Mark Story

In smaller Rupp Arena, can Kentucky basketball ever lead nation in attendance again?

On Tuesday, Rupp Arena officials unveiled the new chair-back seats that have been installed on both sides of the upper bowl in the venerable downtown Lexington basketball facility.

The replacement of bleacher seating on the sides in the upper deck in Rupp is a long-overdue “fan-experience enhancement.”

“Replacing bleacher seating was part of the (plan for the) 2000 renovation,” Lexington Center President and CEO Bill Owen said Thursday. “(The Lexington Center) wanted to do it, and UK was on board. But the (state) legislature, actually the legislative leadership, was not willing to approve the financing if it meant a reduction in overall (seating) capacity.”

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Some of the 5,204 new chair-back seats recently installed in the upper arena at Rupp Arena. Ryan C. Hermens rhermens@herald-leader.com

In the new Rupp Arena, there will be 10,549 chair-back seats in the lower arena; 5,204 new chair backs on the sides of the upper arena; and 4,792 remaining bleacher seats in the end zones of the upper deck.

The cost of progress for the 5,204 fans who will be watching Kentucky Wildcats basketball in dramatically greater comfort in the 2019-20 season than in the past is that the overall seating capacity in Rupp will be dropping by some 3,000 seats.

Rather than the traditional 23,500, Rupp Arena’s official capacity will be 20,545 when John Calipari’s Wildcats unofficially tip off the 2019-20 home season with an exhibition game against defending NAIA Division I national champion Georgetown College on Oct. 27.

“If we had gone with chair backs throughout the upper arena, it would have dropped us well below 20,000 (total) seats,” Owen says. “Based on what we’ve been scanning (off of tickets of fans attending UK games) in recent years, around 20,000 is where we needed to be.”

In the 43 men’s college basketball seasons since Rupp first opened in 1976-77, Kentucky has led the nation in average home attendance 28 times. Last season, UK finished second in the nation (21,695), narrowly behind Syracuse (21,992).

Rupp Arena Kentucky banner
In the 43 seasons since Rupp Arena opened in 1976-77. Kentucky has led the nation in men’s college basketball attendance 28 times. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Now that Rupp has downsized, can UK ever again realistically aspire to be the nation’s men’s college basketball attendance leader?

Before the renovation, Rupp Arena was the second-largest college basketball venue in the country.

Only Syracuse, which plays in a dome it also uses for home football games, had a larger seating capacity (34,616 for basketball) than Rupp’s 23,500.

Now, according to figures on NCAA.com, Louisville (22,090), North Carolina (21,750), Tennessee (21,678) and Brigham Young (20,951) will also have larger home arenas than Kentucky.

Even with a smaller Rupp Arena, “I think Kentucky will be very competitive” in the college basketball attendance race, Owen says.

So far in the 21st century, there have been two seasons in which, if you took Kentucky out, the team that would have led the nation in attendance averaged less than the 20,545 that Rupp Arena now holds.

In 2007-08, UK led the country (22,554) but North Carolina was second at 20,497. For the 2001-02 season, Kentucky was first (21,014) with Louisville second (18,929).

Of course, as with all things that involve crowd numbers, the picture is more complex than just this.

Even though Rupp Arena’s official capacity was 23,500, UK has announced home basketball attendances in excess of 24,245 on 111 different occasions (source: Jon Scott’s bigbluehistory.net) in the past.

“Media, the players, the (pep) band, the officials, all the people working the game, the arena employees,” Rupp Arena’s Owen says, explaining where the number above capacity is derived.

Moving forward, if you add an average of 745 non-ticketed attendees for each game to Rupp’s new capacity of 20,545, that would have been enough to lead the nation in attendance five times so far in the 21st century.

Now, all of these estimations are based on Kentucky averaging a sellout of Rupp Arena for every game of a home season.

In an era of declining attendance for live sporting events, that is probably not realistic.

However, that’s a problem that does not just exist for UK.

North Carolina averaged over 20,000 fans at its home games every season from 2003-04 through 2008-09. It has done so only once (20,159 in 2011-12) since.

Louisville averaged over 20,000 fans a game in the first seven seasons (2010-11 through 2016-17) after the KFC Yum Center opened.

However, U of L home attendance has been below 17,000 in each of the past two years.

With the seating capacity that comes from playing in a dome, Syracuse will be at an even greater advantage in the hoops attendance battles now that Rupp Arena is smaller.

But it’s also hard to project how the Syracuse program will fare after longtime coach Jim Boeheim, 74, steps down.

So, can Kentucky, playing in a downsized Rupp, ever again lead the nation in men’s basketball attendance?

It will be much more difficult — but it is not impossible.

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Important upcoming dates

Friday: Big Blue Madness

Oct. 16: SEC Media Day

Oct. 18: Blue-White Scrimmage

Oct. 27: Exhibition opener vs. Georgetown College

Nov. 1: Exhibition vs. Kentucky State

Nov. 5: Season opener vs. Michigan State

Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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