The University of Kentucky football team’s final game at Kroger Field next season is set for Nov. 25, but that won’t be the final weekend this year the newly renamed stadium sees games played.
The KHSAA Board of Control announced Wednesday that the six high school football championships — Class A to Class 6A — will be moved to Kroger Field this fall. The board also approved the site to host the finals in 2018. The 2017 finals are tentatively scheduled for Dec. 1-3, with two games being played each day.
It will be the first time since 1976 that Kentucky’s high school football championships will be decided in Lexington. That was the only year state title games were held in what used to be known as Commonwealth Stadium. Eastern Kentucky University hosted every championship but the Class 4A games in 1977 and 1978 (the big-school contests were held at Kentucky Exposition Center Cardinal Stadium in Louisville). Every game was held in Louisville from 1979-2008.
From 2009 through last season, all of the state football championships were contested at Houchens-LT Smith Stadium in Bowling Green. Each of the last two seasons the KHSAA has had to amend its finals scheduling to accommodate Western Kentucky University’s football team after it qualified for the Conference USA title game.
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WKU was up for consideration to host the next two seasons but the KHSAA opted for a less-volatile site. The University of Louisville’s Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium was not considered due to ongoing renovations.
“Football is so key to us from a revenue standpoint,” KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said. “We’ve had a great relationship with Western (Kentucky), just like we had a great relationship with Louisville, but we just felt from a business standpoint we can’t be in a position two weeks before an event to have to change the schedule again, and therefore impact moms and dads and cousins that can come. It was a tough call for the board. That’s a tough one.
“But we’re lucky. We’ve got a place that years ago we couldn’t have thought of because they didn’t have the right field surface and they didn’t have this and that, and now Kentucky’s interested in having it. So we’ll see how it goes.”
UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart has expressed interest in hosting the state high school finals since the installation of synthetic turf as part of a $120 million renovation of Kroger Field. The stadium previously featured a grass surface that made hosting multiple games over the course of a weekend problematic.
“We are thrilled to be hosting the best weekend of Kentucky high school football at Kroger Field,” Barnhart said in a news release. “We are committed to the growth of the game of football in the Commonwealth and excited to bring thousands of young athletes and fans to our campus and the city of Lexington through this event. Kroger Field will make an excellent home for the Kentucky state football finals.”
Moving to Kroger Field will increase the cost of running the event, Tackett said, but he looks forward to seeing if attendance makes up that difference.
“Will it do better in Lexington than it did at Western or at Louisville? Only time will tell. I think there’s obviously got to be a feeling that it will draw better or you don’t consider doing that.”
WKU Athletics Director Todd Stewart told the Bowling Green Daily News that he wasn’t surprised about the move.
“It’s certainly been an honor to host it for eight consecutive years,” Stewart told the paper. “It’s something that has worked well and I commend our staff here for doing a phenomenal job of the efforts and time that go into successfully managing six championship football games.
“The last two years, the fact that we’ve hosted the Conference USA championship game added a lot of challenges for the KHSAA and the schools involved. I understand that.”
Tackett said he didn’t want to penalize WKU for its success.
“At the same time, we can’t allow us to be penalized for their success, either,” Tackett said. “They built their field for their kids. Western’s first priority has to be their kids. But we can’t be moving around, especially at that time of year.
“I tell people all the time, we’re a non-profit and some years we prove it more than others. Starting out the fall with a marquee event not doing very well is really hurtful for the rest of the year’s operations.”
Reaction to state football moving to Lexington