How much does the average Kentucky fan value women’s basketball success? We’re about to find out.
From the time it was announced that the University of Kentucky had signed a three-year contract for Rupp Arena to serve as host of women’s NCAA Tournament regionals, the universal conviction has been:
What a huge advantage for Matthew Mitchell and UK Hoops as the Wildcats try to break through to their first-ever Final Four.
Yet now that Kentucky stands only two victories in Rupp from playing in the NCAA Tournament semifinals, an obvious realization has seeped through. Playing in Rupp Arena will be an edge for the Cats only if there is a big enough crowd to create a raucous, home-court environment.
Washington Coach Mike Neighbors said he has prepared his team to face just that when the Huskies meet UK on Friday at 7 p.m. in the NCAA round of 16. “I expect there to be 20,000 people out there,” Neighbors said.
Actually, if there are half that many, UK officials will dance a jig.
I’m never disappointed when people put down their hard-earned money to buy a ticket to a game and show up. … It was a great, great energy in (Memorial Coliseum). I would expect it’s going to be a great energy in (Rupp).
Matthew Mitchell, Kentucky coach
Playing its first two rounds in Memorial Coliseum, Kentucky drew 2,701 fans for its round-of-64 matchup with North Carolina-Asheville (which had the misfortune of overlapping with the telecast of Kentucky-Indiana in the men’s NCAA tourney).
A loud but still smallish crowd of 3,056 was on hand Monday night for Kentucky’s round-of-32 victory over Oklahoma.
Of the 16 sites that hosted first and second rounds of the 2016 women’s NCAA Tournament, Lexington ranked 12th in average attendance at 2,879.
By way of comparison, South Carolina averaged 10,162, Louisville 6,669 and Mississippi State 6,104.
For a state (Kentucky), city (Lexington) and fan base (UK’s) that pride themselves on college basketball passion, that 2,879 was not an impressive showing.
“I’m never disappointed when people put down their hard-earned money to buy a ticket to a game and show up,” Mitchell said. “… It was a great, great energy in (Memorial Coliseum). I would expect it’s going to be a great energy in (Rupp).”
On Thursday, as the Kentucky women worked out in Rupp, there were curtains around most of the upper arena of the 23,000-seat facility.
“That decision was made in concert with the NCAA and the University of Kentucky based on the number of tickets out, the pace at which tickets are being purchased, and historical trends based on ticket sales at other regionals,” said Carl Hall, director of arena management at Rupp.
With the curtains drawn, the lower bowl of Rupp has a capacity of 9,200, said William B. Owen, president and CEO of Lexington Civic Center.
A small part of the upper deck on the scorer’s table side of Rupp Arena will be available for seating. If walk-up demand for tickets merited it, Hall said, the curtains could be pulled back further.
This season, Kentucky played two regular-season women’s hoops games in Rupp, drawing 14,425 against Louisville and 17,150 to see Duke.
In recent years, UK Hoops has had crowds of 23,706 for a game with Duke (2013-14) and 22,075 to see Baylor (2014-15).
“It gets crazy out there,” Kentucky star Makayla Epps said. “There’s been moments on the court here where the crowd’s going so loud because we’re making big plays, that my chest gets to rattling. I can’t hear what Coach is saying. I can’t hear my teammates. … I want to feel that again.”
Those big regular-season crowds were attracted, however, with cheap or free tickets.
For the NCAA Tournament in Rupp, an all-session ticket (all three games) is $54 ($34 for children and senior citizens). A single-game ticket is $30 ($20 for children and seniors).
From observation, much of the fan base at Kentucky women’s hoops games consists of families with young children and senior citizens. Presumably, many of them could be priced out of attendance at $20 or $30 a ticket.
So, if there is going to be a substantial home-court advantage for the Kentucky women in Rupp Arena on Friday night, it falls on the general UK fan base to provide it.
On Easter weekend, will Cats fans come through?
At the start of last week, there were some 3,000 tickets sold for Friday night’s round of 16. By the end of last week, that number was up to some 4,500, Rupp Arena’s Hall said.
By Thursday, “we’re near the 9,000 range,” Hall said. “We’ve been selling about a 1,000 a day since it became clear which teams we would have here. If that holds through game time, we should be at around 10,000, maybe even 11,000.”
If that happens, it would be a respectable Big Blue Nation showing in support of a women’s basketball program ardently pushing for a Final Four breakthrough.