Mark Story

The great debate of 2018: Is ‘Rupp Arena ice cream’ better than other ice cream?

It was during Kentucky’s 79-70 victory over Harvard on Dec. 2 that ESPN analyst Jay Bilas used the network’s television broadcast to pump Rupp Arena ice cream.

Soon, a Wildcats cheerleader was presenting the former Duke standout a cone of Rupp soft serve while he was on air.

In that moment, “Rupp Arena ice cream” went to a different level of buzz.

“As long as there is ice cream, (Rupp Arena) is the Mecca of college basketball,” Bilas said, drolly, when he returned to Lexington in January.

Jay Bilas ice cream
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas is a favorite of Alabama running back Damien Harris. Michael Reaves

Historically, the home finale of each Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball season is Senior Day. Yet when the 2017-18 Cats face Mississippi in their last home appearance Wednesday at 7 p.m., UK will have no seniors to honor.

So we may as well salute the breakout star of the current UK home season: Rupp Arena ice cream.

Maybe we can even help with a contentious question: Is there something about Rupp soft serve that actually makes it taste better than other ice cream?

The lines

At halftime of Kentucky’s 93-86 victory over Virginia Tech on Dec. 16, two teenage boys in maroon Hokies sweatshirts seemed stunned by what they found on the Rupp Arena lower concourse.

That,” one of the boys said, voice rising, “is the line for ice cream?”

Lexington Center President and CEO Bill Owen calls those halftime assemblages “the big, huge lines we get” at the soft-serve ice cream stands in Rupp Arena.

On average, Rupp Arena has sold 3,450 cones of ice cream at UK home games this season. Given Kentucky’s average home attendance of 21,787 a game, it means that roughly one out of every 6.32 Cats fans to enter Rupp Arena in 2017-18 bought an ice cream cone.

People lined up for soft-serve ice cream at Rupp Arena concession stands before Kentucky played Missouri on Saturday night. Going into the game with Mizzou, Rupp Arena had sold an average of 3,450 soft-serve ice cream cones at UK home games in 2017-18. Alex Slitz

The key to providing efficient service to those standing in the long Rupp Arena ice cream lines turns out to be similar to what is required to play well in basketball games.

“I kind of get ‘in the zone,’” says Savannah Hunsucker.

Hunsucker, 32, and her mother, Karen, work in different Rupp Arena ice cream stands. They are competitive about who sells the most. “We keep track of our ‘cone counts,’” Savannah Hunsucker says.

Savannah Hunsucker, of Lexington, left, and Sandy Vanderpool, of Lancaster, delivered a soft-serve ice cream cone to Easton Cahen, 7, of Paducah, before a basketball game between the Kentucky and Missouri in Rupp Arena. The challenge of working in the Rupp ice cream stands is “getting the people out and getting them fed,” Vanderpool says. “They love that ice cream.” Alex Slitz

In Rupp, the ice cream stands are manned by two people. One works as a cashier, taking the $4.50 for each order, and the other fills the cones.

Savannah Hunsucker handles the second role. When lines get long, Hunsucker relies on rhythm to get through.

“For me, it is a four-count. ‘One, two, three, four,’” she says of filling cones. “I know my Mom, she does it by feel. I’m like ‘OK, that really doesn’t work for me.’ I have to count in my head. And I think it keeps me in the zone, keeps me going. Because when you are doing 300 cones during halftime, you can’t lose focus.”

Owen knows what you think. You see the long lines waiting to buy ice cream and figure “‘gollee, Rupp Arena is making a fortune selling ice cream,’” he says.

Actually, Owen says Rupp would likely make more money if it offered novelty ice cream, such as Dove bars, rather than soft serve.

The reason is financial overhead. Rupp Arena uses water-cooled machines to make its ice cream and they are not cheap. Brian McMillan, concessions manager for Rupp Arena, says they run about $25,000 each.

“A lot of my contacts out in the real world, in the concessions industry, they are very hesitant to get into soft serve largely because of the cost of the equipment and the maintenance, ongoing maintenance,” McMillan says. “‘We are going to go soft-serve because that’s what we’ve always done and it is a tradition.”

The taste

For many, it is almost an article of faith that “Rupp Arena ice cream” tastes better than any other.

Abby Vaughn, 20, an Eastern Kentucky University student from Lawrenceburg, was in line during the second half of Kentucky’s 87-66 victory over Missouri last Saturday. She comes to UK games with her grandmother. She almost always buys an ice cream cone.

Vaughn believes Rupp Arena’s is the best ice cream going. “I do,” she says. “There is just something about it.”

Steve Hellman of Lexington is on board with that. “It just tastes better here,” he says. “I don’t know why.”

Savannah Hunsucker, of Lexington, and her mother, Karen Hunsucker, sell “Rupp Arena ice cream” from different concession stands. During the boys’ state high school basketball tournament, the two are competitive over whose stand has the highest “cone count.” Savannah Hunsucker says, “Last season, she outsold me — but I think that was because she had more winning teams on her end of the arena.” Alex Slitz

Borden Dairy supplies the mix that is placed in the machines at Rupp Arena to produce the ice cream — vanilla, chocolate or a “zebra swirl” of both.

The freezing point for vanilla ice cream is 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Rupp Arena does not mess around trying to dye its ice cream a shade of Big Blue.

“Putting the food coloring in the vanilla changes the freezing point for the ice cream,” says McMillan.

There is not a special “Rupp Arena mix” that is provided by Borden. “It’s not really anything special that is going on,” McMillan says. “It’s their flavors.”

So why do so many people believe Rupp Arena ice cream is the tastiest going? McMillan has a theory.

“It may be better because I think we take a little better care of our equipment, maybe, than other places,” he says. “(We) have it set up the way the product performs its best.”

I have a theory, too. When you are in Rupp Arena, you are generally doing something you enjoy and often doing it with people you love.

That combination helps the ice cream taste better, too.

The backlash

Proving how much of a “thing” Rupp Arena ice cream became this season, there is now a backlash against the idea that it is uniquely good.

Mark Buerger, who hosts a Sunday morning sports talk radio show on WLAP-AM, sampled Rupp ice cream for the first time before Saturday’s Missouri game.

Best he’s ever had?

“Oh, dear, no,” Buerger says. “I mean, it’s ice cream. Ice cream is inherently good. But (Rupp Arena ice cream) is no better than what you get (other places), it’s just not.”

Saturday evening, Buerger took to Twitter to castigate those who, he claimed, had misled him about the transcendence of Rupp Arena ice cream.

One of the people he tagged with that criticism was Bilas.

The ESPN analyst fired back.

“Check into a hospital immediately. Your tastebuds are @&$?! up!!,” Bilas wrote. “Rupp ice cream is the BOMB!”