Mark Story

Mark Story: Kentucky, WKU athletics bosses say Thursday night football opener in Nashville will draw

Second-year head coach Joker Phillips said the Cats have been close enough to contending in the Southeastern Conference that there's reason for optimism ahead of this season.
Second-year head coach Joker Phillips said the Cats have been close enough to contending in the Southeastern Conference that there's reason for optimism ahead of this season.

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There is much to like about Kentucky's season-opening football game with Western Kentucky on Sept. 1 in Nashville's LP Field. The starting time — 8:15 p.m. Central; 9:15 p.m. Eastern — is not among those things.

If UK and WKU were kicking off their season at 1 p.m. on a Saturday in Nashville, I believe the game would draw in excess of 60,000 fans. But with a start so late on a Thursday night in a neutral city, I fear the attendance for Wildcats-Hilltoppers will take a big hit.

"I understand the concern," says Scott Ramsey, the president and CEO of the Nashville Sports Council and the man who runs the post-season Music City Bowl. "It is a late kick(off). But with the proven track record of Kentucky fans coming to Nashville and with Western being so close, we're pretty hopeful we'll still pull a good crowd."

The reason the Cats and 'Tops will play on Thursday night instead of Saturday is hometown Tennessee State University has first dibs on LP Field for college football.

At the time that UK and WKU signed a four-year contract to play two Kentucky home games in Lexington and two Western "home games" in Nashville, Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart says the hope was that TSU would be on the road and there would be no conflict.

Instead, TSU is opening its season at home against Southern University on Sept. 3 in a game being billed as the John Merritt Classic.

Ross Bjork, the WKU athletics director, says there was a feeler sent out to TSU about moving off the Sept. 3 date "but they weren't willing to move."

Once it became apparent Saturday was out for UK-WKU, Bjork said the decision was made to play on Thursday and be part of the first night of the 2011 college football season.

"It means we get to be first on the field, have our markings on the field," Bjork said. "We thought of playing Sunday, but we would have given all those advantages up."

Once Western and UK settled on Thursday, it was the fact that the game was picked up by ESPNU that pushed the kickoff time so late. "It's a big deal for Western, for the Sun Belt Conference, to have a game live on an ESPN (channel)," Ramsey said.

Although some have criticized the fact that two Kentucky public universities are leaving the commonwealth to face each other, there should be obvious positives to UK and WKU playing each other and doing so in Nashville.

If Kentucky is going to play a Sun Belt team in its non-conference schedule, I'd much rather see Western get the boosts in finances and visibility from facing an SEC foe than, say, Louisiana-Monroe or Middle Tennessee State.

By playing in Nashville, UK fans in the western and southern parts of Kentucky have a chance to see the Cats in person in a venue far closer to them than Commonwealth Stadium.

Both the UK and WKU players get the thrill of playing a game on the home field of the NFL's Tennessee Titans.

The question is whether starting so late on a weeknight in a neutral city will cramp the crowd size significantly.

The game is not part of Western's season-ticket package.

Ramsey said Wednesday he does not yet have numbers on the ticket sales. "It's still real early on that," he said. He notes that sports marketing titan IMG is promoting the game as part of its College Colors Day.

"There will be a major concert before the game with an artist that has yet to be announced," Ramsey said. "And we'll be doing some things downtown before the game that will make it an 'event.' Hopefully, people will come down on Thursday and start a long Labor Day weekend."

In 2002, Tennessee and Wyoming played their season opener on a Saturday at the stadium now known as LP Field and drew 67,221. Louisville and Middle Tennessee played there on a Friday night in October, 2006, and drew 32,797.

When UK opened its 2009 season on a Saturday afternoon in Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati against Miami (Ohio), the crowd was 41,037.

Even with the late start on a Thursday, Barnhart says he believes UK-WKU "will draw a crowd close to that Miami game, 42,000, maybe up to 45,000, maybe even more," he said.

"I know the Western fans are excited about this. I think our fans in western Kentucky will be excited about going. And our fans (in Lexington) and students will find their way there, too."

For the Late, Late Show with Morgan Newton.