What Shall Be The Fate Of Rupp ArenaPosted by jstevrtc on August 25th, 2011
Make your pilgrimage now, Kentucky fans, and take as many photos as you can, for the Rupp Arena you have worshiped for so long is on borrowed time.
An article from Tuesday’s Lexington Herald-Leader by Beverly Fortune and Jerry Tipton has us thinking that it’s merely a question of time, now, and which model to follow. Do the powers that be in the Bluegrass go the Fenway Park route and make piecemeal renovations over several years to the existing structure in downtown Lexington, or do they adopt the Yankee Stadium philosophy and build a brand new
church arena elsewhere? Among UK backers, a discussion on this matter can get every bit as heated as one between Red Sox and Yankees fans about which group has the right to claim moral ascendancy.
Fenway might call itself the oldest sports venue used by a sports franchise in the United States, but it’s undergone an almost yearly series of alterations since 1999 to bring up to speed everything from the sod to the seats to the scoreboards. Heck, there’s even a party deck. Most importantly, the renovations have been so well done that, even though this isn’t your grandfather’s Fenway Park, Boston officials say that the place has another 60 years of life in it and you can forget any plans for a replacement. Yankee Stadium, as we know, received a different treatment; the one built in 1923 hosted its inhabitants for the last time in 2008 and was demolished in 2010, a year after the Yanks had moved into a brand new glittering jewel of a stadium called…Yankee Stadium. Aside from a tendency for balls hit to right field to carry a little longer than they did in the old park (this happened even when the Yankee pitching situation was more stable), it opened to raves, not to mention a championship in its first year.
So what fate, then, for old Rupp Arena? If it can be updated in its current location, should it be? Or is it time for a brand new facility?
For now, we can put aside the baseball park references, folks. Any college basketball fan knows that in the hearts and minds of most kids who grow up in Kentucky (and most of the adults), Rupp Arena is Westminster Abbey, Notre Dame de Paris, the Sagrada Familia and St. Basil’s Cathedral all rolled up into one. It’s a place of worship for them as much as it is a place to watch a basketball game. If you think the mention of holy European buildings is going overboard, consider first the words of Rick Pitino, who once called the Kentucky program “the Holy Roman Empire of college basketball.” If you’re a bigwig at the University of Kentucky — or, say, Lexington mayor Jim Gray — even if you build another arena with the same name, how do you sign your name to a document that would relegate the original building to hosting such gatherings as gun and knife shows, corporate conventions and Taylor Swift concerts on its most glamorous days? When the Wildcats aren’t using it, events like that do indeed happen in Rupp Arena, and they have since its inception. But it couldn’t be easy to take the basketball out of that place.
For inspiration, the aforementioned Lexington mayor took a trip to Columbus, Ohio with Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart to check out that town’s thriving Arena District. Centered around Nationwide Arena — home of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets — the Arena District is now a trophy for the city. Besides the arena, it’s also comprised of a slew of restaurants and bars of all types, office space, some pretty plush condos, a ridiculously nice minor league baseball park (some of the names that played for the Columbus Clippers when they were the AAA affiliate for the Yankees: Jeter, Rivera, Cano, Posada, Mattingly, Williams, and of course Steve Balboni), and several other attractions. It’s packed with people on Blue Jackets’ game nights and does a pretty brisk business at other times, too. Gray and Barnhart came back to Lexington impressed, having learned a lot, and if you live in Lexington you should know that there is already an entity within your city government called the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force, as the Fortune/Tipton article notes. Even though Gray and Barnhart are quick to point out that their minds are open when it comes to Rupp’s fate and that they’ll make the best decision for both the UK basketball program and the city of Lexington, this sounds like an idea that Lexingtonians had best warm up to.
