A way for the UK to make its Rupp Arena program more fan-friendly

During a stoppage as Kentucky faced the University of the South in men’s basketball on Tuesday night at Rupp Arena, PA announcer Patrick Whitmer spoke aloud about what would once have been unthinkable.

Whitmer told the crowd that tickets remained available for Kentucky’s rivalry game with Louisville on December 22 at Rupp – and implored fans to buy them.

Now that the annual ‘cupcake section’ of the UK men’s basketball home schedule is over, we’ll test the various theories that have attempted to explain the origins of the noticeably high number of empty seats in the Rupp Arena so far. in the 2021-22 season.

Rather than coronavirus concerns or lingering political controversies, my theory is that what happened in the Rupp stands this year is mostly an acceleration of a pre-pandemic trend. Over the past few seasons, Wildcats fans have increasingly “voted with their seats” on the competitive quality of Kentucky’s nonleague schedules by skipping those games.

Whether the U of L game ultimately sells out will test the hypothesis that Rupp attendance is now more directly correlated to perceived opponent quality than any other factor.

Even by the standards of John Calipari’s coaching erathe strength of the teams Kentucky has faced at Rupp Arena this year has been weak.

There were plenty of empty seats on the second tier of Rupp Arena in Kentucky’s 86-61 win over Albany last month. Alex Slitz [email protected]

The combined record (until Wednesday’s matches) of the seven teams the UK have faced at Lexington is 17-46. Eliminate Ohio University (6-2), and that mark is 11-44 – Robert Morris (1-7), Mount St. Mary’s (3-7), Albany (1-7), Florida du North (2-9), Central Michigan (1-8) and South (3-6).

At a time when Kentucky essentially introduces a new roster every season, Calipari has often said that he plans into November with player development, not fan entertainment, paramount.

What happened last season, when the pandemic wiped out the first half of Kentucky’s schedule and the Wildcats then produced a 9-16 slog, would seem to support basketball’s rationale for how the UK schedules .

That’s why fans yearn for days when Kentucky’s home schedules aren’t part of the league were heavy on other blue bloods college hoops are liable to expose themselves to perpetual disappointment.

However, there should be ways for the UK to at least meet their fans halfway through. Kentucky should be able to both use its November roster for player/team development, but also plan in a way that gives Wildcats fans more reason to attend games.

Two years ago Tony Thomas of Richmond, a frustrated British men’s basketball season ticket holder, made an interesting suggestion to solve the problem. This would involve Kentucky adopting what I would call “thematic programming.”

Several seats in the lower arena remained empty in Kentucky’s 86-61 victory over Albany at Rupp Arena on November 22. Alex Slitz [email protected]

Essentially, the UK would choose a theme each season around which to build their non-league calendar with the idea of ​​giving fans a greater reason to invest in early-season home games.

It could work like this:

theme one. “NCAA Tournament Revenge.”

Teams that have pinned hurtful NCAA tournament losses in the UK over the past few decades — UTEP, Jacksonville, Western Kentucky, UAB and Middle Tennessee State, to name just five — could be invited to Rupp for a season.

theme two: “Award for the shocking upheavals of the Rupp Arena.”

Gardner-Webb, San Diego, VMI and Evansville — all of whom beat Kentucky to Rupp in the 21st century — could be invited back to face the music.

theme three: “Battles of the Bluegrass State.”

Playing multiple home games in the same season against a combination of Bellarmine, Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State, Murray State, Northern Kentucky and Western Kentucky would be far more interesting than what the UK has provided its fans with this year.

theme four: “The Cats against the ex-Cats.”

Currently, five former Kentucky players serve as head coaches in NCAA Division I men’s hoops – Travis Ford (St. Louis), Steve Masiello (Manhattan), John Pelphrey (Tennessee Tech), Mark Pope ( BYU) and Sean Woods (South).

John Pelphrey TTU 4.jpg
Tennessee Tech chief John Pelphrey is one of five former Kentucky Wildcats players who currently serve as Division I men’s basketball head coaches. Tennessee Tech Athletics

Currently ranked No. 24 in the AP Top 25 and soon to be in the Big 12, BYU doesn’t fit the profile of a “tune-up game” for the start of a Kentucky season.

You can, however, schedule the other four teams with former Cats running the show and give Wildcats fans some nostalgic fun (and you can just bite the bullet and play BYU, too).

Fifth theme: “The Cats against former Cats coaches.”

If Kentucky really got into the spirit of ‘theme programming’, it would be great to see the UK play against High Point, Iona and Tarleton State – coached, respectively, by former Kentucky chiefs Tubby Smith Rick Pitino and Billy Gillispie – to Rupp in the same season.

We live in a time when in-person attendance at mass sporting events is under downward pressure across the country.

These are the kinds of trends, however, that Kentucky men’s basketball seemed immune to.

This is clearly no longer the case.

With a little creativity on the schedule, the UK could give Wildcats fans more reason to come to the Rupp Arena without fundamentally undermining Calipari’s early-season development approach.

This story was originally published December 9, 2021 2:42 p.m.

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