New ribbon advertising boards have been installed around the second tier of Rupp Arena, the first part of a two-year, $15 million technology upgrade for Lexington's most recognized landmark.
The LED ribbon boards — which will allow the arena to sell more advertising and encourage more fan interaction — took about a week to install.
Fans will get to see it in use at the University of Kentucky's Big Blue Madness event on Oct. 16, said Bill Owen, CEO of the Lexington Center Corp.
"It's an exciting time to be at Lexington Center and Rupp Arena," Owen said. "It's truly going to be a new level of fan experience once we get it all done."
The Lexington Center Corp. oversees Rupp Arena, the attached convention center and the Lexington Opera House.
Daktronics was awarded the contract for the LED boards in June. Daktronics and its subcontractors finished the installation of the 800 feet of ribbon board on Sept. 19, and it's now being tested, Owen said.
"It's a brand-new product for us," Owen said. "We are going to be exploring how it can be used."
In May, the Lexington Center Corp. board voted to extend a two-year contract with Learfield Communications, which has the contract for advertising for Lexington Center. Learfield agreed to give the arena $800,000 to install the ribbon advertising boards. In return, Learfield can sell more advertising.
The arena has previously had only static boards that Learfield could sell to only one client at a time. The ribbon boards allow Learfield to sell space to multiple advertisers, increasing the advertising revenue for Rupp Arena and Lexington Center.
In addition to the LED ribbon advertising, new LED screens will replace four static corner screens, Owen said.
"Those screens will be installed one at a time beginning on Nov. 9," Owen said. All four of those screens are expected to be installed by mid-December.
The arena also is overhauling its television production studio this fall.
Other improvements at Rupp Arena in coming years will include a new center-hung scoreboard, wireless Internet for fans, and new roofing infrastructure so the arena can attract more concerts and major events.
The center-hung scoreboard, also with LED screens, is being designed and is expected to be installed before the 2016-17 basketball season, Owen said.
An upgrade to the arena's Wi-Fi system should also be finished in time for the 2016-17 season, Owen said.
Owen said the Wi-Fi upgrades have to follow the other improvements and construction because of the technology needed to upgrade the Wi-Fi system. Poor cellphone reception is one of fans' top complaints about the arena, which opened in 1976.
Brent Rice, chairman of the Lexington Center board, said the upgrades will make the arena competitive with Louisville and Cincinnati venues.
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association, UK and concert promoters have backed the changes, saying they were needed.
"It's about a $15 million investment that the board felt was critical — not only to enhance the fan experience and to drive revenue but to make certain we had the same amenities of facilities that we compete with have," Rice said.
The Lexington Center board voted at its July meeting to approve $15.4 million in bonds to pay for the upgrades. Those bonds must be approved by the Urban County Council. Owen said financial documents are being prepared, and officials expect to appear before the Urban County Council soon.
The city will not be responsible for payment of those bonds. The Lexington Center Corp. receives about 2 percent of a room tax on local hotel rooms. That money is being used to pay off a $22.5 million renovation completed in 2004. The 2004 renovation is to be paid off in 2019. The Lexington Center Corp. can then use the 2 percent room tax to pay off the new bonds. The group can use cash to pay the estimated $300,000 interest payment on those bonds before 2019.
Lexington Center Corp. officials have said that if a planned redesign of Rupp Arena and the attached convention center moves forward, the technology upgrades can be removed and used in a future overhaul. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray had proposed a redesign of Rupp Arena, but those plans were put on hold in May 2014 after organizers failed to get state legislative funding for the proposal and UK and the city couldn't agree on what the redesign should include.