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Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Kentucky keeping arena options open

By Eamonn Brennan

Rupp Arena is a legendary basketball venue. It has housed some of the best teams in college hoops history. Blue-clad fans pack the place every night, even if they're only there to take in a halfhearted exhibition game between a foreign national team and a handful of former Kentucky stars.

But Rupp, like any good storied arena, is getting to the point where its age is outshining its charms. The building is old and drab and lacks many of the modern conveniences baked in to the gleaming new arenas we've seen pop up in NBA cities and college towns in the past 10 years. The obvious example is Louisville's Yum! Center Arena, which provides a beautiful year-round venue for Louisville residents and a top-notch hoops facility in the heart of the city's entertainment district. Kentucky is not the kind of program that wants to lack anything, let alone the facilities required to keep up with the basketball Joneses. (Not to be confused with The Basketball Jones, still the best NBA 'cast on the planet.) But could Kentucky really move out of Rupp?

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart is currently trying to find an answer to that question. On Tuesday, Barnhart and Lexington mayor Jim Gray sat down for a local news conference to discuss UK's possible arena options going forward. From the Lexington Herald-Leader:
Gray noted that the process of exploring options is a long way from the finish line. "We're at Step One or Two," he said. "This is a project that will have 10 steps."

Barnhart said UK would be "open-minded" to either renovating Rupp or building a new arena. "My job is to protect University of Kentucky basketball and make sure it has what it needs to be the flagship of college basketball," he said. "... We think about the next 30, 40, 50 years of Kentucky basketball, and how we can be partners with the city in what the mayor's trying to get done."

There are a variety of options available. Barnhart and Gray were impressed with Columbus, Ohio's model, which included building a 75-acre arena district that surrounded Nationwide Arena with privately and publicly financed investments in surrounding amenities -- bars, restaurants and the like. That could require the construction of an entirely new building in Lexington and a permanent move out of Rupp Arena.

Another option is to renovate Rupp from the inside-out, adding new updates -- Barnhart cited fan amenities like "electronics" and updated concession stands -- without totally abandoning the Wildcats' traditional home. One local businessman, who cited the bad economy as a reason to avoid a costly excursion into new construction, said Rupp Arena should become college basketball's Fenway Park, referring to the updates Red Sox ownership have made at the classic stadium that has preserved its charm while increasing its modern palatability (not to mention profitability).

Stadium debates can be fascinating for what they say about our economic times and the importance of sports in the public consciousness. But they're especially interesting because of the emotions they inspire in the fan bases affected. Will Kentucky fans really be OK with leaving Rupp Arena? Or are the ties just too deep?