UK Football

For UK football fans, moment of truth at hand: to renew or not to renew?

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops, left, and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart walked off the field together after UK’s 58-10 win over Charlotte on Nov. 21, 2015.
Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops, left, and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart walked off the field together after UK’s 58-10 win over Charlotte on Nov. 21, 2015. cbertram@herald-leader.com

In December, after finding only disappointment in and around the new Commonwealth Stadium in 2015, Wade Cunningham made a vow.

After 33 years as a Kentucky Wildcats football season ticket holder, Cunningham was going to walk away.

He was not alone. As I wrote in a Dec. 5 column, I had never heard so much raw frustration from so many long-term UK football season ticket holders as I did last season.

It wasn’t just that Kentucky suffered through its sixth straight losing season, either. A lot of UK fans felt ill-treated after the $120 million renovation of Commonwealth led to a redistribution of season tickets and some parking passes based on fans’ points standing with the K Fund, UK’s athletics fund-raising arm.

So I was not surprised last week when UK announced that, through May 27, its non-student football season ticket sales of 31,314 were lagging behind last year’s total of 38,658 — albeit with three months left before Mark Stoops’ fourth season begins on Sept. 3 against Southern Mississippi. As recently as 2010, UK sold 44,451 non-student season tickets.

The question I put to Kentucky football backers last week who had previously expressed uncertainty over whether they would continue to buy seasons tickets in 2016 was basic:

To renew or not to renew?

The 61-year-old Cunningham, from Louisville, kept his vow and gave up his tickets. He still feels changes to where he parked outside and where he sat inside Commonwealth Stadium ruined his gameday experience.

“I don’t feel like I left UK; I feel like UK left me,” he said. “For me, going to the games was about ‘the day,’ the full experience. And they ruined ‘the day’ for me.”

Lexington’s Terry Hagan, 70, has had UK season tickets since the Cats played at Stoll Field. Because the friend he goes to the games with has trouble walking, Hagan felt poorly treated last year when he lost a parking pass in a lot adjacent to the stadium.

In December, Hagan said he was likely through as a Kentucky season ticket holder. However, subsequently given some hope from UK he might regain a parking pass near the stadium, he sent in his money for 2016 season tickets.

However, when Hagan found out that new annual K Fund donations had been added to most parking lots in 2016, he said ‘no mas.’

“That was it for me,” Hagan said. “I told them to forget it, send me my money back. They did, and I’m out.”

Faced with the added cost to park near Commonwealth on game days, Lexington’s Scotty Sutton decided to cut back. Sutton kept his UK season tickets, but gave up his parking pass.

“They looked at me like I was crazy when I told them,’” Sutton said. “... But I wasn’t going to pay $500 to park for six, seven football games. I’ll just get close and walk to the games.”

Malinda D. Burton and her husband, Daniel, attend UK football games with some of their children and grandchildren. The family has eight season tickets together.

Until last year, “we had a nice family in front of us and a nice family on the row behind us. There was no drinking going on around us,” Malinda Burton said.

After the ticket reallocation, “we had to move and we now have to sit behind several men who are loud, rude, obnoxious and vulgar,” she said. “Our grandkids who come to the games most often are 9 and 5. We don’t want them to have to sit around that stuff.”

Yet in spite of frustration at how they were treated by UK in the ticket re-allotment and what they regarded as the crude behavior around their 2015 seats, the Burton family renewed its tickets.

“Our grandkids are just getting to the age where they really enjoy it, and we didn’t want to take that away,” Burton said. “It was a hard decision, but we’re gonna give it another year.”

Dave Hayden, 63, and his wife, Denise, travel from Wheelersburg, Ohio, to UK games.

“Last year, we got relocated from the ‘home side’ to the visitors side to make room for the high-dollar seats,” Dave Hayden said. “We felt like visitors in our own stadium. Then to have to watch what we watched (on the field), we were really close to saying ‘no more.’”

They didn’t, though.

“We were very close — but we decided to go one more year,” Hayden said. “We are lifelong UK fans. It’s just hard to give that up.”

In December, Danny Shearer noted he and his wife, Betty, had had UK season tickets for 50 years. Shearer said last season “was the last straw” due to the combination of the rising cost to attend games and the “ineptitude on the field.”

Six months later, Shearer, 74, reports he, too, decided to keep his tickets.

“We were closer (to giving up our seats) than we’ve ever been,” Shearer says, “but we still have the attachment for UK football.”

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