” Guy Ramsey, UK’s director of strategic communications, wrote in an email. There were increased prices for portions of the sideline sections with chair-back seats, but reduced prices for 64 percent of seats in the upper level sold as season tickets, Ramsey wrote.
Owen dismissed the notion that a noticeable number of empty seats in recent seasons made decreasing Rupp Arena’s capacity in order to add chair-back seats more palatable. He said then UK director of athletics C.M. Newton supported the idea of chair-back seats during planning for the 1999 renovation.
The change to chair-back seats cost $1,500,000, Owen said. When asked what other colors besides blue he and LCC officials considered for the new seats, Owen said, “None. Absolutely nil.”
Owen amended that to say white was the other sample presented. It was decided white seats would be more difficult to keep clean, he said.
Rupp Arena originally had sections of orange, red and other colored seats. This sparked conversation and consternation among some UK fans.
The new chair-back seats differ from the chair-back seats in the lower level. The upper-level seats are not upholstered. Molded seats in the upper arena take up less space, meaning more seats can be installed, said Owen, who added, “For a lot of events, the lower arena satisfies all needed seating. So there are nicer seats in the lower arena. That’s pretty typical.”
Construction continues on four club rooms attached to Rupp Arena, Owen said. Three are scheduled to open in the 2020-21 season, while a fourth is expected to open in the 2021-22 season.
Fans should expect no radical change with entering and exiting Rupp Arena this coming season, Owen said.
Important upcoming dates
Oct. 11: Big Blue Madness
Oct. 16: SEC Media Day
Oct. 18: Blue-White Scrimmage
Oct. 27: Exhibition opener vs. Georgetown College
Nov. 1: Exhibition vs. Kentucky State
Nov. 5: Season opener vs. Michigan State