Hundreds of fans greet the Wildcats during a pep rally before the Citrus Bowl
We’re getting close to that time of year. You know, the time when we start hearing rumblings about Kentucky football ticket sales, rumblings that they’re down. Again. Same as last year. And the year before that. All part of a national trend.
Ah, but this year the negativity wagon has executed a U-turn. UK announced this past week that season ticket sales for the upcoming 2019 season, still three months away, have already surpassed 2018’s grand total. Last year, the school sold 30,212 season ticket packages. This year, the number is already 30,612.
That growing tally includes 3,470 new season tickets and Pocket Passes sold for the upcoming campaign, which includes eight home games at Kroger Field for Mark Stoops’ club. That bucks the sport’s trend of declining ticket sales and attendance.
There’s no great mystery to the sudden uptick. You can renovate the stadium, install luxury boxes, improve concessions, put seat-backs on the bleacher seating, even make alcohol sales available in the general seating areas — the SEC announced Friday it is lifting its long-standing ban on that practice, leaving the decision to individual schools — but nothing puts fannies in the seats, as C.M. Newton used to say, like winning.
And Kentucky football is on a win streak. The program of serial shortcomings is fresh off a stellar 10-win season which included a winning SEC mark (5-3), each accomplishment ending a school dry spell that dated back to 1977. As blue icing on the cake, UK recorded its first New Year’s Day bowl victory since 1952 when it outlasted traditional power Penn State 27-24 in Orlando’s Citrus Bowl.
The reason for the surge goes beyond past performances, however. In the recent 2019 NFL Draft, five ex-Cats were selected, including four in the first four rounds. Coming off a spectacular senior year, outside linebacker/edge rusher Josh Allen was taken with the seventh overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Houston Texans picked cornerback Lonnie Johnson in the second round; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers chose safety Mike Edwards in the third; the Pittsburgh Steelers plucked running back Benny Snell in the fourth round. And the New York Giants tabbed offensive guard George Asafo-Adjei in the seventh round.
No one in that quintet ranked higher than a three-star recruit when signed by UK, a testament to the evaluation, recruiting and development skills of Stoops and his staff. It took time, perhaps more time than the fan base expected, for Stoops’ system to bear significant fruit, but the program’s foundation appears set.
Now, given the ticket numbers, it appears the fan base has finally gone all-in to what Stoops has been selling. To be sure, it helped that Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart decided not to raise ticket prices this season, even with the success of 2018. Having eight home games might also have been attractive to buyers.
More likely, positive postseason headlines played a bigger role. Troy grad transfer quarterback Sawyer Smith committed to Kentucky to back up returning starter Terry Wilson. Xavier Peters, a highly rated defensive end who was once a UK commit, announced that he was leaving Florida State to transfer to Kentucky. Just two weeks ago, Justin Rogers, a five-star offensive lineman out of Michigan, committed to the Cats for 2020.
Word of warning: It’s still reasonable to expect some slippage in 2019. Barnhart recently told Knoxville sports talk host Jimmy Hyams that the “kids are anxious to prove to people it wasn’t a fluke.” That’s to be expected. Still, it’s difficult for any program to lose players with the talent of an Allen, or a Snell, or an Edwards, to name just a few, and not take a step back. Unless you’re Alabama. Or Clemson.
Kentucky football isn’t on that level, of course. Not yet, anyway. But its fan base is giving the best indication it believes the program is headed in the right direction. It’s buying tickets.