Mark Story

UK Sports Mailbag: Rupp, Memorial renovation plans have Cats fans asking hard questions

The University of Kentucky is adding a new video and scoreboard over the front entrance of Memorial Coliseum and putting in a ribbon board in the other end zone starting this season, it told season ticket holders in an email on Monday.
The University of Kentucky is adding a new video and scoreboard over the front entrance of Memorial Coliseum and putting in a ribbon board in the other end zone starting this season, it told season ticket holders in an email on Monday.

Renovating arenas associated with University of Kentucky basketball has been much in the news the past two weeks.

Late last month, Lexington Center officials announced plans for a Rupp Arena upgrade that will eventually install chair-back seats on the sides of the upper deck and also lead to the construction of four "clubs" near the venue where patrons can, among other things, partake of adult beverages.

Meanwhile, UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart told the Herald-Leader's Jennifer Smith that the university has a roughly $15 million wish list of upgrades it would like to perform on the historic Memorial Coliseum, the current, on-campus home of the Kentucky women's basketball, volleyball and gymnastics programs and the past home of the UK's men's hoops team (1950-76).

As a result, arena questions dominate this week's edition of the Kentucky Sports Mailbag:

Mark's reply: In theory, Memorial Coliseum could, a la Commonwealth Stadium becoming Kroger Field, get a new identity through a naming-rights deal.

JMI Sports, the official multimedia rights and corporate sponsorship partner of UK, has the contractual right to explore that, says Guy Ramsey, the director of strategic marketing for UK Athletics.

In practice, however, it seems unlikely Memorial Coliseum will ever be known as anything else. "We are aware of the historical import of that name," Ramsey said Monday.

University of Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart hopes to find funding for a $15 million renovation of historic Memorial Coliseum on the UK campus. Charles Bertram

The fact that there is a ton of Wildcats basketball history in "The House That Rupp Built" is not the primary reason the venue's name is unlikely to ever change.

Opened in 1950, Memorial Coliseum serves as a shrine to the over 10,000 Kentuckians who lost their lives in World War II and the Korean War.

For that reason, I think it would be difficult from a public relations standpoint to either alter the coliseum's name or put a corporate brand in front of it.

Mark's reply: The Rupp Arena renovation that will finally put chair-back seating in place of the current uncomfortable bleachers in most of the Rupp upper deck will also lead to a reduction in total seating capacity from around 23,000 to some 20,500.

This is time-lapse footage of 22,108 basketball fans filing in and out of the stands at Rupp Arena as Kentucky played Ole Miss.

Bill Owen, President and CEO of Rupp Arena and Lexington Center, said Tuesday there was no way to also install suites in Rupp without either A.) further reducing the overall seating capacity to an unacceptable degree or B.) "adding tens and tens of millions of dollars to the total cost of the project."

Adding luxury suites along the bottom of the upper deck as well as installing new seat-back chairs along the sides of the upper arena could have dropped overall Rupp Arena seating capacity as low as 16,500.

"That was far lower than we were willing to go," Owen said.

The pending renovation of Rupp Arena will see the construction of four "clubs" near the venue but no in-arena luxury suites. Alex Slitz

Conversely, to add both suites and chair-back seating in the upper deck (other than in the end zones) while maintaining at least 20,000-seats would have required altering the size of the current Rupp Arena edifice in a way that would have been prohibitively expensive.

"As I recall, it would have been around $75 million," Owen says.

So that is why, even in a renovated Rupp Arena, there will continue to be no in-venue suites.

Email question: "In your May 25 piece (regarding) the Rupp seating capacity reduction, you quote the “official” announced “paid” attendance average of 21,750 for UK (basketball), which you and we know is not the actual attendance.

"The number of empty seats at UK BB games has been growing each year, and for the first time I can remember, tickets to every home game this past season were available in advance on Ticketmaster, paying regular prices.

"So what was the actual turnstile average?"

Signed, Lonely in Rupp Arena

Mark's reply: The "announced attendance" at UK football and men's basketball games is a count of the "tickets distributed" for the event as well as the workers, media and others who are in the venue for the game.

On that basis, UK's average home attendance this season for men's hoops games in Rupp Arena was 21,875.

While that made John Calipari's 2017-18 Cats the third-least-watched in home attendance in the Rupp era (since 1976-77), it was still good enough to lead the nation.

Kentucky student basketball fans
Officially, UK men's basketball led the nation in home attendance in 2017-18 with an average of 21,875 fans. However, the actual turnstile count of fans who attended Wildcats games this past season was substantially lower than that. Alex Slitz

However, my Herald-Leader colleague Jerry Tipton filed an open-records request after the season to get the actual number of fans who passed through the turnstiles for UK men's basketball in 2017-18.

The "turnstile count" for UK games in Rupp this past winter was an average of 17,408 per contest.

Mark Story: 859-231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory