UK Men's Basketball

Big Blue Life: Coordinating Rupp Arena parking is like working a giant jigsaw puzzle

Rupp Arena parking attendant Jenell Clem worked out of a booth to collect parking fees from the fans heading to the UK games. She has parked cars at Rupp since 1996.
Rupp Arena parking attendant Jenell Clem worked out of a booth to collect parking fees from the fans heading to the UK games. She has parked cars at Rupp since 1996. Herald-Leader

It's about 20 minutes to game time, and Lexington Center parking director Jerry Newby has finished checking out the High Street lot. He's about to head down to the Manchester Street lot, behind Rupp Arena.

"I've only got about eight spots left," parking attendant Jeff Hargis says over the radio. "I can park a few more around R.J. Corman, and then we'll get into crazy parking."

"Crazy parking" is lingo for finding any little nook or cranny to put a vehicle in for the duration of a University of Kentucky men's basketball game — although it might also be the way fans describe parking for any game.

Newby and Lexington Center directors' goals are, of course, for parking to go as smoothly as possible. That involves a plan and some educated making it up as they go along.

"We have 2,800 spots," Newby says. "But we're able to park over 3,000 cars in those spots."

That's a good skill to have when you host about 24,000 citizens of Big Blue Nation more than 20 times a year. Many fans use lots and spaces near Rupp — many declaring special knowledge of "secret" spaces — but for most games, the Lexington Center's lots are completely filled by tip-off, most customers paying $15 a pop to park close by.

Filling those lots takes in myriad considerations, including what other events are going on in the center, how many hotel guests are in the adjoining Hyatt Regency hotel, how many season parking pass holders and VIPs will show up, and how many people will need handicapped-accessible parking.

So as the evening begins, Newby and his crew keep their eyes on the lots, and Lexington police keep their eyes on the roads. When the game ends, they work to clear the lots as fast as possible.

"Usually, within 45 minutes, we can have everyone out of there and on their way home," says Thomas Curtsinger, traffic commander for the Lexington police.

A couple of their keys to quick exits are stopping High Street traffic to get people out of the arena, across the street and to their cars quickly, and encouraging patrons to leave via Versailles Road and Broadway to move a lot of cars swiftly.

"Versailles is the fastest route because it can handle the volume," he says.

Before they get fans out, though, they need to get them in.

Rupp's lots generally start charging the game rate of $15 three to four hours before game time, depending on the game and day of the week.

On this night, a 7:30 p.m. Tuesday game against lightweight Texas-Arlington (as the 105-76 score affirmed), the attendants take their places at 4:30, and police set up command in front of the arena an hour later.

Many of the faces are familiar to fans, having worked Cats games for decades, including parking attendant Jenell Clem. She now occupies one of the wood shacks facing High Street, but she can remember selling parking spots out in the open and later, out of modified portable toilets.

Why has she kept doing the job since 1996?

"It's the people," Clem says.

Her booth is set at a perfect height for SUVs and trucks, but it's a bit high for cars.

She leans way over to exchange money with customers, many of whom bring her goodies around the holidays.

"Tonight it was a jelly doughnut," Clem says when Newby asks about her customer swag.

Newby spends a lot of the time before the game driving around the parking lots, distributing change to attendants — "Since we went to $15, we go through fives like candy," he says — and monitoring by sight and radio how quickly the parking lot is filling up.

At a glance, the lots are just massive patches of asphalt. But they are divvied up at the beginning of the night. The High Street lot has sections designated for general parking, hotel guests, season parking pass holders and handicapped accessible parking. By percentages required by the Americans With Disabilities Act, Lexington Center is required to have only 45 accessible spots for handicapped fans. But with a significantly larger fan base that needs accessible parking, more than 200 spots are designated accessible for Wildcats games.

Still, they struggle to have enough.

Last Tuesday's game was the lowest-attended UK game since 2008, and still, Newby and his crew ran out of spaces a half-hour before tip-off. That's when they start parking customers along the perimeters of the lots; working on fitting in those 3,000 cars. The main requirement, Newby says, is that they leave space wide enough for a firetruck to get through, if needed.

With accessible parking, Newby admits that he and his staff share the same concerns the public has about people getting handicapped window hangers just to have a better parking spot. But he says, he also learned a lesson early in his job, which he started in 1996.

One night, he says, a man drove up late when they were out of spaces, insisting that he needed an accessible space.

"I said, 'No disrespect, but you look like you're OK,'" Newby says.

Shortly after sending the driver to the far corner of the lot, Newby found out that the man had a prosthetic leg, having lost a leg while serving in Beirut.

"So now, if they have the pass, I don't question it," Newby says, and he helped find a space for a woman who was about to leave because she needed an accessible space for her companion.

One might think the crazy parking is limited to people in the $15-a-night spots. But as Newby pulled into the VIP section Tuesday night, just before game time, the sides and rails were lined with Mercedes, BMWs and their luxury ilk surrounding the hierarchy of cars lined up just a few steps from the back security entrance to Rupp Arena.

First up was Coach John Calipari and his family, and then major donors to the basketball program and longtime associates, such as Adolph Rupp's sons.

The only people who get closer are the governor and Ashley Judd, an actress and probably the Cats' highest-profile fan; she is known to buzz in with little or no notice.

After the upper-echelon VIPs are the members of the K-Fund donor group, then the working media and finally general parking.

There are a lot of variables in the difficulty of parking for any game. Tuesday was the best case: a weeknight event with a smaller-than-average crowd and nothing else happening in the Lexington Center complex.

"Worst case is if you have other things happening in the center, like a cheerleading competition and a gun show, a lot of people in the hotel and a big SEC game," Newby says.

Those nights, the lots can close more than an hour before the game starts because they're full, although there will be open spots for people with season parking passes. That can cause some friction with patrons who see open spaces and want to park there. Newby says if tip-off gets close and spaces are open, he will sell them, but it is always something of a risk.

"If someone has paid for a spot and it's not there, they get kind of mad," Newby says, "and understandably so."

Usually, he and his crew can find someplace for the customer to park.

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