Thanks to a struggling economy, the golden anniversary of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl might be less than golden. Demand for tickets to the bowl's 50th anniversary matchup between Kentucky and East Carolina is less than for last year's Liberty Bowl.
Steve Ehrhart, executive director of the bowl in Memphis, said he anticipates Friday's crowd will be "in the mid-50,000 range," which he said is "pretty darn good."
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"I don't think we're going to have a sellout," Ehrhart said. "I want to send the message to Kentucky fans that they can still get good seats."
The 2007 Liberty Bowl set an attendance record of 63,816 when Mississippi State beat Central Florida, 10-3. That game also drew 15 million to 20 million viewers on television.
The 2006 and 2005 Liberty Bowls had crowds of 56,103 and 54,894, respectively.
By comparison, the 2007 Music City Bowl in Nashville between Kentucky and Florida State drew 68,661, a record and that bowl's second consecutive sellout at LP Field. It ranked ninth in attendance of all 32 bowl games. The 2006 Music City Bowl between Kentucky and Clemson attracted 68,024.
But the recession has dampened ticket sales for this year's Music City Bowl, too, according to The (Nashville) Tennessean, which reported Sunday that 51,000 tickets had been sold for Wednesday's game between Vanderbilt and Boston College.
"Bowl games are down everywhere," said Kenny Schonburg, vice president of Champion Sports Tours of Jeffersonville, Ind. "It's down nationwide. I'd say the majority of it is the economy, but I'm sure some of it is driven by the fact that the team (Kentucky) is 6-6. But UK fans always support their teams, one way or another."
Last year Champion arranged for more than 500 Kentucky fans to go to the Music City Bowl, either driving them from Lexington and Louisville to Nashville via a motorcoach package or by arranging a "land package" for hotel and tickets.
But Champion canceled its motorcoach package to the Liberty Bowl this year because there simply wasn't a demand, Schonburg said. Champion still arranged land packages for "around 100" fans, Schonburg said.
"It is down quite a bit from last year, that's for sure," he said.
UK football spokesman Tony Neely said he anticipates that 10,000 Kentucky fans will be at Friday's game. UK had an allotment of 12,000 tickets.
"I think we're doing OK, all things considered," Neely said. "I think the economy is playing a major role. If you look at bowls around the country, some of the bowl sales are really down. So we feel good about where we are."
Neely noted that the Music City Bowl was close enough that fans could leave from Lexington and return home on the same day. "But this year's trip is going to require at least one overnight stay because of the driving time involved," he said.
Meanwhile, Ehrhart said some Kentucky fans were under the impression that Friday's game had sold out.
"We got some calls over the weekend from people in Lexington saying, 'Well, we thought it was all sold out and we couldn't get tickets,' " Ehrhart said. "In fact, it was one of the relatives of one of the players and they were excited that they could still come down."
Ehrhart said he didn't think the 6½ -hour drive from Lexington to Memphis would dissuade UK fans.
"I've driven up from Memphis to Lexington several times," he said. "We want to encourage people to go ahead and make the decision and come down."
Other factors contributed to last year's record attendance at the Liberty Bowl. For one thing, Mississippi State had not been to a bowl since 2000. And there was some excitement, too, because last year's bowl had Central Florida running back Kevin Smith, then the country's leading rusher.
And Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom Jr., the SEC's first black head football coach, was going to his first bowl game as a coach. (Croom resigned in November.)
Whatever the reason for the lesser demand, downtown Memphis is already seeing Kentucky fans come to town, said Kelly Earnest, director of public relations for The Peabody hotel. The Memphis landmark, famous for the ducks that waddle to a lobby fountain, is the official team hotel for Kentucky. And its 464 rooms are sold out.
"I think we're finding out that people are coming in early to celebrate the New Year," Earnest said. "We have a big New Year's Eve party here at the hotel, and they're staying on through the game."
Tuesday is the last day that bowl tickets will be available to the public at the UK Ticket Office in the Joe Craft Center, 338 Lexington Avenue, behind Memorial Coliseum. The office is open from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets are $50.
You can also get tickets by calling the Liberty Bowl Stadium in Memphis at (901) 795-7700 or by going to ticketmaster.com. Tickets might also be available on the day of the game at the stadium ticket office. For information, go to www.libertybowl.org.