We’ve been fortunate to have attended several games at Rupp Arena for RTC Live, and we can see the case for either side. Rupp isn’t a stand-alone facility. It’s part of the Lexington Center, which also houses a convention area, some shops and restaurants, and a Hyatt hotel. It’s nice, but it looks more dated than tradition-laden. When you’re inside the arena proper, you are not knocked out by the opulence of the place, but you definitely get a sense of the history there, with its concrete concourses and old-style merchandise stands and concessions, and frequent reminders of the program’s achievements. During a game, even though it’s still one of the biggest arenas in college hoops, you notice at times that 23,000 (Rupp’s official capacity) rarely sounds like 23,000 but rather 15,000-18,000 at the most, still a formidable roar if you’re a visiting player. You also notice, that the students are not given much in the way of priority seating. They’re placed in their bench-side end zone and also inhabit a couple of other lower arena sections, but many students are shuffled off to the upper arena — this will not happen to Ashley Judd, nor should it — while the majority of lower arena spots go to, shall we say, a more privileged clientele — we’re talking corporations with season tickets, law and medical firms, wealthy donors and alumni, thoroughbred industry types, people in government, and so on — a state of affairs that has been the subject of heated debate across the Commonwealth for a long, long time. There’s a lot about Rupp Arena that shouldn’t be changed one bit. There are also aspects of it where you can’t help but see room for improvement.
While change is most certainly coming, some things are obvious about whatever future version of Rupp Arena is in store for the Kentucky faithful. Because to many of that well-heeled crowd we described above the games are as much social events as they are opportunities to root for their team, you’ll almost certainly see many of them moved to some form of luxe environs, whether they’re luxury boxes or some other form of separated accommodations with locker room access, or whatever. Those fans may bemoan this at first, but give them a uniformed waiter and the opportunity to tell people, “Yeah, we have a box at Rupp,” and they’ll be fine. This will open up more lower arena seats for people who actually attend classes as opposed to those who are closer to attending their 30-year class reunion. We’re not kidding about this. We’ve been to Rupp on many occasions on which, upon seeing the older season ticket-holders head for the exits with time still on the clock (no matter the score), the student sections begin the chant of “Sell Your Seats!” It’s every bit as intimidating as Yankee Stadium’s Bald Vinny-led Bleacher Creatures yelling “Box Seats Suck!” toward offending fans after the Creatures’ traditional player roll-call. Also, the arena will still be located downtown. It would have to be. Lexington’s downtown isn’t bad, and there are some fine shops, restaurants and pubs near the arena, but to put the epicenter of Kentucky basketball elsewhere would effectively place the downtown area on immediate life-support. Finally, we don’t see the name changing if there’s a new Rupp Arena. Their neighbors and arch rivals in Louisville just put Freedom Hall to pasture, and, though it’s still there, the Cardinals have moved on to the new 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center — egad — which has enjoyed glowing reviews from writers, fans, and players since its opening last year…for everything except the name. But that’s what necessary corporate backing entails. We hope a corporate sponsor would see the wisdom in not attaching its name to a new Wildcat facility — Rupp Arena at Fifth Third Pavilion, or the like — since that would probably result in Kentucky fans everywhere immediately withdrawing their money from that particular bank (we have no problem with Fifth Third, people, it was just an example) and closing their accounts. And you can forget Rupp’s name not appearing on a new arena. People take their basketball history very, very seriously in Lexington. You don’t take Adolph Rupp’s name off of things.
Most importantly, though the bricks and mortar may change, the traditions will stay the same whether they’re housed in a new building or the old one. The Kentucky cheerleaders will still bring someone from the crowd — usually a well-known figure, or even a celebrity or former athlete — to make the raised-arm ‘Y’ at the end of their human spelling of “Kentucky.” They’ll still have the gigantic late-game rotating cheerleader-pyramid at center court as the Kentucky band plays “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (aka the song from 2001: A Space Odyssey), an event you can safely parallel with Fenway Park’s 8th inning crowd serenade of “Sweet Caroline.” Games will still end with the band’s rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home,” a song that, we have to admit, really gets to you no matter what state you call your own. That Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force we mentioned earlier hired a consulting firm to examine this issue and its feasibility for Lexington, and the firm is scheduled to offer its opinion in the fall. What a season this could be, then, for Kentucky and its fans. The Wildcats are going to win a lot of games. At the same time they’re playing at Rupp Arena and the fans are filling it, the city of Lexington will be deciding how, if at all, they want to change the place considered to be the cradle of Kentucky basketball tradition for the last 35 years.